Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Bob Frank: By The Light Of The Lamp

(review by Bill Glahn)

The first time I heard Bob Frank on the radio was in 1972, while travelling from Biloxi, Mississippi to Pine Bluff, Arkansas in a ’64 Chevy Impala SS– a journey with dubious motives. I loved that car and I loved the sounds coming out over KAAY’s Beaker Street program (Little Rock, AR). Back in New Jersey, a few month’s later, while I lay in a drug or alcohol induced stupor, a future in-law “borrowed” my keys to drive a mutual friend home. He hit four parked cars before he got to the end of the block, continued at high-speed from the scene of the crime, hitting a telephone pole about a mile further on. Fortunately, no one was hurt beyond a broken arm to the passenger. But that Chevy was toast.

In the March 2000 (final) issue of Live! Music Review, I wrote a story for our Roll The Tapes column about a recording of Bob Frank that had been passed to me by a Little Rock collector of rare tapes. Recorded at the Old Quarter in Houston circa 1973, the tape featured only one or two songs from the Vanguard album I had heard on Beaker Street plus a whole slew of unreleased ones – songs like “Cane Break,” “Bugs,” “Chipmunk,” & “Spring Fever” – songs focused on love and nature. Somewhere in that article I expressed that there was a gnawing, queasy feeling of “whatever happened to Bob Frank?”

What happened is this. Bob’s career on Vanguard met the same fate as that Chevy car. And at about the same time.

Bob explained it to me in a 2002 interview. “Vanguard wanted me to go on a tour. I said, not right now. Here’s how complicated the human mind is - what I really wanted to do was, jump right up and go on tour. That’s what I really wanted to do. But the words that came out of my mouth were, ‘No, not yet. I have a newborn baby, I have a garden.’ And what I was thinking at that time was, ‘Fuck these guys. They didn’t do what I wanted when I wanted it, so I won’t do what they want when they want it.’ I am not a very intelligent person. Never have been. Here’s what I thought. ‘Now that I have this album out, I will be famous overnight. Once people hear this album, they will come and buy it, and tell their friends and their friends will buy it, and whether I go on a tour or not, this album will sell itself, just because I am that fucking good!’

“Well, I knew nothing about distribution or promotion. Nothing about how to sell an album, how it works. How you have to advertise it. You have to promote it. You have to convince the public that this is the album they want. I had no clue about all of this. So, later on, I told ‘em, okay, I’m ready to go on tour now. And they said, not so fast. First you have to prove yourself. We’ll set up a gig at Max’s Kansas City, you play there. If we think you’re ready, then we’ll set up the tour. So, once again, I figure, Fuck these guys. (I used to love to say that. Fuck these guys. Made me feel independent.)

“So, I proceeded to fuck ‘em. I got up there and played every song I could think of except the songs that were on the album. When they requested ‘em, I said ‘If you want to hear songs from the album, go buy the album.’ (Manager) Cletus Haegert tells me I said this, I didn’t remember saying it but when he told me, it came back to me in a vague sort of way.

“I played all these song I’d just written about my garden and my baby. I stupidly thought these sophisticated New Yorkers were ready for this. I was ready for it. I thought the songs on the album were old hat already. I thought I was forging ahead. Blazing new trails. Heading off into uncharted territory. The trouble was, nobody wanted to go there but me. If I had played the songs off that album, I probably would have become famous overnight, because that was THE club back then.
“All the press was there. All the gossip mongers, the word would have been out. And they would have loved those songs at that time, because that’s about exactly where those folks were at. The glorification of alcohol and dope. (Songs like Wino, Return To Skid Row Joe, Memphis Jail, and Judas Iscariot in which Jesus and his Disciples were wine guzzlers and hash smokers.) Degeneracy at its most enticing. They would have ate it up.

“But here’s the story. I was stubborn. And I was drunk. I was stoned. And I was a romantic. I was living in a dream world.”

