Brilliant Songs #25: Jackson C. Frank’s “Marlene”

We all have a core narrative or two or three by which we define our lives, a kind of baseline that self-identifies us and courses through a good part of our relations with the world. Often, they owe at least something to hard luck and trouble overcome—the classic hero’s journey that serves as the core for so many novels, self-help tomes and Hollywood movies.

Sometimes, however, hard luck and trouble just get worse, with even more woe piling on and beating down defenseless souls who can’t seem to catch a break, or who lack the emotional agility and resilience to climb out from under misfortune’s wreckage.

So goes the tragic life story of Buffalo, New York-born singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank, a one-time friend and esteemed fellow musician of Paul Simon and many other luminaries of the 1960s. Simon produced Frank’s eponymous first (and only) studio album in 1965 in London, where both young men had moved to advance their careers.

Art Garfunkel was there, Simon sang some backup, and Al Stewart added some guitarwork, but the album caused no waves upon its release. It attracted interest, as so often happens, only over time, with Frank, as you will see below, already on a long descent borne of the kind of luck that would make the biblical Job himself bow down in solidarity.

But what a set of songs he left behind, including a later reissue of his original album that added the haunting and beautiful “Marlene.”

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One horrific event involving physical and emotional devastation in his childhood became the dominant narrative of Frank’s life forever after (although other tragedies followed).

When he was 11 years old in March, 1954, an explosion and fire roared through the wooden annex building of his elementary school in Cheektowaga, New York during, ironically enough, his sixth-grade music class.

The annex had been appended to the school’s main brick building to accommodate the post-World War II baby boom. A faulty boiler was the suspected cause, but the situation was made all the worse by locked windows that would not open, requiring children to break glass and jump out while getting sliced up by the jagged shards that remained.

Fifteen of Frank’s classmates died, 10 of them rendered to ash on the classroom floor and five more who soon died  in hospitals. Frank himself suffered burns over 50% of his body, his burning back finally snuffed by the snow his fellow classmates applied.

He also suffered a wrecked thyroid from the ordeal, leading to lifelong health problems that were exacerbated by long bouts of clinical depression and social withdrawal.

The story of the fire made national news and resulted in many changes to school building regulations and fire procedures.

And among the dead: Frank’s childhood sweetheart “Marlene.”

Let’s give a listen, with accompanying lyrics and gorgeous, artful imagery, to the song he wrote in honor of her some 22 years later.

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Creative work in the form of music, painting, tending a garden or carving wood often serve a therapeutic purpose. Such activities can take on greater urgency and need for those who have suffered tragedy on the scale that Frank and his surviving classmates endured.

A retrospective 1997 article in the Buffalo News on the 43rd anniversary of the fire featured interviews with multiple survivors who described a kind of psychological wasteland in which the children were discouraged from ever talking or thinking about the tragedy.

No counselors descending en masse on the school grounds and hospital rooms, and the existence of such exotica as “PTSD” was still far in the future. Everyone was left to bear their trauma and grief alone.

We can view “Marlene” as Frank’s attempt at some type of healing from the horror and stiff-upper-lip repression the prevailing mores of the time required, but that makes these lines all the more devastating:

My friends in the bars, hell they only see the scars
And they do not give a damn, they do not give a damn
That I loved you

And then this:

To fly, to fly away, was the lesson
And though the fire had burned her life out, it left me little more
I am a crippled singer, and it evens up the score

How’s that for a perfect and profound encapsulation of survivor’s guilt, Frank feeling barely more alive than his dead beloved and figuring that perhaps the ruin of his own life “evens up the score?”

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Frank made a stab at family life upon his return from London in 1966, marrying a former model by whom he had a son and daughter. But his son died in infancy from cystic fibrosis and his marriage soon ended, deepening Frank’s depressive free-falls, intensifying his drinking, and eventually rendering him homeless.

Sitting on a park bench one afternoon, he was randomly shot at by youths out cavorting with a pellet gun, the pellet finding his left eye and leaving it blinded.

That’s the kind of fate that seemed fo meet Frank at every turn, eerily foreshadowing (and justifying) the claim he made on the lead song (“Blues Run the Game”) of his album many years earlier:

Wherever I have gone
Wherever I’ve been and gone
Wherever I have gone
The blues come followin’ down

Still, rather than having fallen into history’s dustbin, he is widely recognized by musical cognoscenti today as the real goods. Simon & Garfunkel covered “Blues…”, as has the late (and equally admired and melancholic) Nick Drake, John Renbourn, Al Stewart, Counting Crows, John Mayer, Sandy Denny, and Fairport Convention.

