In 1972, we lived in Memphis, TN. Me, and my mom and dad. We made long trips to Florida, ten-hour drives in a white Ford van. We listened to eight-track tapes along the way, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. And more than we listened to anyone else, we listened to Bob Frank.
Bob Frank, “the greatest songwriter you never heard of.” Legendary Memphis music producer Jim Dickinson said that about him, and it’s true. He’s achieved a sort of cult status now, among aficionados of our regional music. A bit like Big Star’s Alex Chilton. But outside of Memphis, you are hard pressed to find someone who’s ever heard of Bob Frank.
Robert Landis Frank was born in Memphis, TN, in 1944. He played in the local bars and sold his songs, to make ends meet. In 1966, he was drafted. Spent two years in Vietnam. He came back home to Memphis and met Deidre, the girl he would marry.
Bob Frank was a songwriter, who played his own songs and sang them. He had a world-weary voice with a country music twang, and he wrote songs about people. Some you knew, some you had only heard of. Some of the people in Bob Frank’s songs, you didn’t want to know. They were junkies and they were winos. They rifled through dead men’s pockets.
In ’72, my mom and dad and I rolled down back roads and two-lane black tops, Bob Frank singing all the way. Beautiful songs, about not-so beautiful people.
The guy flat on his back, in the Memphis City Jail.
The guy who kills his girlfriend, then goes to bed with her sister.
The guy who gives you a taste for free because he knows you’ll be back for more.
Where does it go. Where does innocence go when it’s lost. If you lose your keys, they’re somewhere. On the kitchen counter instead of the nightstand. No one says, have you seen my innocence. It was behind the orange juice, next to the salsa.
No one talks about love that’s lost as if it were coins in an old sofa.
No one, except Bob Frank.
His debut album was simply titled “Bob Frank”. It was released in 1972 on Vanguard Records, and the twelve songs on that vinyl disc were as different from one another as the people their lyrics portray.
Bob Frank was seventy-five when he died on July 18, 2019. In his day, he was sort of a mash-up, of William Burroughs and Woody Guthrie. But he was a bit out of step with his time. There were no Bob Frank songs that said, have sympathy for the devil. There’s none I can recall that said, all you need is love.
The songs themselves are beautiful, but the tales they tell are gritty. No one asks where innocence goes, in Bob Frank’s world.
Love’s a ring in a pawn shop. A commodity. An exchange.
There’s no condemnation, and no absolution. Lost innocence is a given, and the devil in that world has your eyes, and knows your name.