“It’s difficult to put into words where your being goes — who “you” are, your attached psyche and all
those things that make up your own sense of self — when that word cancer becomes a possibility in your own life. I was in shock. It was hard to breathe. Your body has betrayed you, and your future is negated.
You don’t yet know it, but you’re about to move from one life, the life you’ve known until now, to one of hospitals, tests, tests, tests, clinics, doctors, nurses, needles, blood, fear and apprehension.
I felt as if I’d been handed a bottomless box of chaos and uncertainty with shaky weak hands to hold it.”
— Stewart Francke, What Don’t Kill Me Just Makes Me Strong
Photograph by Josh Scott
The legion of fans who admire Detroit’s workingman’s troubadour, Stewart Francke — a throng that includes some dude named Springsteen — know three things about him unequivocally: the smooth ingenuity with which he’s crafted his original music since he was a teenager and recorded it the past 18 years; how very sick he was; and how fortunate we are to still have him around.
A ferocious, well-chronicled 1998 battle against leukemia, a subsequent stem-cell transplant, and complications arising from it left Francke knocking on heaven’s door. Steroid treatments bloated his face and body beyond recognition. Painkillers then brought with them an addiction with its own harrowing circumstances. Today, at 54, having survived medical and psychological hell, Francke could be excused for wanting to pack his excruciating memories in a little subconscious box and concentrate on songwriting, his valiant wife, Julia, and their kids, Tess and Stewie.
Instead, he struck a different chord: In July, Francke released his memoir, What Don’t Kill Me Just Makes Me Strong, a lyrical, intensely personal, and graphically detailed account of his victory over cancer and its aftereffects. Francke can boast professional experience as a writer, having been a music columnist for Detroit’s Metro Times, and this isn’t his first book — a collection of his lyrics, Between the Ground & God, was released in 2006. Yet nothing could’ve prepared him for the challenge of a work that took seven years to complete.
“It was a long process,” he says between sips of ice water at Royal Oak’s Bastone Brewery. “I’d start writing it, put it away for a while, go make another record, then pick it up again.” He secured a literary agent, who shopped Francke’s manuscript to major publishing houses and helped him stack the rejection letters. Finally he received a nibble of interest from the San Francisco–based “green” publisher, Untreed Reads. By that time, however, his agent had dropped him. Still, the company’s editors remained intrigued.
“The first few manuscripts I sent weren’t good enough, so there was some intensive rewriting,” Francke says. “The last year and a half has been really intense, making it right. And I appreciate that, the proofreading and editing of the book, everything that really made it sing a bit more. It was hard to give it away, but my editor was very good and they actually improved it, made it shine. I was dealing with good people.”
Good, and extremely avant-garde. True to its name, Untreed Reads harms no trees. Its books are available through downloads only, allowing them to sell What Don’t Kill Me Just Makes Me Strong for the low-dough everyman price of $3.99. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Francke. “Everybody can afford it. The delivery system’s so simple, you just need a Nook, Kindle, or iPad. I’ve already had some inquiries from people: ‘Can we get it in hardcover?’ But it only comes as an eBook.”
If the price point wasn’t enticing enough, the book also comes with the bonus of music. At the publisher’s suggestion, each one comes with the option to download free copies of two Francke songs, “Letter From 10 Green” and “Summer Soldier (Holler If Ya Hear Me),” the latter featuring backing vocals from Springsteen. Dave Marsh, the legendary Detroit-born rock journalist and close friend of Francke’s who figures prominently in the book, is a noted biographer of the rock icon’s, but he advised Francke to pay a personal cost to reach the Boss.
“We’d met a few times backstage at his shows,” Francke says, “and that was through Dave. But Dave said, ‘If you go through me it’ll get f—-d up. Just go through channels and they’ll say yes or no.’ So I emailed Bruce’s assistant and got a call saying, ‘Send us the Pro Tools tracks; Bruce will cut the vocals.’ Six weeks later, we got the track of just his vocal. My engineer and I put it in and went, ‘Holy s –t, that’s actually him!’ We were like kids.”
Francke, who released his 12th CD, Love Implied, earlier this year, knows his ordeal has affected the songs he now creates. “Before I went into the hospital, Dave said, ‘I want to hear the songs you write when you’re done,’ and that was prescient,” he says. “It changed things profoundly. It took my blinders off. It opened up the world to me. It made me more political, less of a confessional singer-songwriter. It made the music more soulful.”
Those changes inspired Francke to establish a foundation at Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer Institute to fund bone-marrow transplants.
And he bravely chooses to relive those changes in his book.
“I hope this doesn’t sound contrived or specious,” he says, “but I wanted it to be a guide for people who were going through this. More than cathartic. It was a way to return the favor, sort of, of just being alive. Because people did that for me, gave me support. Yet it was cathartic. I feel like that chapter’s closed now. I really do.”