Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jackson C. Frank

Jackson C. Frank's eponymous 1965 album

One of my favorite movies last year was Sean Durkin's subtle psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, which not only addressed the dangerous allure of cults but also introduced many viewers (like me) to obscure '60s folksinger Jackson C. Frank. Two of Frank's songs appear in the film: a cover version of "Marcy's Song" (performed by actor John Hawkes - formerly guitarist "John Boy Perkins" in legendary Austin, Texas band Meat Joy - who also wrote and strummed "Bred and Buttered" for the soundtrack of Debra Granik's 2010 indie hit Winter's Bone) and "Marlene" (which plays over the end credits).

Director Durkin himself only discovered Frank after Googling the Internet for songs matching the names "Marcy" and "Marlene" and finding, as if by fate, "Marcy's Song" and "Marlene" as back-to-back album cuts on Frank's lone eponymous 1965 album, Jackson C. Frank (rereleased in 1978 as Jackson Frank Again). (For a less-creepy movie, Durkin could have used Todd Rundgren's "Marlene," the first Marlene song I think of - but that's just me being a Todd toaster.)

Talking about his movie's soundtrack to Sight & Sound magazine, Durkin explained, "I always try to find ways to show an emotion without having to hear someone talk. I thought playing a song named after Martha - supposedly named after her - would be a way to do it. They're ["Marcy's Song" and "Marlene"] rather beautiful songs, but they're very painful too, underneath the surface."

Watch John Hawkes play "Marcy's Song."

Jonathan Romney, writing in Sight & Sound, describes the importance of John Hawkes' rendition of this song to the film's narrative. In a crucial scene, Hawkes' character Patrick - the charismatic-but-manipulative leader of a rural community of outsiders (the word "cult" is never uttered in the film) - plays the song for Martha, whom he has rechristened "Marcy May."
Like Manson - who was a songwriter, or at least managed to persuade The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson that he was one - he also has a way with a tune. In a memorable scene, Patrick - who, as incarnated by Hawkes, resembles Bruce Springsteen on a hunger strike - charms the newly renamed Martha with a song supposedly just for her...As performed by Patrick, this sweet, contemplative number becomes at once coy and sinister in its reduction of its love object to a lifeless image: "Well, she's just a picture." Frank's starker "Marlene," played over the end credits, is no less unsettling.

Listen to Jackson C. Frank play "Marlene."

In terms of tone, Frank's voice reminds me of the dark, smokey timbres of Richard Thompson. No wonder Frank eventually found his way to be involved with Sandy Denny, erstwhile singer with Thompson's Fairport Convention.

How obscure was Frank? Well, his Wikipedia entry reads: "Jackson Carey Frank (March 2, 1943 - March 3, 1999) was an American folk musician. Although he released only one official album in his lifetime and never achieved much commercial success, he is reported to have influenced several better-known singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon and Nick Drake."

In fact, Paul Simon produced Frank's album back when the pair were playing the folk club circuit in England. Frank was allegedly so introverted during the recording sessions that he asked to be shielded by screens so that Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Al Stewart (who also attended the recording) could not see him. The album's most famous track, "Blues Run the Game," was later covered by Simon and Garfunkel (it appears as a bonus track on the 2001 CD reissue of The Sounds of Silence), Bert Jansch, Counting Crows, and even privately recorded by fellow introvert Nick Drake (look for it on the 2007 compilation CD of home recordings Family Tree).

Listen to S&G play "Blues Run the Game."

Here's Bert Jansch's rendition of "Blues Run the Game."

And here's Nick Drake's take on "Blues Run the Game."

Another Frank song, "Milk and Honey," appeared in Vincent Gallo's film The Brown Bunny, and was also covered by Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and Sandy Denny (whom Frank dated for a while).

Listen to Jackson C. Frank play "Milk and Honey."

Frank's life was truly a hard-luck story. According to Wikipedia, Frank took a trip to New York City in 1984 "in a desperate bid to locate Paul Simon, but he ended up sleeping on the sidewalk." Living on the street and frequently admitted and discharged from various institutions, he was treated for paranoid schizophrenia and later was shot in the eye and blinded while sitting on a bench in Queens. He died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on March 3, 1999, at the age of 56.

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