“Rolling Stone” magazine called Frank “The greatest singer-songwriter you never heard of,” while Renbourn told the following to the British newspaper “The Guardian” in 2014 regarding the time he spent with Frank in London:

“He was the opposite of the loud American….He wasn’t promoting himself or bragging at all. I was knocked out whenever I heard him play…Jackson Frank was a lot more highly thought of on the scene than Paul Simon was. But Paul Simon rose to fame and prominence and Jackson Frank just dropped into oblivion.”

That oblivion is steadily fading now as Frank’s music gets circulated via the Internet. Spotify shows 309,000 monthly listeners, with “Blues Run the Game” (see and listen below) leading the download count at 22.65 million.

“Marlene,” written a decade later, vividly illustrates the downward health spiral Frank endured in the interim. His voice is crystalline and authoritative in “Blues…”, a musician’s musician telling it how it was.

He may have suffered the blues, but the music would play on, dammit, the upbeat pace and pretty melodic line showing the way.

By the time he got back to a studio for “Marlene,” however, his voice had rasped and faded, reflecting a more desperate and beaten man, still standing up and summoning tremendous power from his story, keeping Marlene alive to his memory with each extended note (“The ghost of her hai-ai-ai-ai-airrrrr…”) but the effort exhausting him.

Frank would live another 20 years, some of them on the streets, some in hospitals, a few of them with his parents until his mother returned home one day from the hospital where she had endured open heart surgery to find his bed empty and no note on the table.

Frank had taken off for New York City hoping to find Paul Simon. He didn’t, and he wound up on the sidewalks, interspersed with long stints in mental hospitals while his mother feared he had died.

Finally, a concerned fan teamed up with a music professor fond of his work to help him get settled in Woodstock in the early 1990s, where Frank got connected enough to assist with album compilations of demo tapes and such to help raise some money, though performing was out of the question.

He died of pneumonia in Massachusetts in 1999, age 56. The final refrain of “Marlene” had been a plea:

And do me a favor God, won’t you let Marlene come in
Do me a favor God, won’t you let Marlene come in 

One can only hope that if indeed there were a God in the habit of granting favors, there could be few souls more deserving of recompense than Frank himself, entitled, for all his earthly sufferings, to all the beneficence the heavens can muster in welcoming him and his guitar, meeting up with his Marlene again—and strumming for eternity.

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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Silhouetted singer by Sam Mogadam Khamseh, Tehran, Iran  https://unsplash.com/@sammoqadam

Shadow woman by Felicity Lynn, Alberta, Canada  https://unsplash.com/@felicity_dargis

Fire by Amador Loureiro  https://unsplash.com/@amadorloureiroblanco

Frank portrait from an album cover

11 comments to Brilliant Songs #25: Jackson C. Frank’s “Marlene”

  • Al  says:

    Thanks for this heartfelt tribute to Jackson Frank’s life and music, Andrew. I cut my teeth on Simon and Garfunkel tunes as a teen learning guitar but was unaware that they’d covered Jackson Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” until our daughter Hanna sang it to us during one of her visits. As is the case with many songs, this one means so much more to me now that I know so much of his backstory.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Bet that was a special performance, Al, thanks for sharing this lovely anecdote!

      I read in one report that Paul, Art, Al Stewart and Frank all shared a house for a time in London. Fun to think about what might’ve gone on there (aside from filthy counters & clothes piled up in corners). Of course, no struggling singers could possibly afford to rent a big house in London today—just one more way our world has changed…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Until today, the name Jackson C. Frank and his song “Marlene” were unknown to me. His plaintive voice and equally mournful guitar fully capture the agony he still felt over Marlene’s death some two decades before. In some ways, I find a little of Jackson C. Frank and “Marlene” in Phil Ochs and his song “Changes”. Both folk-rock singers were beset with never resolved emotional issues, and both songs are hauntingly beautiful. I was fortunate enough to see Phil Ochs perform at the Troubadour a year or two before his suicide. Even though his voice and health were obviously in decline, nonetheless it was a memorable night of song. Also, your mention of Paul Simon’s influence on Frank’s life made me realize more than ever the impact that coincidence, luck if you want to call it that, can have upon an artist’s career. Paul Simon moved to London in 1964 after he and Garfunkel’s acoustic recording of “The Sounds of Silence” (Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. album) failed to make a dime. In fact, its failure ended Simon and Garfunkel’s “marriage” until Tom Wilson, a Columbia Records producer, recognizing the song’s potential commerciality, gave it an electric facelift without either Simon or Garfunkel’s permission or knowledge. The two were damn lucky Wilson had the foresight to order the remix. How Simon found out about the change is interesting as well. In the fall of 1965, while he was performing in Denmark at a number of small venues, he chanced upon a copy of “Billboard” and was shocked to see “The Sounds of Silence” at the top of its chart. Needless to say, the duo renewed their vows, proof that a Phoenix can arise from its ashes.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Phil Ochs is a keeper, for sure, and a key figure in that early folky movement. Could use his wit, honesty & insights in this age!

