Jackson C. Frank, Jackson C. Frank
Columbia Records, December, 1965
Track Listing: 1. Blues Run the Game, 2. Don’t Look Back, 3. Kimbie, 4. Yellow Walls, 5. Here Come the Blues, 6. Milk and Honey, 7. My Name Is Carnival, 8. I Want to Be Alone, 9. Just Like Anything, 10. You Never Wanted Me
“Round and round the burning circle
All the seasons one, two and three”
-from “Milk and Honey”
Sometimes, late at night, I remember the fires. I remember summers long ago and the red glow of my mother’s cigarette in the dark as she sipped her bourbon alone outside on the front porch. I remember the sun. A sun so hot and bright it chased my brother and me indoors only to pull the drapes tightly and watch old war and Western films on TV. I remember the smell of Nevada rain and the wet dust. The long cold pellets of water that fell from the sky in the late afternoon. The summer showers stopped so quickly you didn’t even have time to put your arms out and catch the rain. The air and earth quickly became hot and dry all over again even before the clouds passed.
I remember the gnarled branches of sagebrush and their chalky stems that were twisted and cracked like old Paiute faces. I remember the yellow flames of blossoms that grew from their tops and smelled like cat piss when you rubbed them together with your fingers. I remember chaffs of dry cheatgrass biting into my socks and ankles as we road through the brush near the sewers on our bicycles. I remember the water fights. The forts. The jumping ramps. The urban legends. The science fiction stories. The teenage girl who said she was a witch and put a hex on us sitting out on the rock wall next door. I remember sleeping outside at night in the cool grass of our front lawn watching the blazing light of the stars as the wind moved through the cottonwood trees. I remember the chattering of sprinklers at dusk. The crack of red light at morning. The blinding flash, white like lightning, reflecting from trailer roofs at midday. But most of all I remember the fires.
“Sad music in the night
Sings a scream of light out of chorus’’
-from “My Name Is Carnival”
Mom was scared. We had brushfires all the time but never one like this and never so close. The dogs in the valley were howling restlessly. The Panther Valley Fire Department alarm was moaning like it was thirty seconds over Tokyo. Neighbors were standing outside on their porches and lawns watching mesmerized and pointing towards the hills. You could see it all in plain view on top of the far hill moving slowly. It was not raging or towering or crackling high with leaping flames like a forest fire. No, it was much more ominous, silent and creepy, like a thin crescent eclipse of the sun. Like a string of red-hot Christmas lights on the roof. The fire was a long, thin line of lava glowing like casino neon over a pitch-black horizon. The smoke smelled like old dead sheds and worn saloons, burnt, like Black Rock cattle bones. It was moving with the evening breeze and seemed to make the whole darkness of the night even darker than before. Dad was at work and we were all alone at home with Mom who was on the phone talking nervously a mile a minute to our neighbor discussing when and what to do.
We were listening to the live reports on TV. Mom kept saying if it reached the train tracks a couple of miles away then we’d pack up and leave. My brother and I were on the kitchen counter looking at it through the window. It was strange and haunting and wild but we couldn’t take our eyes off it. We had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and Big Foot that summer but that was nothing compared to this. Mom said it would push the coyotes and snakes towards our house. My brother and I had never seen a coyote or rattlesnake up close but we could always hear the coyotes late at night in the distance and knew that rattlesnakes crawled up inside your sleeping bag for warmth outside while you were camping. But something about tonight was just plain wrong and we didn’t like the look on Mom’s face or how she was talking on the phone now and we were scared, too.
“Yellow walls that shine like silver
Dark green windows stare never closed”
-from “Yellow Walls”
In the morning it was gone. We woke up and the sun cracked open again just like it always did atop the valley hills. We switched on the cartoons and poured a bowl of milk and cereal just like we always did and it seemed like nothing had ever happened. When we went outside the lawn looked the same as did the fence and dirt road. But we noticed up on the far hill a long and mysterious field of black running along the ridge with light smoke puffing from the ashen earth.
But this would not disturb our day. We had transistor radios to turn on and Estes rockets and homemade bolt mini parachutes that needed to be thrust and flown up into space just like the Saturn V. We had cut-offs and water pistols and garden hoses. We had army men and tanks and trucks and horses. We had cookies and soda pop in the afternoon at our neighbor’s house where we listened to Jesus Christ Superstar. In the hot afternoon we would sit under their willow tree on our neighbor’s lawn while the older boys talked about mystical books and transcendental meditation.
Mom went to work at the bottling company like she always did and Dad was back home from his night shift as a chef and was now fixing greasy brakes under the blue fiberglass dune buggy. Our old dog Kasper was there sleeping in the middle of the driveway just like he always did. Our bikes were waiting all shiny and new and there were endless hiking trails and roads leading up above our valley that needed to be explored. Especially the new black planet just landed on our hill just like out of Planet of the Apes. There were old car hoods and tin cans and bullets to find ditched in the gullies and brush. Popsicles in the freezer. We would plug in the air conditioner. Take naps under it on the couch and let the cool air blow down on us while we read The Green Lantern and Mad magazine.
We would move on and grow older and graduate from school and become busy and ultimately go away. We would not see the fires again for a very long time and not truly realize or understand their meaning, but it would always be there with us. Deep inside like some blue electrical charge striking the center of our being.
“Painting nightlight in searching questions
Cannot catch the shadow that is me
Running naked and unmentioned
Through the death of a saltless sea”
-from “Yellow Walls”
Sometimes they are in the eyes of strangers who pass by me. I can see them in the headlights on the road late at night. I have seen them there deep in the gentle ones, the artists and poets and the seeking prophets. The wandering ones. The lost ones. Jackson C. Frank was saved from a school fire but was disfigured physically and mentally for life. That didn’t stop him from touching the flashing center of the universe and creating one of the most beautiful albums ever made. His only album ever made.
I think of all the hot fires pushing all the lonely Atlantic steamers across the oceans, liners such as the one that took my father 3rd class from Europe in the ’50s to Canada to California and ultimately to the Northern Nevada valley where we grew up. Maybe the same liner took Jackson C. Frank the other way to England where he fled as a damaged, unknown folk singer in the ’60s. Arriving only to perform alone in the lonely folk cafes of London. Or perhaps it was the fires pushing the long black ships that never made it back across the Atlantic, sinking like hissing shooting stars in the desolate middle of that which is night.
I think of all of this sometimes. The lights. The fires. The dusty valley under the hot sun. The glow in the dark and the tragic southern heart of my mother. The hot spark deep within her beautiful soul and sweet Virginian eyes. Fiery blue like mystic Indian flames. Blue passed down through the ages in flickering genes to my very own blue eyes. Mad eyes of every mad poet and mad soul who ever wandered this earth. Paul Simon, too, then young and unknown, the man who championed and produced this album. Jackson, the dreamer and maimed misfit turning all the pain into beauty. Burning like a sizzling star in the night. All the suns above. All the love and joy and happiness. Blazing like fierce desert brushfire, deep and pungent. Flames in the night.