There are other reasons, of course. All you have to do is look at Buffy St. Marie’s Vanguard albums from the same period. Vanguard wasn’t Folkways. Although they had a reputation as an artist’s label with a social conscience, they also had a close eye on the popular charts. As with those Buffy albums, session musicians were often brought in at Vanguard’s “request.” Bob Frank’s self-titled album was no different. Frank hated Eric Weisberg’s overdub on “Judas Iscariot.” (the version appearing above was a re-recorded version from Keep On Burning.)

“Weisberg’s guitar was played with a pick, very strongly and very clearly, and also, alas, very boringly. He uses no dynamic fluctuation. Same force all the way through. Ruined it.” And Vanguard followed trends. The Summer of Love only lasted one summer and that was 5 years past. They didn’t want love songs. They wanted edgy. But not too edgy. Witness the other extreme, Patrick Sky. When  presented with the satirical “Songs That Made America Famous” he got the boot as well.

So, if Bob Frank’s musical career came crashing to an end, life didn’t. Frank forged one with a different set of rewards – a union job, four children, a Buddhist faith, with the same wife that he traveled around with all those years ago – and he never stopped writing songs. As he began to approach retirement in 2002, he started releasing albums again.

There have been some great ones – Keep On Burning (produced by Jim Dickinson and featuring members of the North Mississippi All-Stars), an acoustic collection of labor songs - Pledge of Allegiance, a collection of murder ballads with fellow southerner John Murry – World Without End,, and a splashing of near-great ones along the way. But other than one or two of the songs on that Old Quarter tape Frank has not gone back to those love and nature songs he used as a weapon against Vanguard.

But with life comes death. His wife, Deirdre, passed in 2014. By the Light of the Lamp contains those love and nature songs she fell in love with all those years ago. This is his tribute album to her - recorded the way he wanted to record them. And released at a time when love, again, is on the minds of a new generation. This time, Bob Frank got the timing right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Horses In The Rain (a short story by Bill Glahn)

The doors of St. Hyacinths were always open. According to diocese regulation, they were to be locked from dusk until dawn, but St. Hyacinths’ material assets had been looted years ago. “Through the back door,” Father John liked to say.

One morning, he found a wino sleeping in a back pew. Another time it was a homeless family enjoying a little shelter from the elements. Once, a criminal with a conscience was waiting for the confessional to open. Often, there'd be a drug addict crashing to earth.

This morning, the church was empty except for an elderly man sitting in one of the center pews. Not next to the aisle as most people did. No. This man had left some room between himself and the aisle, as if expecting company.

On the other side of the man sat a dog. Not just any dog. This dog was massive – some kind of giant breed reminiscent of the kind you might see in woodcarvings from centuries ago. A large head with ears that hung down in a relaxed position. Tall and big boned, no excess fat.

The man sat tall and straight. “Well fit and exercised,” thought Father John. “Not usual for a man his age around here.” The dog also sat tall and straight, butt on the bench in human fashion with back legs tucked under its torso, front legs stretched all the way to the floor. Both man and dog sat motionless, eyes fixed forward, as if watching the closing credits roll on a particularly fine movie.

As Father John approached, neither the dog nor man turned. Father John moved into the open space next to the man and sat down. The dog and man continued to look forward.

“Seeing-eye dog?” It was the best conversation starter the priest could come up with.

The man turned his head to face Father John. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose.”

“My name is Father John. I’m the pastor here at St. Hyacinth.”

“I know. I’ve lived a couple blocks from here since long before you arrived. Folks around here call me Billy.” He didn’t offer his hand. “I was an altar boy here almost seventy years ago. Haven’t been in the building much since.” He nodded toward the dog. “My friend is named Bonnie. At least that’s what I’ve called her.”

“Well, welcome back, Billy,” offered the priest. Billy made no response. Bonnie continued to look straight ahead.

