Jackson C. Frank - S/T
Of all the great unknown singer-songwriters who rode along the underground of the 1960’s & 70’s, few of them rival such a great confluence of beauty and tragedy as Jackson C. Frank. The backstory to his self-titled 1965 record begins with an explosion, literally.
At just 11-years-old, Frank was sitting in class at New York’s ‘Cleveland Hill School’ when a furnace exploded next door, killing 15 of his classmates and leaving Frank severely injured, half of his body scarred with burns. His understandably mortified teacher visited him in the hospital during his eight-month stay, gifting him a guitar in the hopes that it would bring his spirits up and give him something to do. It wasn’t long before he was proficient enough to consider pursuing music professionally, and his pursuits were solidified when his mother took him to Graceland in 1957 to get his picture taken with Elvis Presley. Yes, heactuallygot a picture with “The King,” and the 14-year-old Frank then took off on a lifelong chase that would run him into the ground.
Frank’s dreams for musical success seemed right within his grasp when he turned 21 and received a check to compensate for the childhood accident, a check to the tune of $100,000 (which, when adjusted for inflation, comes to almost one million dollars in 2015). This allowed him to “catch a boat to England, baby” and “live like a king with room service,” as he sings on the album’s inarguably greatest track, “Blues Run the Game.”
That transatlantic trip on the Queen Elizabeth took him to London, where he was living as an American expatriate, roaming the folk club scene with his then-unknown friend Paul Simon, who would go on to rise to an untouchable degree of fame while Frank vanished into relative obscurity. Simon even recorded Frank’s album for him, bringing along Al Stewart to play guitar and Art Garfunkel as well, who supposedly ran out to fetch tea for Frank in between takes. All the attention was in spite of Frank’s extreme shyness, which necessitated a large screen to be assembled around him, claiming: “I can't play. You're looking at me.”
The album is rife with masterful finger-picking and guided by a voice that hits every note just the way you’d want it to, never sounding too complex, too operatic, or at all overdone. Each song is both painful to hear and remarkably heartwarming, like a sad Sunday morning, carefree and melancholy. “Maybe come down blue Monday I will grab the brakes again, ‘cause no bottle of pills can kill this pain” he moans on ‘Here Come the Blues,’ an old-fashioned four-minute blues burner. But no one outside of his close circle of friends paid much attention, and “living like a king” came at a high cost for Frank. In a few years he found himself flat broke and headed back to New York City. He married a model and tried to go straight, but a life of domestic normalcy couldn’t last. His wife soon left him, and their son died of cystic fibrosis, which sent Frank into an understandably deep depression, deep enough to have him committed to an asylum. Al Stewart said of this time: "He fell apart before our very eyes. His style that everyone loved was melancholy, very tuneful things. He started doing things that were completely impenetrable. They were basically about psychological angst, played at full volume with lots of thrashing. I don't remember a single word of them, it just did not work. There was one review that said he belonged on a psychologist's couch. Then shortly after that, he hightailed it back to Woodstock again, because he wasn't getting any work." A few years went by and Frank was desperate enough to start begging his friends for help, one of whom worked to get his album reissued in 1978. It was the same album as 13 years before, but with new artwork and a new title, ‘Jackson Frank Again.’ It was a flailing attempt at finding success, which you could say is even more rare than the original album, although even this did not encourage the “rediscovery” of Frank that he’d hoped for.
It’s interesting to note that the very year Bob Dylan “went electric” was the same in which Frank released his seminal folk record and struggled to find an audience. Could it be that Dylan’s transition had tired America to his would-be folk followers? How could such an album flop when Frank had all of his cards in place, even with Paul Simon at the helm?
Fast-forward to the mid-eighties, just before Paul Simon is about to reach his apex with ‘Graceland,’ and Frank decides he has to dive back into the heart of New York City to find him, as if he thought Simon could single-handedly resurrect his career. But of course, if you roam around the biggest city in America hoping to find one of its most famous citizens, how great could your chances be? He ended up living on the street, sleeping on park benches, frequently in-and-out of hospitals. He was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which Frank blamed on the depression caused by the trauma he’d lived through in his school days.
But just when all seemed lost, one of Frank’s early fans by the name of Jim Abbott was talking with his teacher Mark Anderson, who just so happened to be an old college friend of Frank’s, and who just so happened to have gotten a letter from Frank, asking for help getting out of the city. Together, Abbot and Anderson arranged a room for Frank at a nursing home in Woodstock, but first Abbott wanted to visit Frank in the city and meet his hero for the first time.
"When I went down I hadn’t seen a picture of him, except for his album cover,” Abbott said. “Then he was thin and young. But when I went to see him, there was this heavy guy hobbling down the street, and I thought, ‘That can’t possibly be him’…I just stopped and said ‘Jackson?’ and it was him. My impression was, ‘Oh my God’, it was almost like the elephant man or something. He was so unkempt, dishevelled. A further side effect of the fire was a thyroid malfunction causing him to put on weight. He had nothing. It was really sad. We went and had lunch and went back to his room. It almost made me cry, because here was a fifty-year-old man, and all he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn’t stay in tune. It was one of those hot summer days. He tried to play ‘Blues Run The Game’ for me, but his voice was pretty much shot."
After moving to Woodstock, Frank started work on recording demos of new songs that would later be compiled and reissued by indie labels. These albums, pressed on both CD and vinyl, would help to establish Frank’s first record as a nearly-lost masterpiece. ‘Ba Da Bing! Records’ issued a “Complete Recordings Special Edition Box Set” this summer, which features three LPs, a CD, and a biography written by Abbott, all housed in a handmade ash wooden box, finished with walnut oil, engraved and branded, and limited to only 150 copies. As of October, 2015, there is only one of those box sets available on Discogs, and it’s listed for almost $500, even while the label still sells them for only $140.Although such reissues are much more common to come across, theoriginal 1965 UK mono pressingwill run you several hundred dollars.Besides such collectibles, reissues fromBa Da Bingor4 Men With Beardswill only run you around $20.
Songwriting greats such as Simon & Garfunkel, Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists), Bert Jansch,Laura Marling,Robin Pecknold(of Fleet Foxes), andNick Drakehave covered Frank’s songs. He was even sampled by Nas in “Undying Love.” But more than offering us an album’s worth of beautiful, enduring songs, Frank teaches us the value of pursuing your dreams, even if they’re tearing you apart on the inside, because what is left for our story if we give up and move out? “There are no answers given when love is just a game,” he sings on the album closer ‘You Never Wanted Me.’ “You never wanted me babe, and now I feel the same.” Indeed, blues certainly “ran the game” for Frank, but he shows us that the hard way is sometimes the only way, and his perseverance has gone on to shock and inspire countless listeners, generations later, just the way he’d dreamt it…