Whatever happened to Jackson C. Frank
Andrew Means unfolds the answer....

[From Folk Roots #146/147 Aug/Sept '95]

In the folk clubs of Britain in the 60's and early 70's, many regulars would have been familiar with those lines "Living is a gamble, baby, Loving's just the same." They came from a song called Blues Run The Game and were written by a young American singer-songwriter-guitarist named Jackson Carey Frank. The original version came out in 1965 on Frank's own debut album, Jackson C Frank, produced in London by Paul Simon and featuring guitar fills on one track by Al Stewart.

Later John Renbourn included the song on his So Clear album, and Sandy Denny recorded a couple of other Frank compositions. Over the years dozens of aspiring singer-songwriter-guitarists, in far flung pubs and festivals, covered Frank's works. Denny and Roy Harper even wrote songs about him.

Adding edge to the sentiments in Blues Run The Game was the fact that , by 1970, Frank himself seemed to have vanished. Rumours tied him to exotic relationships with celebrated females, or to distant travels or fatal accidents. The truth, it turns out, is much stranger. Never did a song tell the life story of its creator more lucidly.

"Catch a boat to England, baby
Maybe to Spain.... Wherever I've been
and gone....
the blues are all the same.

In the mid 60's, Jackson C. Frank was indeed on a boat to England. He was a passenger on the Queen Elizabeth. With money in his hand and a passion for cars, he was on his way to find the Jaguar of his dreams.

Although still in his early 20s' life had already dealt him a much rougher hand than those transitory dreams would suggest. As an eleven-year-old he had been badly burned in a fire at his school in the town of Cheektowaga, on the outskirts of Buffalo, New York. A faulty furnace had set light to the roof of the wooden annexe which housed Jackson and his class. Eighteen children died; others suffered injuries of varying degrees. Classmates put out the fire on Jackson's back with snow, but not before he had been badly burned over more than half his body. Ironically, the class had been having a music lesson, Jackson's favourite subject. Rarely would he pick up a guitar in later life without flashbacks.

Initially the trip to England was little more than a chance to buy cars. After the usual legal delays, Jackson had been awarded $110,500 - minus a third of that sum in lawyers' fees - in a settlement from the fire. Knowing the twists life could take, Jackson preferred spending today to saving for an uncertain tomorrow. In mid-Atlantic however, he wrote the song that was to change his focus - Blues Run The Game. Though he'd been in several rock and folk groups, he says it was the first song he'd written.

London in the mid 60-'60s seems to have been the balm that Jackson had been fruitlessly seeking at home. Fellow expatriates such as Paul Simon were helping to create a thriving community of singer-songwriters, and for once Jackson felt he could be judged on the strength of his talents and not the scars, seized -up joints and pain left from the fire.

"I enjoyed the people," Jackson recalls. "Eccentricity was something that was socially acceptable. It wasn't a matter of you being crazy. Here [in the U.S.] it was automatically a matter of I was crippled, therefore I had a crazy idea in my head, therefore I was going to the mental hospital."

Evidently Jackson did make friends easily. A nineteen-year-old nurse named Sandy Denny was his 'old lady' for a while. and they lived in a house with Al Stewart, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle. His first album was a promising start, in the decorative, earnest mould of mid-60s contemporary folk. Jackson had a strong voice, robust guitar style, and a resourceful imagination. His material ranged from traditional adaptations to images from his own life - notably the metaphoric-rich My Name Is Carnival - and evocative musings about relationships.

"I thought the songs were absolutely wonderful," reflects Al Stewart, who coincidentally recorded Blues Run The Game with Bert Jansch a couple of years ago for an album entitled Acoustic Roots.

As a regular at London clubs Jackson seemed to have found his niche, although he was not immune from self-doubt. During the studio sessions for that debut album for the Columbia label, a nervous Jackson insisted on being surrounded by screens so those present -Simon, Garfunkel and Stewart - couldn't see him sing and play.

"It was probably the strangest recording session I've ever been to." Stewart says. "Even when Paul would say 'OK we're ready,' often this would be followed by two or three minutes of total silence while he [Jackson] psyched himself into singing. And then this beautiful guitar and voice would emerge."

In addition to the novelty of sharing his typical meagre folk existence with someone who drove an Aston Martin and Bentley, Stewart was impressed with Jackson's choice of attire.

