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Music

Far Out's Forgotten Masterpiece Club: #1 Jackson C. Frank by Jackson C. Frank

@TomTaylorFO

Music may well be the best thing that humans have ever come up with. It can dance all over problems and transfigure hardship into comforting tunes in such a way that it almost makes you gladdened that life is tragic after all. In fact, a lot of music is borne from turmoil itself, and when it comes to folk, tragedy and tunes are a harmonious match made in matrimony hell. The bittersweet chronicle of Jackson C. Frank’s captivating debut is testimony to this. 

The timeless tale of a cloud of torment and its tremendous silver-lining has rarely been more stormy nor shiny in music history than with Frank’s only studio record. “I don’t believe in curses exactly,” says friend and biographer Jim Abbott, “But he sure was in the wrong place at the wrong time an awful lot of times.” The notion of a curse might be constrained to fiction, but Frank’s tale is every bit as stupefying as any broomstick fable. 

The first and most prominent of those wrong places was Cleveland Hill High School. It was March 30th, 1954, when the school caught fire. Fifteen of his classmates died in the resulting blaze, including his girlfriend Marlene, the muse for his song of the same name. Jackson was in 6th-grade music class at the time. He emerged from the inferno with scars, both physical and emotional. They would pain him for a lifetime, in which he grieved the loss of Marlene throughout. “My friends in the bars, they only see the scars,” he sings, “And they don’t give a damn that I loved you.”

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Now, the song ‘Marlene’ stands as testimony to that love. Over a bruising melody, Frank jolts out words like the pained yelps of an old dog. But the darkness briefly makes way for harmonious exultation as Frank relishes in the moments when they “danced like two snowflakes in the falling wind”. 

During his recovery in the hospital, he received the fateful gift of an acoustic guitar from his music teacher. While the guitar would provide an avenue of expression for his sorrow, it would do little to ameliorate that same spiritual pain in a life that seemed predisposed to affliction.

His musical talents bloomed from the fertile ground of despair, and he became one of the most revered artists in the famed Greenwich Village folk scene. He was described among it as a revered talent, a sort of leading light which the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon looked up to. After all, the folk scene was all about authenticity, and he could croon a crooked downtrodden parable as though he’d travelled from the past just to sing it. 

But like many others in the scene, he found himself subsumed by the saturation of Gingham-clad talents in a borough where folks carrying dogeared guitars were more common than briefcases or toolbags as little got done if it wasn’t music. Thus, he took a boat to England, but as he was soon to sing, when he got there, blues once more ran the game. 

He arrived amid the burgeoning beatnik folk scene of Bond Street, where he crossed paths with Paul Simon. He would record his self-titled debut in 1965 with Simon as a producer. Fellow London-based folk guitarist John Renbourn would remember Jackson as being “a lot more highly thought of on the scene than Paul Simon was. […] but Jackson just dropped into oblivion.” 

He almost seems to foretell this fate himself with the opening track, his most famous work, ‘Blues Run the Game’. It’s a song that you could hear hummed on the eternal desolation row a few eclipses and lifetimes ago. Flashed with a sense of the tranquillity that comes with resignation, the opener breathes out from the record like a sigh. More melodious than most, the delicate tune is an anthem that defines timelessness.

Subsequently, the song may have received the sort of endless covers and reimaginings that led to old folk song’s authorship being lost to the sands of time, but upon release, the reaction was relatively minor. In fact, it was just about successful enough for his lifestyle and drinking to become increasingly profligate, but never enough to sustain him for long. 

As the money from his record and the insurance cheque from the fire dried up, he returned to Woodstock, seeking solitude away from the folks who pried on him for songs. Once more, this brings us to a tale foretold on his debut, ‘I Want to be Alone (Dialogue)’. Once again, this plucking wander is a mournful affair, but there is always such poetry to his articulation that it never seems maudlin. In a similar sense to how the depths of a dower hangover at least hint at the night before, there is always a feeling of light untold to Frank’s darkness, if that isn’t too much of a glib connection to make. 

In Woodstock, Frank would marry and have two children, only for his son to pass away in infancy. His marriage failed after that, and the despair proved catastrophic, resulting in the singer being institutionalised. Periodically he would be released from the institutions, during which he travelled to New York in the glim hope of tracking down Paul Simon, seeking some sort of spiritual and financial resurrection, but essentially roaming the streets in a state of dereliction and homelessness. 

This amble of abjection led him to a city bench, where whilst relaxing under the sun, a group of teenagers with an air rifle fired a shot, permanently blinding him in one eye. He died of pneumonia on Massachusetts’s streets in 1999, a forgotten relic of the once-booming beatnik scene of which he was an integral influencer.

Even by folk standards, that is a life with enough culminated hardships to make a thousand hard-luck artists rejoice in their relative good fortune and shun the four cursed chords of the acoustic in favour of disco-pop. So, when Frank sings, “I am a crippled singer,” it captures an eerie resonance.

However, his tale is not one of sorrow alone—how could it be when his beauteous album has brought comfort to so many, and his reverberating influence is still felt? The record is a masterpiece that will never be forgotten, fated to live on as the posthumous edifice of fortitude from a man who was bloodied but not beaten down enough to stop deriving poetry from experience. 

Thus, the record rings out with an air of sincerity, and a sort of contrasting hard-earned catharsis of performing that is difficult to come by in music. Befittingly sonically bedraggled but measured in craft, these songs all poured out of Frank in a six-hour session at Levy’s Recording Studio, located at 103 New Bond Street in London, but behind them is the welter of a lifetime that made such one-take wizardry a seamless thing. 

This tale of a legend is by contrasting turns crushing and comforting, and ultimately, a force to behold. This light, darkness and stellar musicianship has turned the heads of many performers as it continues to creep back up from the basement. With people as eclectic as Daft Punk featuring the careworn artist in the climax of Electroma, it would seem from doggedly desperate ends, that the legacy of Frank will not be forgotten.

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