Saturday, 10 December 2016

The sad life of Jackson C. Frank

Artists often have tormented lives. Some die young, some are unexplainable unsuccessful, some have alcohol and drug abuse problems. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Searching for Sugarman, which shows the life of Sixto Rodríguez, a very good songwriter who didn’t have much luck back in the seventies. Quite sad, at least some parts, right? You probably don’t know the story of Jackson C. Frank.

I came across Jackson C. Frank by coincidence. I often have some music in the background while I work and youtube decided that it would introduce me to this guy after the song I was listening to ended. I couldn’d help but pay attention to his voice and I decided to learn a bit more about him. When I finished reading his wiki bio, I had a lump in my throat.

I’m obviously not going to get into religious matters here and I mean no offence, but sometimes it looks like there is a God and he’s a huge fan of dark humour. Can you think of something bad that could happen to you? Well, I’m pretty sure it happened to Jackson.

His childhood was already fucked up enough. In 1954, when he was eleven, a furnace exploded in his school somewhere in the state of New York and, while most of his classmates (including his girlfriend-ish) died, he suffered burns over half of his body. He had to stay in the hospital for seven months and during that time he learned to play the guitar because his music teacher bought him one.

As a teenager he was in several rock bands. After all it was the late fifties/early sixties, Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll and so on. However, what Jackson really liked was folk music, so when he received a small fortune from an insurance cheque when he was 21, he spent some money on cars and concerts and then he took a ship to England instead of starting university. While he was travelling by boat he composed what would become his best known song, the beautiful Blues Run The Game.



In 1965 Paul Simon produced what would be his only album. He was so shy that during the recording that he wasn’t able to play in front of other people, so he had to ask to be shielded by screens. “I can’t play. You’re looking at me”, he would say to Simon, Art Garfunkel and Al Stewart. I’ll never understand how someone with such a beautiful voice and more than decent guitar skills was so shy to play in front of people but well, it was his personality.

This is the only video you'll find of Jackson C. Frank

One more thing: let me point out that he was only 22 when he produced this album. 22. If you listen to the whole thing, you'll see that the music is too mature for his age and his voice as well. Let that sink in. It's personally difficult to believe that a voice like that could belong to a man who was just past his teenager years.


His only album

His album didn’t sell much, his mental health got worse and he was running out of money, so he came back to the States for two years. When he went back to England he was totally depressed, a depression that had its origins in his childhood trauma. Al Stewart said the following:

"He [Frank] 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. Then shortly after that, he hightailed it back to Woodstock again, because he wasn't getting any work."

Jackson married a former model and they had a son who died from cystic fibrosis. His depression got obviously worse and he was even sent to a mental institution when he went again back to his homeland. He would end up homeless for years and, to make the whole thing even more cruel and surrealistic, some kids who were fiddling with an air rifle shot him in the eye.

At last, his bad luck finally gave him a little break. A fan eventually tracked him down, made him get the royalties his album had generated since 1965 and found him a place to stay. Jackson was blind and had obvious psychological problems, but he recorded a demo in 1995 and he played in bars around Woodstock until he died from pneumonia in 1999 at the age of 56.


This story should make many of us realize how lucky we are. Rest in peace, Jackson.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Mikel Laboa: elegance and fragility

A few months ago I wrote a post about a Basque songwriter called Ruper Ordorika and one of his songs, Martin Larralde. This time I’ll write about Mikel Laboa, another Basque songriter who was, I believe, a big inspiration for Ruper Ordorika and definitely one of the biggest Basque singer-songwriters of all time.

Mikel Laboa was born in San Sebastián and lived between 1934 and 2008. He was actually a doctor and worked as such for about twenty years. Meanwhile, he was one of the founders of the cultural group Ez Dok Amairu (There Is No 13) with the goal of revitalizing Basque culture, which was having a tough time under the Franco dictatorship.

I am ashamed to say I only know one of his CDs, Sei (Six), which has mesmerized me in the last few months and which is obviously the one I will talk about.