Father John decided to make a pitch. “We’re having a Mass in a few hours to honor our newest saint, Mother Teresa. Would you care to stay for that?”

“Can’t say that I would. She’s no saint to me.”

The priest was well aware that there were some objections to the canonization of Mother Teresa.

“I understand your position. I have to believe that Mother Teresa was following her faith in her approach to comforting the poor and sick in Calcutta. I, myself, often struggle with knowing which is the correct path – often wondering if my own actions are causing harm in this community. In the end, I have to follow my own instincts and my faith in God.”

“And when you are approaching death,” Billy answered, “will you still maintain your faith that heaven awaits? Or will you do as Mother Teresa did and trot the globe looking for medical relief?”

“I have to believe that I will follow my faith,” answered the priest.

Billy eyed the priest. “You know, John… Humans are the only species on earth that can lie to themselves. Except maybe the occasional horse in the rain."

The priest waited.

"Some horses will stand out there, still as a picket fence, convinced that if they don’t run for shelter, the rain will stop any minute. Until the rain kills them. But only fenced horses do that. They learned it from humans.”

The priest thought before responding. “So you hold it against Mother Teresa that she was human?”

Billy delivered his response with the words of a battle-hardened shop steward, but with the soothing calmness of a man at peace with the world. “No, I don’t hold that against her. What I hold against that whore is that she went into a society that believed all animals have souls and contaminated it with her belief that they don’t.”

For the first time, Bonnie turned to look at the priest. Eyeball to eyeball.

Father John didn’t feel physically threatened by the dog. But he squirmed nonetheless.


Liam Sanchez, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a mother of Irish descent, earned the nickname “Billy the Kid” from his reputation as a union and neighborhood activist. That reputation was one of being “quick on the draw.” Over time, “The Kid” would become a passing legacy. Now it was just “Billy.”

Billy’s family had been among the first to take advantage of The Fair Housing Act of 1968, infiltrating a neighborhood previously elevated to “white” status by Polish immigrants.

Billy’s mother hadn’t wanted to attend Sunday Mass in “Polak Town.” She’d preferred the Irish parish where she’d grown up. Liam’s father said no: “We are part of this community now and we will attend church at St. Hyacinths.” Thus, the seeds of Billy’s activism were sown.

After families like the Sanchezes moved in, white people moved out, and the banks, stores, and factories along with them. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be a blending of culture, the great American melting pot. But the neighborhood fell apart, and in his middle years, Billy rarely ventured out of the house his father had bought so many years ago. His one remaining pleasure was sitting on his front porch during the rains that provided some relief from the blistering heat of late August. It was a lonesome and isolated pleasure at best.

On just such a day, Billy was watching the steam rise from the asphalt, when through the mist strode a giant four-legged beast.

It walked steadily past Pulaski Park -- now commonly referred to as “Needle Park” -- and on down several blocks, seeming to grow even larger as it passed St. Hyacinths. Head up, it sniffed the air, not the ground.

“Poor creature,” Billy thought, “doesn’t know where home is.” Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” played in his head.

The dog reached Billy’s house and made its first diversion. It turned up the steps onto Billy’s front porch, where it shook the rainwater from its fur, spraying everything, including Billy. Billy laughed in delight, his first real laugh in years. Then the dog, tired from its journey, lay down and went to sleep, placing its chin on Billy’s left foot.

“Well, Girl, I guess you deserve some rest.”


It had been a week since Girl had wondered onto Billy’s porch. Despite putting up flyers all around the neighborhood, Billy had received not one call about this majestic “found dog.” He was quickly becoming attached and close to giving her a name besides “Girl.”

A visit to the vet followed where Billy was given the advice, “This is a very old dog. Daily walks will keep her from stoving up. They would probably do you some good too.” Billy had found a reason to leave the house. And anyway -- Girl had been doing her own urging.


