Candles, Gnarled by Pamela Murray Winters

Today we’re happy to offer Pamela Murray Winters’ gem of an essay, “Candles, Gnarled,” from our Fall 2017 issue. Pamela’s piece profiles American folk singer Jackson C. Frank, who Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke called “one of the best forgotten songwriters of the 1960s,” in his waning days. But it does so much more than that, refracting light into Pamela’s family and personal life and giving a glimpse into a book we wish existed: her abandoned biography of British folkster Sandy Denny. We can’t always get what we want, but we’re grateful for what Pamela offers here. Enjoy!

 

CANDLES, GNARLED

Jackson C. Frank had a lot of dignity for someone who sometimes peed his pants.

Entering the residential center in Great Barrington, Mass.—where the date, November 2, 1997, was by necessity posted on the wall—I tried not to show my fear. I’d told Jackson’s guardian, Jim Abbott, that I had a lot of experience with institutional settings, and it was true. But I’d been warned that Jackson was not a pretty sight. Fortunately, where my reckless imagination had anticipated a monster, I saw instead a man: at first just a greasy-haired mound under a thin blanket. We’d woken him. He lumbered to his feet.

He was like a Tenniel drawing: Humpty Dumpty in the cruelest of looking glasses. Thick through the middle, with legs and hands puffed up by arthritis or circulatory problems or too much of everything except attention. His hair was longish, curly if you’re kind, unkempt if you’re precise.

I happened to be on his “good” side most of the time, and even I could see the scars—the external ones—from the schoolhouse fire that killed his classmates and gave him both the financial means to run off to England to be a musician and the physical and emotional damage that limited that career.

He’d lost his left eye years after the fire, in a shooting. The remaining eye was blue and amazingly keen, and his speaking voice was his greatest beauty—fighting its way through a smoker’s throat, but still rich and mellow. He used erudite language the way many musicians use cannabis: a longtime habit, not an addiction, but not a fad, something quite serious.

In classic institutional fashion, he was living from smoke to smoke. They let him smoke every two hours, and he made the most of it. I don’t know enough about cigarettes to know what was wrong with his, but I’ve seen it before. Perhaps they’d been crushed, or maybe they were just cheap. They burned unevenly, with a wet look about the tips. He lit the second from the first.

Eventually I realized: they were my father’s cigarettes.

~

About Daddy. Illness-prone from birth, given to “fits” as a child, he was largely unschooled. He got menial jobs with family help. I don’t know how he passed the driver’s test; he couldn’t read more than a few words. He once was supposed to retrieve me from a high-school friend’s house; he missed the turnoff–couldn’t read the sign–and kept going. I was in Silver Spring. Eventually he called Mom from Rockville, 12 or more miles beyond where I was. Wasn’t quite sure how he got there.

Mom said he was gentle and charming and romantic. Those warm brown eyes. After they were married, she found out about the erratic behavior, the strange moods.

He was in a place called Sykesville for a time, more than once. I used to think it was a generic name—slang, like loony bin, nuthouse, etc. Years later, in adulthood, I found out it was the city of Maryland’s state mental hospital. Later, he talked of shock treatments, of 18 pills a day, of seeing lots of crazy people. I grew up with this language and these anecdotes, moving from shame to a strange pride in my knowledge of that world. Oh, I was a Daddy’s girl, even took after him: big nose, dark eyes, dark side.

In the mid-Seventies, Daddy finally got a clear diagnosis: what was then called “manic depression.” Daddy and Patty Duke and Josh Logan, Maude Findlay on TV–I guess it was the au courant malady. The benefit of publicity: finally he was able to get decent treatment; before that, he’d been lumped in with people who were generally much more obviously incapacitated by the vagaries of their brains. He held a job, he helped raise a daughter, he was functional. He was, when I visited Jackson, living in a nursing home as well. But Daddy was 80, Jackson decades younger.

I’ve tried, in memoir and poetry, to write about Daddy, tooling around the psych ward, a glint in his eye, like Maurice Chevalier in corduroy slippers. I imagine, as a title, that old saying: “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed men are kings.”

~

But I’ve wandered back to Daddy, as I often do, when I’m supposed to talk about Jackson. Back behind his room, on a cement slab-cum-veranda, between rainstorms, he sucked at those cigarettes like they were those cones that drop down from the airplane ceiling that you hope to God you never see except in the preflight film. We looked at the woods and talked about his origins near Buffalo.

“Niagara Falls is right on part of the Indian lands… Tuscarora, I guess it was, Tuscarora, Mohawk, and Iroquois as they’re generally called.” The words came like a chant: “Cayuta, Onondaga…it works out to a word COMSAT. My girlfriend who was an Indian, one of my girlfriends, who was an Indian, had it all settled out for me, told me it wouldn’t leave me or anything. I should have known—I did know when I was a little kid. But you forget. You forget everything. She was an Indian and followed me over to England, was a Mohawk, you couldn’t tell the difference between, half of her was Irish and half of her was Mohawk, and you couldn’t tell where the Irish began at all.”