The first thing that stroke me when I listened to it for the first time is his voice. Sei was released when he was 51 years old and yet Laboa’s voice gives me the impression of belonging to a teenager, as if it wasn’t fully developed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing but rather an interesting combination of fragility and elegance. The fragility reaches its peak in the song Sorterriko Koblak. I don’t know what it says because I barely know a few words in Basque, but in my mind I imagine it as the desperate cry of an introvert teenager for whom music is the only way to properly express his emotions. Yes, I’m sober, thank you very much.



Melancholy is the general mood of the album, which has the piano as the main instrument, always accompanied by Laboa’s guitar and sometimes by an accordion, violin, txalaparta (a sort of huge wooden xylophone for two people) and/or synthethizers, which give this generally traditional sounding album a more experimental sound. There is also one song, Lizardi, which, although not from my favourites, is very interestingly tango-like (or something like that).




Here are a few of my favourite songs from Sei, which I strongly recommend you to listen. As always, here is the facebook page for the blog, in case you are interested.








Friday, 17 June 2016

Jethro Tull (X): changes

Going from the 70s to the 80s was not just a change of numbers for Jethro Tull. Firstly, John Glascock died in 1979 and soon after that Barrie Barlow, who was perhaps hisclosest friends, quit the band. Also, Ian Anderson decided he wanted to work on a solo album, which made John Evans and David Palmer leave the band as well (and not in the best of terms either, I believe).

At that point, only Anderson, Barre and new member Dave Pegg remained. Two more people joined: drummer Mark Craney and pianist/violinist Eddie Jobson, who made it clear he was only there for one album. Craney would finally leave after one album as well; a real pity, as both he and Jobson were extremely talented.

Ironically, this Ian Anderson solo album ended up being the new Jethro Tull album. The thing is Chrisalis Records pressed Anderson and he gave in to that pressure, naming the new Tull album A (taken from the labels on the master tapes for his scrapped solo album, marked simply "A" for "Anderson", according to what I’ve read in Wikipedia and one or two more websites).

A is a very different album from the previous one, Stormwatch. While the second was quite folky and extremely dark, Jethro Tull took the 80s very seriously in A and Jobson’s synthethizers made themselves heard in pretty much the whole album.

I’ve read many fans complaining about how Stormwatch was the end of Jethro Tull and I don’t agree. I do agree that things were never the same and the band didn’t produce such good music again (with a few exceptios) but, still, they made some good stuff. A, while overlooked by many, has a big bunch of more than decent songs, although perhaps not “Tull good”, with the exception of the unusually catchy Black Sunday.



Other good songs are the slightly jazzy Crossfire, the 1984-themed Working John, Working Joe and the beautiful And Further On. On the other hand, Batteries Not Included is absolutely awful and Uniform is totally forgettable. The rest of the album is good, with Jobson doing a great job at the piano/synths and at the violin as well, as can be seen in The Pine Martin’s Jig.




The tour that came with the album saw the band wear weird parachutey tracksuits which can be seen in a DVD with a few videoclips for older songs (Anderson really enjoyed himself doing the Sweet Dream clip) and some very nice versions as well, such as the one for Skating Away, which I love for several reasons. First of all, it’s an original rendition of a beautiful song but, mostly, it’s proof that Jethro Tull members could all switch instruments without making the song worse. In this case, there are three guitars (ok, a guitar, a mandolin and a mandola) but the guitarist, Barre, doesn’t play. How cool is that? Ian Anderson plays the guitar, Pegg (bassist) plays the mandola, Jobson (pianist and violinist) plays the violin and Craney (drummer) plays the bass. Let me repeat: how cool is that? Let me answer: very.



I guess A can be seen as a transition album, as the next album, The Broadsword and The Beast, proved to be somewhat more solid. But hey, it’s not too shabby for a transition album. It’s a pity Craney left though, because his replacement, Gerry Conway, did a mediocre job. I know, it’s easy for me to say those things from my chair, but I just don’t like his drumming with Tull.

Anyway, this is it for this time. I’ll try not to wait for another two and a half months until I write the next post. By the way, this is the facebook page for the blog (I promise to post more stuff there as well).