"He was totally eccentric in what he would wear," Stewart says' "I mean one day he would be in standard folk outfit of blue jeans and whatever, and one day I saw him in a business suite and a bowler hat... He had this long, ragged yellow hair and he was wearing a pin-striped suit and a bowler hat. He might even have been carrying an umbrella for all I remember. The effect was startling."

Those around him theorised that he associated his money with the fire and wanted to put both behind him.

Around 1966, Jackson was indeed beginning to put money behind him. Short of funds, he went back to his home state for a couple of years. When he returned to London, Stewart found him a changed man. At first it seemed as if he could pick up where he left. People still remembered him. Roy Harper had written a song called My Friend, reportedly about Jackson. Sandy Denny was singing his material too, and a tour was arranged on which Jackson shared the bill with Fairport Convention and Al Stewart. according to Stewart, Jackson himself arrived back in England with a promising new composition entitled Four O'Clock In The Morning.

"It was very catchy," Stewart says. "Absolutely right on the ball and just the sort of thing that would have taken off."

Jackson had a slightly different recollection.

"I don't even remember a song called Four O'clock In The Morning," he counters. "I was still doing the stuff that I did in '65. I hadn't written anything new."

Stewart however insists the song was a watershed in Jackson's career, after which "He proceeded to fall apart before our eyes. His style that everybody loved was melancholy, very tuneful things," Stewart continues. "this new one, Four O'Clock In The Morning was in that style. But immediately thereafter 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, but it just did not work. There was one review that said he belonged on a psychiatrist's couch. Then shortly after that he hightailed it back to Woodstock again, because he wasn't getting work."

The final push, according to Jackson, came from Her Majesty's Government, which indicated that a foreigner approaching indigency was no longer welcome. Jackson lost heart, and headed for home.

"Maybe tomorrow honey,
Someplace down the line,
I'll wake up older...
And I'll just stop all my trying."

Events become a little sketchy in retrospect at this point. In 1969 Jackson went to visit friends in Woodstock, namesake of the famed rock festival, and stayed on to edit a local paper for a couple of years. But his misfortune was not far behind. His marriage to a former English fashion model broke up, and a baby son died of cystic fibrosis. Jackson suffered a mental breakdown, and was committed to a local hospital.

By the early 70's he was reduced to begging for favours from his former English colleagues. His attempts to break back into music came to nothing. He went to California briefly, and in the early 80's moved back to live with his parents near Buffalo.

Then in 1984, while his mother was in hospital for open heart surgery, Jackson announced that he was going to New York City - a journey of about 370 miles - to look for Paul Simon. By the time his mother was home, he was gone with no forwarding address. Bank transactions made her think for a while that he must be living in downtown Buffalo. But then the withdrawals stopped, and she concluded her son must be dead.

In Fact, Jackson's life was very much in the balance. He had reached the Big Apple, but instead of locating Paul Simon and perhaps a chance to resurrect his musical career, all he had found was a harsh hand-to-mouth existence on the street. Due to his record of mental illness, Jackson says, he was picked up by the city authorities and put in a hospital. Every nine months or so, he adds, he would have to be released to comply with the city's mental health regulations. But medication had muddled his mind. Before long, he'd be back inside.

"I couldn't make head nor tail of anything," he says. "I was living out of garbage pails and living on the street with a blanket." At times he would find old typewriters or motorcycle parts to sell, or refurbish discarded bicycle frames.

"I would go through construction sites, dumpsters and various other things," he continues. "I once got a violin that was marked '1827 Mozart'. I picked that up. They'd give me a dollar in the morning for that sort of stuff. I got some coffee and a roll, and I'd hang around for the rest of the day and maybe bum some money of the people in the street, or people that I knew would give me five bucks for a pack of cigarettes and something to eat.

Pakistani and Indian immigrants would treat this otherworldly cripple as a holy man, he remembers, offering him drinks and prayers as he wrapped himself against the world in his blanket. Music, the recourse of some of the more functional of New York's street people, was out of the question.

"I had a heartbreak," Jackson says, referring principally to the child he'd lost from cystic fibrosis. "I couldn't go back to it. I didn't have a guitar. I was being denied my rights. I was being told I was paranoid schizophrenic and treated for it, which I wasn't - it was all trauma related."