It went like that, timelines and topics shifting here and there like boxes in a pickup with bad suspension. A pattern that fascinated me and that was not unfamiliar. I learned to play ping-pong in unit 2100, the psych ward at Washington Adventist Hospital. I was a visitor, never quite a resident. I listened to Daddy, manic and depressive, for years. Manic was better, at least in the short run.

I’m not bipolar. (Until I realized how unkind it was, I used to joke that if I were, I’d get more work done than I do as a garden-variety depressive.) Nevertheless, I was then chasing the sort of grandiose goal that families of the afflicted learn to look out for in their mood-swinging loved ones. I had decided to write a biography of Sandy Denny—despite never having written anything so big, and despite the seeming unmarketability of a book on a British folk-rock singer few people seemed to remember. Through sheer tenacity, I’d managed to get some people who knew her to talk to me, including Jackson—another “lost musician” of the Sixties, who was once her lover. He seemed happy to talk about Sandy, or as happy to talk about her as any other subject. Sooner or later, it all came back around to tales of his own damaged life: the childhood fire, but also what happened later, when, he said, a government conspiracy kept him psyched out on drugs for much of his adulthood. When I transcribed the interview, I skipped these parts. Sometimes there’s a truth beyond facts. I thought of Daddy and those 18 pills a day: not a conspiracy, but a hell of a mistake.

Truth, and sometimes facts as well: Jackson had once been locked up after making a scene at the Brill Building in New York, protesting that he needed to see Paul Simon because Simon owed him $500. Of course, it was true that there was something wrong with his mind—schizophrenia, perhaps—but it was also true that they had legitimate business ties: Simon was his former housemate from their early-‘60s time in London. So was Al Stewart, who told me, in one of my first interviews for the book: “Jackson was just … so many different people. He had for a short period of time this girlfriend who was like a sort of society princess. And Jackson — I don’t know what happened to him, I don’t know what he was thinking; he turned up one day wearing a three-piece suit and a bowler hat … He looked like a slightly more worn version of Buffalo Bill… But he seemed to believe that he was now an English gentleman.”

I wish I’d asked Jackson more about Sandy. He remembered their drinks, bits about her family, her dirty jokes. “She had several favorite swear words, like ‘Crikey.’” Later, when I asked him if she was an alcoholic, he replied with a classic bit of what shrinks, humorists, and hypochondriacs might call “clanging”: “No ‘ic’ on her at all. Except for ‘crikey.’”

In my interviews with Sandy’s friends and family, I kept failing because I’d become too curious about whoever was in front of me at the time. And who couldn’t help but be curious about Jackson?

I made him laugh. If I did nothing else right, I’ll always remember that. He was harping on people trying to get him to sign up for various causes, and he said, “It’s just like that Monty Python movie… the one about Jesus?”

“‘Life of Brian’?” I guessed.

“Yes. No, no. The other one–”

“The Holy Grail!” I said. He fumbled for the lines that I knew, and I jumped in with them–“Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!” And we laughed together.

Toward the end of our talk, I helped him out of his chair. He took my hand like Cinderella at a minuet. He didn’t seem to lean on me a bit. But he wobbled scarily as his legs straightened. I could see him getting his footing—I’d seen it with Daddy. I don’t know how such people can trust in failing bodies. I’d likely just sit there.

~

I still don’t know why others said he kept Sandy from singing or warped her psyche. In the years since I met Jackson and since my biography went from whim to ambition to near-achievement before collapsing, unfinished, there have been at least two biographies of Sandy, and Jim Abbott, Jackson’s remarkable caretaker, recently published a biography of Jackson. I haven’t read any of them.

But I could imagine a young, naive Sandy, fleeing the stifling house of her childhood and going out into the world with love–the gentle nurse, bawdy barmaid, golden-voiced girl so many have described–and finding something twisted in this eccentric man, something to tame, to succumb to, to heal, to fear. He would not have been easy for her to understand, however easy he was for her to love.

Sandy’s song “Next Time Around,” which I believe to be about Jackson, presents an arid emotional landscape; it’s a harsh portrait, and Sandy was too intelligent for its metaphoric landscape to be unintentional: “And then I’ll turn and you won’t be there/Dusty black windows to light the dark stair/Candles all gnarled in the musty air/All without flames for many’s the year.”

At the end of the interview, we left Jackson in the hallway. As the elevator doors closed, a nurse asked, “Are you family?”

“Uh, no, I’m writing a book on one of his ex-girlfriends.” I was still gripping the tape recorder like a relay baton.

“I wondered. ‘Cause he never gets any visitors.”

~

At Christmastime in 1997 and 1998, I sent presents to Jackson: a scarf and a hat, to guard against the cold during those cigarette breaks. I never heard back, but in March 1999 I learned of his death. Jim Abbott later told me that I was one of the few journalists Jackson liked. I was also the last one to interview him.

My father died four months after Jackson did. My book project was already dying. By the spring of 2000, legal problems had forced me to efface it and the years of my life that it took, to reinvent myself not as Jackson had, with fancy cars and bowler hats and exotic lovers, but by plodding along the way the less flamboyantly damaged of us do.

I don’t know whether Jackson ever got his $500 from Paul Simon, but the day I met him he had just received a royalty check for “Blues Run the Game.” It’s on the Simon and Garfunkel box set Old Friends. But Jackson’s version is better.