Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jackson C. Frank Remembered

On March 31, 1954, gas fumes and coal dust buildup, a deadly brew if ever there was one, ignited, and a fireball flew down the corridor of a wooden annex attached to the main building at the Cleveland Hill School in Cheektowaga, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. In a room at the end of the annex, thirty one 6th graders were practicing their rhythm sticks. The door was open and the fireball blew into the room. Thirty minutes later the entire annex was burned to the ground. Fifteen students were dead and the rest were all burned in various degrees. The worst burned of these children was a boy named Jackson C. Frank. This is his story.
The fire had really done a number on young Jackson. His parathyroid glands, which regulate calcium in the body, had shut down, causing large amounts of calcium to settle in his joints instead of passing out of the body in the usual way. This resulted in a stiffening of his arms, legs, back and hips that was excruciating and permanent. Recovering from his injuries, young Jackson learned how to play the guitar, as part of his physical therapy, and he became quite proficient. He began to write songs.
In 1964, he received an insurance settlement of $80,000, a large amount for the time. He decided to take a trip to England to buy cars. While there, he began to make the rounds of the folk clubs where he had the good fortune to befriend a young American singer/songwriter named Paul Simon. Simon, just arrived on the scene himself, liked Jackson’s music so much that he brought him into a recording studio and recorded a full album’s worth of songs, including one called Blues Run the Game. Columbia-EMI Records released the album in August, 1965, and it quickly became known as a classic, and Jackson C. Frank’s future looked very promising.
Then, life happened. After a successful round of performing around Europe, Jackson began exhibiting unusual behavior, later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, and soon found himself broke and unemployable, both causes for Her Majesty’s Government to send him back to the states, which they did.
Back in the US, Jackson settled into a mundane lifestyle, playing the odd gig, living in and out of psychiatric hospitals, but mostly hanging around the village green in Woodstock, New York. In 1983, he decided to take a bus to New York City to find Paul Simon and get some money from him. There he was picked up by city officials and periodically institutionalized, spending ten years, mostly on the streets but for short periods of time in places like Creedmore. It was a demoralizing existence.
It was at the end of his ten year stretch in New York that our paths crossed, when a mutual friend got a letter to me that Jackson had written to him, asking for help. Unable to do anything, he asked me if I was willing to try. I said yes.
A few days later I drove to New York and met Jackson. He was old, obese, crippled, and in pain. I made arrangements to get him the help he needed, got him out of the city, back to Woodstock, and to a near normal existence for a while until his ailments got to be too much for him, and he needed to be placed in a supervised situation. With help from old royalties due him from various musicians’ performances, his needs were met. A couple dozen new recordings emerged, whetting the appetites of a growing legion of fans, and by the year 1999, his last, he was a full fledged cult legend, his influence acknowledged by people like Paul Simon, Al Stewart, Counting Crows and Sandy Denny and many others .
We would play music together and I like to think his last years were happy ones. He died on March 3, 1999, of pneumonia.
The blues run the game, indeed.

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