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Click below for the transcript
Before I start, a warning. Even though this episode is short it deals with many, many, upsetting subjects. If you’re likely to be upset by a story dealing with the death and disfigurement of small children, disability, mental illness, gun violence and eye injuries, you’re probably best off skipping this episode altogether, as it deals with these subjects right from after the first excerpt of music until the end. It’s not a happy story.
In this week’s main episode we talk briefly about a record that Paul Simon produced while he was in Britain, before “The Sound of Silence” became a big hit. The performer whose record he produced only released that one album in his lifetime, but it’s a record that had an outsized influence on the British folk-music scene. So today, we’re going to have a look at the tragic life of Jackson C Frank, and at “Blues Run the Game”:
[Excerpt: Jackson C Frank, “Blues Run the Game”]
Jackson C Frank’s life started to go badly, irrevocably, wrong, when he was just eleven years old. His family lived in Buffalo, New York, where the winters are long and cold, and Jackson was a Baby Boomer. Because of the tremendous number of new children going through the school system, the brick schoolhouse at the school he attended had been augmented with an annexe, made out of wood, and he was in that annexe, in a music lesson, when the boiler exploded and set fire to it.
Jackson was one of the lucky ones. That fire took the life of fifteen of his classmates, and spurred a national movement towards banning timber buildings for schools and the institution of fire drills, which up to that point had not been a thing. Jackson got thrown out of a window by a teacher, and the snow put out the flames on his back, meaning he “only” suffered burns over sixty percent of his body, scarring him for life.
He had to spend a year in hospital, have a tracheotomy, and have a metal plate put in his head. He developed thyroid problems, got calcium deposits that built up over the years and frequently left him in agony, and always walked with a limp and only had limited movement in his arms.
Many celebrities did things to comfort the children, who became nationally known. Kirk Douglas came to the hospital to visit them, and later in his childhood Jackson was able to go and meet Elvis, who became a big inspiration for the young man.
He spent his teenage years going around the local music scene, including spending a long time with a friend who later became known as John Kay of Steppenwolf, but then when he turned twenty-one he got a massive insurance payout that had been held in trust for him. I’ve seen different numbers for this — it was either fifty or a hundred thousand dollars, and in modern terms that would be about ten times that much. Being a young man, he didn’t want to invest it, he wanted to buy expensive cars. He wanted an Aston Martin and a Bentley, and Britain was where they made Aston Martins and Bentleys, so he caught a boat to England, and on the trip over started writing songs, including the one that would become his best known:
[Excerpt: Jackson C Frank, “Blues Run the Game”]
Once he was in the UK, Frank moved into Judith Piepe’s flat, where he started a relationship with an eighteen-year-old nurse, who was also trying to be a singer. Frank encouraged her to follow her dreams and become a professional, and Sandy Denny would later record some of his songs, and wrote the song “Next Time Around” about him:
[Excerpt: Sandy Denny, “Next Time Around”]
While he was in London, he became well known on the folk circuit, regularly playing Les Cousins, and as Ralph McTell put it, “EVERYONE” sang ‘Blues Run the Game'”. Over the years, the song has been performed by everyone from Bert Jansch:
[Excerpt: Bert Jansch, “Blues Run the Game”]
to Counting Crows:
[Excerpt: Counting Crows, “Blues Run the Game”]
Frank’s own version of the song was recorded on his one and only album, which was produced by Paul Simon, as we heard in the main episode. That album also included songs like “Carnival”, which has now possibly become the song of Frank’s that has been heard by most people, as it was featured both on the soundtrack and in the dialogue of the 2019 film Joker:
[Excerpt: Jackson C Frank, “Carnival”]
The album didn’t sell, and Frank returned to the US, after marrying Elaine Sedgwick, the cousin of Edie Sedgwick. He was missed when he left, and Roy Harper, another folk musician who played the same circuit, wrote “My Friend” about his departure:
[Excerpt: Roy Harper, “My Friend”]
When he came back in 1968 to do a couple of shows, though, his depression, which had always been bad since the fire, had worsened. Al Stewart said “He proceeded to fall 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.”
He was withdrawn, and wouldn’t speak to people, and he had writer’s block. To make matters worse, his home life was also going awfully. His insurance money had all run out, but Paul Simon had given him a loan of three thousand dollars, with Simon taking Frank’s publishing as surety, so he could start a business, but the business failed and Simon kept the publishing.
In 1971, when Art Garfunkel was recording his first solo album, he asked Frank if he had a song that might be suitable. Frank had actually written a new song, “Juliette”:
[Excerpt: Jackson C Frank, “Juliette”]
Unfortunately, when he turned up to see Garfunkel, he brought along a few hippy friends, who all made fun of Garfunkel for being a sell-out, and so Garfunkel didn’t record the song, though he did give Frank a new guitar.
By the early seventies, Frank was in a very bad way. He and his wife had had two children, but one had died of cystic fibrosis, and the marriage had ended. He spent periods of time in psychiatric hospitals, and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, though he always said himself that he wasn’t schizophrenic, he was suffering from depression because of the loss of his son. He was living off handouts from friends, even as his songs were inspiring new artists like Nick Drake, who recorded four of his songs:
[Excerpt: Nick Drake, “Here Comes the Blues”]
In the early eighties he was living with his parents, but then in 1984 while his mother was in hospital he got an idea — he could go to New York and find his old friend Paul, and ask him for his publishing back, or maybe just for some money. He didn’t leave a note, and his parents had no idea where he’d gone.
He did go to New York, but he couldn’t find his friend, and he ended up homeless, living on the streets, and in and out of psychiatric institutions.
In the early nineties, a fan tracked him down and helped sort out some accommodation for him in Woodstock, where he’d lived in his twenties. By this time he was in an awful physical and mental state, and the fan described him as looking like the Elephant man because of the bloating from his thyroid problems and his joint issues affecting his posture (though I have to say that from the couple of photos I’ve seen of him at this time, that’s quite an exaggeration). But just to rub salt in the wound, after the accommodation had been arranged, but before he’d had a chance to move, he was sat on a park bench in Queens, and some kids, shooting randomly with a pellet gun, hit him in his left eye, permanently blinding him in that eye.
His rediscovery got a bit of publicity, and led to his album being reissued on CD. He also started writing again, and recorded some demos on a cheap cassette recorder in 1997, many of which have since been released on various compilations:
[Excerpt: Jackson C Frank, “(Tumble) in the Wind”]
But 1997 was also the year that Frank moved into a care home, and he wouldn’t record any more after that.
In 1998, Paul Simon finally returned his publishing to him, presumably having given up on ever getting his three thousand dollars back.
And on March the third, 1999, one day after his fifty-sixth birthday, Jackson C Frank died of pneumonia. His game had finally run to its end.