CONTRA O GOLPE CIVIL EM CURSO E A FAVOR DA DEMOCRACIA
terça-feira, 4 de fevereiro de 2014
The tragic tale of Jackson C Frank, forgotten legend of the 60s
He was one of the great singer-songwriters of the 60s folk scene, more highly regarded by some than Paul Simon. But he only recorded one album – and died in obscurity, penniless and homeless.
There are hard luck stories, and then there's Jackson C Frank. Of all the damaged singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s – Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin – Frank's tale is the most tragic and the least known. When his name does crop up, it is usually with a heavy cognoscenti nod of approval: Vincent Gallo used his Milk and Honey on the Brown Bunny soundtrack, and Frank's I Want To Be Alone accompanies the eerie climax to Daft Punk's 2006 film, Electroma. His reputation rests almost entirely on his one 1965 album, reissued this month on vinyl.
It was recorded in London in 1965, and produced by his fellow American expat Paul Simon. Frank's voice was full and rich, his finger-picking exemplary, and he could write a fine, memorable melody. The combination of all three elements was pretty rare on the London folk scene. Future Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn met him when Frank's girlfriend, Sandy Denny, brought him along to Les Cousins folk club on Greek Street in London: "He told me he came from Buffalo and that it was a good place to come from. And then started to tell me that he'd been in a fire."
Frank had been seriously injured as a child when a furnace at his school exploded, killing most of his classmates, and while he was recovering in hospital his teacher had brought along a guitar to keep his spirits up. Elvis was his hero and in 1957, when he was 13, his mother took him to Graceland where, astonishingly, he got to meet Elvis and have his picture taken. Frank's life would change even more dramatically when he turned 21 and collected an insurance cheque for more than $100,000. By now an accomplished folk singer, he set sail for England.
In London, the mysterious, clean-cut newcomer stood out among the hairy beatniks on the folk scene. Renbourn remembers him as "rather quiet and self-effacing, not overly sensitive, but he wasn't a falling-on-your-arse-and-get-wrecked kind of guy, he worked at his craft, conscious of doing really great stuff". By now, Frank had built up a stash of fine original songs, melancholy but warm, never self-pitying or maudlin. They included Blues Run the Game, which would quickly become a standard, recorded or performed by Renbourn, Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Counting Crows and John Mayer, among others. Frank's self-titled album, recorded with occasional second guitar from Paul Simonand Al Stewart, came out on Columbia but barely sold.
"He was the opposite of the loud American, as it were," says Renbourn. "He wasn't promoting himself or blagging at all. I was knocked out whenever I heard him play. He owned a Martin guitar which was unheard of in those days. Jackson Frank was a lot more highly thought of on the scene than Paul Simon was. But Paul Simon rose to fame and prominence and Jackson Frank just dropped into oblivion."
The insurance cheque was spent within a couple of years, on cars and hotel rooms, and Frank returned to Woodstock; except for a brief trip back to Britain in 1968, when he recorded a session for John Peel and toured with Fairport Convention, it was the last that most of his old London friends would see of him. A few years later, Renbourn received a letter from him "out of the blue. It said: 'Hello Toff, I hear you're still playing and doing my numbers, it would be great to see you.' It was rather touching. It looked like it was typed on a typewriter that was all busted up because the keys were all over the place. The address was Simmonds Court, Woodstock."
Simmonds Court turned out to be an institution. A piece written by Frank for Folk News explained that "while writing and recording my second album, personal and private affairs forced me to break off … [which]was unfortunate." This was quite an understatement. On returning to the US, Frank had married Elaine Sedgwick, a former model, and they had a son and a daughter. After the boy died of cystic fibrosis and the marriage failed, Frank went into a deep depression and was hospitalised.
In the 70s, Renbourn was in Woodstock shortly af fter receiving the letter, and tried to trace Frank by describing him to friends. "I was told there was a guy who was odd, even by Woodstock standards, who went around looking at traffic lights." It was Frank, but aside from a brief phone conversation the two friends didn't meet. It wasn't until the 90s that they met up again in Buffalo. "He was very overweight, looked really wrecked, his eyes were all fucked up. He had some gizmo that he flipped around his head like an antenna. It was a shock to see him. But we were sat around and all the old chat came back, and he was as easy as you like."
What had happened in between was a cruel tale. Frank had left Woodstock for New York, in search of Paul Simon, who Frank believed owned his publishing and had suppressed his songs; he ended up living on the streets for years. There was one final indignation – some kids with an air rifle took a potshot at the homeless Frank and blinded him in one eye – before a happy ending of sorts, when Frank was tracked down by a fan called Jim Abbott.
Paul Simon, who produced Frank's album. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives
Abbott found him in sheltered accommodation in Woodstock and encouraged him to write again and play local shows, describing his voice as sounding "more gritty and gravelly, sort of like Townes Van Zandt … a lived-in voice". When Frank died in 1999, Abbott sold the few possessions Frank had to archivist and collector Geoffrey Weiss: "I met Jim through an eBay listing. He was selling Jackson's test pressing of the album, and when we made a deal for the LP, I asked what else Jim might have. It seemed like the Jackson chapter was closing, he was planning on moving and wanted to get rid of everything. I thought it would be a good idea to keep it all together." These belongings included a small cassette recorder that had "Jackson Frank" written across it in black marker pen, a relic from his time spent in institutions.
The recordings Frank made with Abbott, along with an aborted 1975 album, other scraps of recordings and a 200-page book, will make up a box set scheduled for release next autumn. In the meantime, a 10-inch EP called Forest of Eden has come out that includes the young Frank singing Heartbreak Hotel. The place to start, though, is that peerless 1965 album. "Everyone liked him," says Renbourn. "When Bert Jansch got married, he built a great big display cabinet which was full of family photos, and in the middle of it was a photo of Jackson Frank. He really, really was a great guy."
Jackson C Frank is rereleased by Earth Recordings (on vinyl, with CD included) on 13 January