Magazine article The American Conservative

Radio Free America

Magazine article The American Conservative

Radio Free America

Article excerpt

When the mellowly wry Richard Beatty asked me to help him spin platters--well, touch buttons--as a guest-host on his streaming "Geezer Radio" show, I accepted the invitation, after making it clear that I was a relative whipster and in no sense a codger, dotard, or anywhere near geezerdom.

Our theme was "Forgotten Songs of the 1960s," so my thoughts turned immediately to two obscure singer-songwriters once hailed by hopeful blurb-writers as "the next Bob Dylan."

Eleven-year-old Jackson C. Frank made Life magazine in 1954 for an incident that nearly took his life. The sixth-grader survived a boiler-room explosion in his suburban Buffalo elementary school that killed fifteen of his classmates and left him painfully, perpetually scarred. (He did get to meet well-wishers Elvis and Kirk Douglas.)

Upon hitting 21, Frank collected $80,000 from the insurance company and sailed to England, where he blew it all on Aston Martins, Bentleys, wine, and women. With an unusual guitar technique necessitated by his gnarled fingers and a poetically elegiac streak, Frank burst supernova-like upon England's developing folk music scene. Paul Simon, then resident in London, produced Frank's self-titled (and only) album, which featured an achingly morose masterpiece called "Blues Run the Game."

The album tanked commercially. Frank repatriated. He ate. And drank. His mind wandered till it had shaken loose of any mooring. Within a shockingly brief time, the Buffalo boy with the shy disarming smile and talent for turning a melancholy lyric had become an obese homeless paranoid-schizophrenic. The days of wine and roses, not to mention dating models, were gone. The blues had run, and then won, the game.

At one point, the corpulent and crapulent Frank begged Paul Simon for a handout. According to Frank's biographer Jim Abbott, Simon, no comrade in alms, gave him $1,500 in exchange for a promissory note and the rights to Frank's music.

"Hello darkness, my old friend" indeed.

Frank's hardships mounted. He had an eye shot out by a juvenile delinquent with a pellet gun. He was in and out of asylums. He grew fatter and stranger and then in 1999 he died, leaving as his legacy that one lovely album.

But there are stirrings of rebirth. "Blues Run the Game" is covered with encouraging frequency. Fellow Buffalonian Vincent Gallo, the Calvin Klein model/auteur/Republican, used Frank's "Milk and Honey" in the soundtrack to The Brown Bunny (2003), his cult road picture with a Triple XXX climax. Buffalo boys gotta stick together. …

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