Steven Van Zandt Remembers ‘Lifelong Friend and Mentor’ Frank Barsalona
My lifelong friend and mentor Frank Barsalona is gone. And the music business as we knew it went with him.
As I said in my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for him in 2005, Frank is the man most responsible for creating the infrastructure of the rock era that we all thrived on from the mid-Sixties into the beginning of the 21st century, when he retired.
After witnessing an early Beatles performance, he realized the industry was wrong in believing rock & roll was over, and he started Premier Talent, the first agency exclusively dedicated to rock. He then did two things that would literally change the music world and make it the viable industry it was until recently.
First, he believed the key to a band’s success was its ability to perform, not its ability to secure a hit single. This was the opposite of conventional wisdom going back to at least the Forties, and it would prove to be prophetic.
And second, like the new young turks of Mob history, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, he knew the old “Mustache Pete” promoters had to go. They didn’t understand or even like rock, and they were strictly “take the money and run.” What Frank did, again like the American Mafia, was to divide the country into regions, and then make alliances with young promoters who would be loyal to him.
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This new relationship between agent and promoter helped establish the two pillars the music industry would be built on – stability and longevity. Two radical notions that contradicted the typical temporary teenage whims the pop era lived by.
Frank instinctively knew something different was going on. The audience wasn’t outgrowing the Beatles and moving on to the next trend. The Beatles were setting new standards by doing something no pop act had ever done – they were evolving. They were not only the old trend musically – they, themselves, kept manufacturing their own new trends.
They grew, and the audience grew with them. And Frank felt there was no reason why the two – the audience and this new rock music – couldn’t keep right on growing together, forever. He explained to his promoters they would lose money with his acts at the club level with their first and second albums, they would break even at the theater level with the artist’s third or fourth album, and they would make money at the arena level, usually around the group’s fourth or fifth album. The promoters learned patience, and it would pay off for 40 years.
Frank fought off the concept of national promotion for as long as he ruled the world. He said it would kill the industry, and he was right. Why would a national promoter be interested in developing new artists? They’d have stockholders to answer to. They wouldn’t look ahead to the fifth album – they’ll want their greedy little results right now, just like the old days, but on a grander scale.
But while it lasted, what a world he ruled! Timing really is nearly everything. And what it isn’t, circumstance makes up for. His circumstance was being too young for the American managers and record companies to take seriously, so he went to England and signed a big part of the first British Invasion and all of its second wave: Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, the Yardbirds, the Who, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Small Faces, Humble Pie, etc.
America would come around, of course. Frank would break Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bon Jovi and embrace punk, representing the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Clash and the Sex Pistols. His timing couldn’t have been better. His agency’s birth coincided with the birth of the rock era: Bob Dylan going electric, FM radio playing album tracks, arenas being used for more than hockey and basketball, technology creating bigger amplifiers and sound systems, and Rolling Stone arriving just in time to document, explain and celebrate the new culture.
But it was the Godfather who would make it all work – his genius, his charisma and, in many ways, his innocence. Who else could have told the wiseguys, “Listen, I appreciate your interest in my business, but I really don’t need you?”
June Barsalona’s role in her husband’s success was critical. It was her connections at first that insured their survival, having done the first important interview with the Beatles and then a lot more at Atlantic Records. She reminded him what was important when he’d occasionally get buried in the bullshit that comes with being a god. And while he depended on her unflagging support, it was her wisdom that kept him on track when his friends pulled him in a hundred directions.
Their daughter, Nicole, was born the adult in the family. There is no other way to put it. Totally together from birth. Reasonable, sensible, intelligent, unflappable, caring, soulful, amazing. The Godfather’s greatest accomplishment.
I think about him every day and always will. What would Frank do? I hear his advice in every decision I make, as well as his constant amazement and admonishment at my far too consistent ignoring of his good advice.
I was lucky to have known him. And so are half of the most successful managers in the business, all having graduated from Frank School. He went when it was time for him to go. He couldn’t relate to grunge. Or hip-hop. Or modern pop. In his soul, he was a song man. A live performance introducing a band for the first time had to have songs that were immediately relatable, or the concept wouldn’t work.
Like a wartime general who has no place in a peaceful world, Frank was a man of his time, a man who defined his time. A great man whose passion and gift was to bring greatness to the masses. To celebrate greatness. Greatness was his religion, and he was a missionary for it.
He no longer belonged in a world where greatness had no place. Where greatness is an inconvenience. An annoyance to be ignored or subverted.
It was time for him to go. But I will miss him every day.
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