Billy looked up from the park bench while Girl stood, excited, then bolted for the young lady, dressed in a fast-food uniform, with deep circles under her eyes. Billy had seen eyes like these before, premature aging from the necessity of working more than one job. The woman crossed the street from the bus stop and ran toward the dog.

Girl acted as though she had just come across a close friend, one not seen in years. Tail wagging, giving “doggie kisses,” she rubbed her coat against the young woman’s legs as she circled around her.

Billy’s heart sank a little, at the thought that Girl had been found. But if that was the way it would be, it was only right.

“Hi, my name is Lucy,” said the woman as she reached out to shake Billy’s hand.

“Folks call me Billy. You seem to know this pooch. Is she yours?”

“No,” she answered, as Girl fawned around her, “but my grandfather had a dog that looked exactly like her.”

“Well she seems to know you, and she’s a stray. Maybe she’s the same dog?”

“She couldn’t be. My grandfather died ten years ago. Bonnie went missing the same day. But Bonnie was old then. She was the greatest dog - a stray when my grandpa found her. A super companion for him in the last years of his life.”

“Sure this isn’t the same dog?”

“It isn’t possible. But I’ll admit she sure acts like Bonnie.” Dog and woman looked into each other’s eyes. “Do you bring her here a lot? I work every day but Sunday, but I’d like to stop by and visit. Maybe bring my kids.”

“Sure. I’d like that. And in honor of your grandpa and his dog, I’ll name her Bonnie.”


“So, if you haven’t come for mass, what brings you to St Hyacinths? You don’t look like one of our early morning customers.”

“I’m going to die,” replied Billy.

The priest weighed the words for a moment.

“We’re all going to die. What is it you seek? Perhaps a moment in the confessional?”

“No. Can’t say that I would welcome that.”

“Last Rites are usually given near the final moments. Are you that close? Is it cancer?”

“Very close, or so Bonnie tells me. You’ve been chosen as Bonnie’s next companion.”

The priest went silent again as he collected his thoughts. Mental illness was something he encountered on an almost daily basis. But this was different.

“You’ve chosen me to take care of your dog? Certainly you can’t be serious. I have a flock to administer to. There are plenty of rescue dog operations that could find Bonnie a good home.”

“Oh, I didn’t choose you,” said Billy. “Bonnie did.”

Bonnie turned toward the priest for a second time.

 “I’ve put some dog food, Bonnie’s favorite blanket, and a list of instructions in her bag.”

With that, Billy kissed Bonnie goodbye, got up, and walked out of Father John’s church for the last time. Bonnie remained seated next to the priest.

Father John opened the bag and took out a three-page, detailed list. Among the instructions were the following…

“Take Bonnie to the park daily. Relax on a park bench for a spell. Wear your civies. A priest’s collar reflects authority, the people you seek to help fear that. Folks will approach you and tell their stories. Listen, don’t preach.”

And the final instruction?

“Trust Bonnie.”

Father John decided to keep Bonnie while he sought out a good home for her. For the first few days, Bonnie followed Father John around like a shadow. She slept near the front door of the rectory, occasionally venturing to an open window to sniff the night air. On the third night, she sniffed, let out a slight whimper, and proceeded to Father John’s bedroom. She jumped onto the foot of his bed and went to sleep with her chin resting on his feet.


Father John entered the unlocked doors of St. Hyacinth, now a community center, with his faithful canine companion at his side.

Sleeping in a back pew, still under the influence, was a new face. The dog walked up to the woman and started to lick her weary face. Awakening to what she believed to be a hallucination, the woman, in a voice just barely audible, asked “Bonnie?”

The dog slipped into the pew, lying down at the woman’s feet, and rested with her.

Father John knew his time on the planet was nearing an end.

[Thanks go out to Daniel Wolfe who kindly served as editor, keeping me focused, and offering encouragement throughout the writing process. Also to Peter Lewis for writing a song that has stuck with me for almost a half-century. And to Sally G, my constant companion. She's got soul. BG]