Did you know that a survey a few years ago of folks who have leisure boats in New England showed that Michael Franks was the most-played musical artist on the sound systems of those boats? You think I made that up, but I didn't. Folks in that area seem to love smooth, and no one is smoother than Michael Franks.
It's hard to imagine a universe where being smooth doesn't equate to being cool. The fit together like a hand in glove, don’t they? Cole Porter was undoubtedly both smooth and cool in his day. Would he be considered the same today? Are those tunes timeless because of their time, or because they really are that good? One can imagine that Michael Franks took Cole Porter as a sort of mentor. When discussing his song, Eggplant, from the first album I ever heard of his, The Art of Tea, Franks said, "I'd always admired the songwriting of Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter because they wrote songs that had an easy symbolism, yet were deep with other meaning. In any case, they weren't blatantly romantic. I guess Eggplant isn't, either."
Maybe its the way she grates her cheese,
Or just the freckles on her knees.
Maybe its the scallions. Maybe she's Italian.
I can't reveal her name but eggplant is her game.
When my baby cooks her eggplant,
She don't read no book.
She's got a Gioconda kinda of dirty look.
And there's the problem with Michael Franks' tunes right there. That's why I don't listen to him these days, even though there was a time when I could not imagine a time I would not be listening to him. I played The Art of Tea so many times that I actually had to buy a new copy. I'd literally worn out the grooves. And don't get me wrong: If you have never heard that album, it is important that you find a copy and listen to it. Therein lay the promise of a modern Cole Porter.
"So, what happened, dannye? Why didn't it work out?" That's a good question, grasshopper. I blame it on the smooth jazz which ruined better folks than Mr. Franks. When Charlie Parker started getting just a little too far "out there" for those who were "into" the jazz scene, some folks called him junked out, some called him crazy, some called him worse, but the end result was a loss of popularity in the mainstream and, thus, a loss of a whole lot of revenue. That's one side of the jazz coin. The other, and more insidious side, as far as I can tell, is the Kenny G elevatorization of what should have been a musical genre with at least a glimmer of an edge to it. Charlie at least had the dignity to die in heroin heaven with that rush in his arm. Kenny G will live to be old and gray and raise grandchildren, some of whom may be able to hold a Bb even longer than gramps. I can hardly wait.
I'm not saying that Michael Franks is a Kenny G. Again, don't get me wrong. But when you write a line like "She's got a Gioconda kinda dirty look," and you sing all of your tunes in a puerile voice, you are getting pretty darn close to G'ville, in my opinion. Franks calls Eggplant his favorite of all his songs.
Franks was raised in Southern California and, like many of us, played the folks' music on a guitar when he was a young teen. He went to UCLA and, like many of us, majored in English literature. He even went as far as getting a Masters Degree (as many of us did) and started working on his dissertation. It was going to be called "Contemporary Songwriting and How It Relates to Society." I thought of that one, but figured it had already been done. And this is where the similarities of ol' dannye's life and Mr. Franks' end. I entitled my dissertation "Shoot Some Heroin and Say 'Fuck It' to Grad School." The simple beauty of the title overwhelmed my committee and they suggested I toss caution to the wind and come back later on and try again, if I lived through it.
But before I give you a brief biography of this man who will be 60 years old this September 18, 2004, let me go back to the heady days of listening to that The Art of Tea. Does the concept of "The art of tea" remind you of sensei? It does me, and I really don't know why. September 18 is Virgo, which I associate with fussy and modest. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I'm panning Mr. Franks here. And I really don't want to turn you off to this fellow. I would like for you to listen to The Art of Tea and then don't listen to anything else unless you are compelled by Christ almighty to do so.
I had already fallen in love with this album before I met my future wife, but it was one of the first presents I gave her for one of those ubiquitous holidays that come around so often. This was my third purchase of this album with the black and white cover of Mr. Franks sitting in the lotus position, asking you to indulge his wit. And he is witty. The most popular song on this album became Popsicle Toes. That's one that Cole Porter might have been proud to have written. It explores the lover's anatomy and compares it to the American continents.
You've got the nicest North America
This sailor ever saw.
I'd like to feel your warm Brazil and touch your Panama.
But your Tierra del Fuegos are nearly always froze.
We've got to seesaw until we un-thaw those popsicle toes.
That's some good stuff, isn't it? The rest of the song is just as good. You should hear it. But you should let it stop there. Do not move to New England and buy a sailboat and then go out and start buying all the albums he's put out since. Maybe I'd suggest buying just one more, Sleeping Gypsy, and then quit. Unless you love that one, too. Then buy Tiger in the Rain. But stop there, for God's sake. Do not go any further! I bear no responsibility if you buy more than three of this man's albums. Listening to too many cutely formed phrases can sap the cynic right out of you, and you're going to need that as you age.
Anyway, Franks was just another grad student playing the guitar and writing songs on the side when he contributed some music to a film called Zandy's Bride. This was a Warner Bros. western starring Liv Ullman and Gene Hackman, and the studio liked what they heard. They gave him a contract and this helped finance his album projects. As with many singer/songwriters, his second real album was his best. It was the aforementioned The Art of Tea which was released in 1975. He had some of the brightest up-and-coming jazz stars on here, including Larry Carlton, Wilton Felder, other member of the Crusaders (when they were at the height of their success, after they'd dropped the "Jazz" from their name). But it was Joe Sample on keyboards with whom Franks fell in love. This was the sound he wanted and Joe Sample could do it better than anyone. He and Sample later wrote a song which Al Jarreau recorded called Somehow Our Love Survives.
came out two years later, in 1977. Franks went for more of a Gauguin gypsy
feel on this one, but it really doesn't sound all that much different than his first album. He used some Brazilian musicians and folks like Ron Carter and Bucky Pizzarelli. My favorite song on this album is called The Lady Wants to Know
. We used to play this song in a band I was in many years ago. It didn't usually go over with the crowd very well because it's so laid back
(as is almost all of Michael Franks' music), but I still love it. Here are the lyrics:
Daddy plays the ashtray.
Baby starts to cry.
The lady wants to know
The reason why.
Daddy's just like Coltrane.
Baby's just like Miles.
The lady's just like heaven
When she smiles.
And the lady wants to know,
She wants to know the reason,
Got to know the reason why.
This man has got to go.
This man is always leavin'.
How he hates to say goodbye.
But what she doesn't know
Is there really is no reason.
There really is no reason why.
Daddy he hates airplanes.
Baby loves to fly.
And the lady wants to know
The reason why.
Daddy's just like Coltrane.
Baby's just like Miles.
The Lady's just like heaven
When she smiles.
I still love that song. It's as good as it gets when it comes to Michael Franks. It's as good as Lyle Lovett.
There's close to twenty more albums out there by this guy. He's prolific, but he's not varied. I guess when you're on a sailboat out in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons and you enjoy listening to John Kerry's speaking voice, you don't really notice that they all pretty much sound alike.