He was shunted from institution to institution. From Creedmore Hospital - where Woody Guthrie had breathed his last - he went to a home for adults in New York's Queens borough. "There were 700 people in it," he says. "All of them crazy. You can imagine what that's like for an artist, to be around crazy people for that length of time, locked up and, if you're crippled, how hard and painful it is to be locked up."

Unknown to Jackson however, someone was starting to take an interest in him. On one of his sojourns to Woodstock in the late '70s or early '80's, Jackson had sold some records to a second-hand shop. Living on government aid, he needed every extra dollar for food and other basic necessities. One day in 1983 a local music enthusiast named Jim Abbott was thumbing through albums in the shop when he came across Al Stewart's celebrated release, The Year Of The Cat, with a handwritten dedication on the cover.

"inscribed on it," says Abbott, "was 'Regards to Jackson. The Blues Run The Game, Al.' That's all it said. So I asked the proprietor of the store, 'What does that mean?' He didn't have a clue. He said Jackson's this street guy who comes in."

Jackson was no longer around to explain though, and so Abbott stored the incident in memory and went on with life. A couple of years later he came across John Renbourn's So Clear album, noticed Blues Run The Game was included , and bought it. Another four or five years went by , and Abbotts interest was piqued again by mention of Jackson in a biography of Paul Simon.

Then a couple of years ago Abbott was talking to a teacher at a local college he was attending. They had a mutual interest in folk music, and out of the blue, Abbott says, he asked the teacher whether he'd heard of Jackson C Frank.

"I hadn't even thought about it for a couple of years," Abbott admits, "and he goes, 'Well yes, as a matter of fact I just got a letter from him. Do you feel like helping a down-on-his-luck folk singer?"

Jackson had known the teacher in school and, in an attempt to leave New York City, had written to ask if there was a place he could stay in Woodstock.

Abbott phoned Jackson, and then arranged for temporary accommodation for him at a Woodstock senior citizens' home. When Abbott went down to New York to visit, he was shocked at what he saw.

"When I went down I hadn't seen a picture of him except for his album cover," Abbott says. "Then he was thin and young. When I went to see him, there was this heavy guy hobbling down the street, and I thought that can't possibly be him... I just stopped and said, 'Jackson?' and it was him. My impression was, 'Oh my God,' It was almost like the Elephant Man or something. He was so unkempt, dishevelled.

"He had nothing. It was really sad. We went and had lunch and went back to his room. It almost made me cry, because here was a 50-year-old man and all he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn't stay in tune. It was one of those hot summer days. He tried to play Blues Run The Game for me, but his voice was pretty much shot."

With Abbott's help, Jackson moved to Woodstock - not, however before one more tragic incident. Jackson was sitting across the street from the home in Queens when someone shot him at point blank, apparently just for the hell of it, blinding him in his left eye.

Today, Jackson lives in a one-room apartment in Woodstock. His health is a constant concern to those who know him. He's up to 280 pounds from a normal weight of about 150 pounds or less. Periodic weight gain is the result of a parathyroid malfunction stemming from the fire. His mother, who still lives near Buffalo, worries about his heavy smoking. And there's still a bullet lodged in his eye, she says.

One consolation is that Jackson has begun to write again and, around Woodstock at least, sings and plays guitar too. "Sometimes his voice doesn't sound too bad," Abbott says, "Nothing like it used to though. It's more gritty and gravelly, sort of like Townes Van Zandt. It's a lived-in voice... He plays everything in the same key practically."

Thanks to Abbott, BMI has resumed sending him small royalty cheques - after a break of more than 20 years. An attempt is being made also to re-issue the original album already re-issued in the UK once, by B&C Records in 1978. There's even talk of recording with a small West Coast label.

His new material is "really good", Abbott asserts. "Some of it is almost country-ish." So there's some potential there? "Oh God yeah. If the right people would pick it up."

Jackson however is less sanguine about the possibilities. Who can blame him, after all, if he feels the blues still run the game.

[Jackson C. Frank's eponymous first album was first released by EMI Columbia UK in 1965, and re-issued - with a fresh set of biographical notes by Frank - by B&C in 1978. Both are eminently collectable.]

re-printed from Folk Roots No. 146/147 Aug/Sept 1995


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