      One of the funny things about the Simon-Frank relationship was that Simon was still not that big a deal at the time he consented to produce Frank’s album—I don’t think he had all that much else to do! But Frank was in awe of him, Garfunkel and Al Stewart, so when they recorded the album in July ’65, Frank insisted on placing screens around himself so those guys couldn’t watch him sing. And when the engineer hit the “Record” button, he was mute for many minutes, screwing up his courage slowly from behind his screens. Stewart told an interviewer, though, that once they heard him start in, their jaws all dropped; he was that good. One can only wonder what music he could have produced if he wasn’t so physically and emotionally hobbled from the fire.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Like many I had never heard of Jackson C. Frank either, but oh my did he have a lifetime full of bad breaks, misfortune and horrible luck. I appreciated the song Marlene and the haunting images in the video… While his voice and lyrics do not deeply appeal to my musical sensibilities his story is absolutely compelling and reminds one of how much luck, fate, chance, & other factors we don’t control shape our lives (evoking deep gratitude as I reflect on my good fortune beginning with healthy happy parents & brothers and no school fires!). It is interesting that so many musicians who’ve made enormous contributions with their art/talent suffered from a variety of mental illnesses; Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Brian Wilson (Beach Boys, Nick Drake (Brit singer/songwriter), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) to name but a few. It’s sad but true that for so many of our fellow travelers in this life “blues run the game”… Being a serious music fan for over
    6 decades it is always cool to encounter someone new, like JF, that you missed along the way – thanks Drew!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So interesting that you mention Nick Drake, Kevin, since I was about to do a song of his and in listening to it on You Tube, I noted a link off to the side for Frank and “Blues Run the Game.” Well! Was about to decide on that for this iteration of “Brilliant Songs” when I noticed another link for “Marlene,” which, combined with the backstory, just knocked the proverbial chair right out from under me.

      Anyway, obscure fact here: Frank was the ONLY singer Drake ever covered—he recorded four songs of his. They were contemporaries and certainly cut from the same psychological hard-luck cloth, but I didn’t find anything about what, if any, relationship they had. Drake dying at 26 from an overdose after a painful life and no real success until after his death suggests his story may well have been even more grim than Frank’s, a competition, surely, without any winner.

      Last thing: I think his voice (at least on his earlier works such as “Blues..”) & lyrics are pretty exceptional, so just curious about exploring this matter of “musical sensibilities” and what it might be that makes his work less than deeply appealing to you. Can you identify what factors play into that assessment for you? (Occurs to me the subject of personal sensibilities might be worth exploring in some future post…) Thanks!

  • Karen Malin  says:

    The blues they run the game is one of my top ten all time favorite songs. I heard it first the Robert Redford movie “old man with a gun” sung by simon and garfunkel. Thanks for giving me the back story. I always thought it was a very sad song about a very sad person. Now I know why it seems even more poignant.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Don’t know that movie but am gonna look it up, Karen, thanks! And what’s your other nine? (Fave songs…always open to tips!)

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I saw an interview with actress Glenn Close recently in which she insisted that some sort of inner rage is the key to creative excellence. Close acknowledged that she could not fully identify her own specific target of rage but remained certain that the outrageous fortunes of life (of the many) resided somewhere deep within her. Sadly, Jackson Frank’s rage and fist-to-the-heaven-shaking was/is all too identifiable and the creative brilliance that resulted is a gift to us all. I am struck by a bit of irony in his The blues they run the game given the positive twists and turns of fate that linked him to Paul Simon. As Kevin mentions above,there is so much of our lives that are shaped and driven by the luck and fates beyond our control. I too feel gratitude for the kind turns of fate and luck in my life. The blues may run the game, and there are plenty of unforeseen doors of good fortune that have beckoned many of us as we have taken this gamble of life. Terrific post, Andrew. Thanks for the Jackson Frank introduction.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks much, Jay. I’m not sure if it’s so much rage as it may be a host of other complex psychological factors, with environmental factors on top of those. Or it may be more identifiable as rage to Close as an actor, but to someone else, or to a different kind of artist, it may manifest slightly differently, as a different quality. But many artists definitely seem to operate on some highly attuned sensitivity that not only often leads to drugs & alcohol, but can also be a result of manic depression and other mental illnesses. A former UCLA psychologist, now at Johns Hopkins, Kay Redfield Jamison, has written quite a bit about this over the years. Her “Touched With Fire,” a study of creativity & madness, has long been on my list of books to discuss here, and much of her work stems from her own experience of manic depression, which she wrote about movingly in her memoir, “An Unquiet Mind.” Highly reco’d!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Thanks for fleshing out the Glenn Close comment. “Conflicted” may serve as a more broad descriptor of the source of creative fire. I will look for “Touched with Fire.” many thanks.

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