About the author:Mike Crisolago
I am a 29-year old Toronto-based journalist and writer who has a passion for theatre, literature, history and baseball...
Tags:Frank Wilks (2), Fringe Festival 2009 (10), I Am Not Neil Young (2), Toronto Fringe Festival (5)
Frank Wilks never set out to become Neil Young. In fact, for his first musical gig, at the old Chalet Steakhouse on Queen Street East, the 19-year old had another persona prepared.
“I used to have a fedora and I called myself the Lonely Man Frank Wilks, because I was a solo act.”
The moniker didn’t last long.
“Right from my very first performance everyone said, ‘Man, you sound so much like Neil Young.’” Wilks said. “So it started right then, this Neil Young thing.”
For the next 30-plus years, whether playing the Neil Young role in the tribute band Buffalo Springfield Revisited, or on his own, Wilks never found a way to escape the shadow of the iconic Canadian rocker.
“On one hand it was a compliment. And at the same time they’re saying, ‘You’re really good, but you’re not Neil,’” Wilks said. “And that’s the curse – that no one really knew who Frank was. They just heard some guy singing all the Buffalo Springfield classics and being somebody he’s not.”
Like Young, Wilks was born in Toronto. The first song Wilks ever learned to play was Young’s Heart of Gold. Both toured for years singing the same songs, and were even backed by some of the same musicians (Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin played in both the original and tribute bands). But that’s where the similarities ended.
“There’s that aspect where you get a little envious that he has all this success and here you are doing the same thing he does, but you’re only a fraction of the success he is,” Wilks said. “But now that I’m older things like that don’t bother me anymore.”
While Young continues to tour, the 51-year old Wilks decided to return to his Toronto roots. Last month he took part in the Great Canadian Tune, an attempt to bring the city a world record for the largest guitar ensemble, at Yonge-Dundas Square. The song that the crowd of over 1,000 played: Neil Young’s Helpless.
Currently, Wilks’ one-man autobiographical show I Am Not Neil Young, the musical is part of this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival. Still, despite the nature of the show – a critically acclaimed shedding of the Young persona – Wilks still can’t escape comparisons to the hall of fame rocker.
“EYE Weekly wrote a review and said that, sadly, my songs don’t hold up to the old classics that Neil and Steve [Stills] wrote,” Wilks said. “But how can you top For What It’s Worth or Heart of Gold? This is a musical, so the songs are not written to be hit rock songs on the radio.”
The show itself reflects of the success and the tragedies that Wilks endured during his years on the road. But of all the memories he has of partying with rock legends and playing before crowds of 50,000 people, it’s the reminiscence of his Toronto roots that brings him the most pleasure.
“I used to play with a band called Bully Hill,” Wilks said. “We used to play all over Toronto and we used to pack everywhere and I had the greatest time with that band.”
But Wilks knows you can’t go back. Decades later, after band-mates and friends have passed on, Wilks says if he could do it all over, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ve come to terms with it and everything that happened, happened for a reason,” Wilks said. “There’s a law for everything. We’re all connected.
“But that band,” Wilks started again, recalling Bully Hill shortly before we parted ways, “I wish I could go back and do that again.”
Mike’s review of I Am Not Neil Young, the musical can be found here.
Check out Frank Wilks and I Am Not Neil Young, the musical at: