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David Franks

Birthdate unknown-Jan. 14, 2010

Eric John Mithen
David Franks conducting tugs in a photograph taken in 2007 for his annual Valentine's Day card.

By John Barry | Posted 1/27/2010

There will be a memorial service for David Franks at the Creative alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave., on Jan. 31 from 3-7 p.m. For more information visit creativealliance.org or call (410) 276-1651.

Baltimore poet David Franks, who was found dead in his Fells Point apartment on Jan. 14 after a long battle with cancer, was an artist, a performer, a musician, and a self-promoter. In the days since his death, Baltimore's arts community has traded memories of the idiosyncratic figure who worked across so many genres. Anecdotes and photographs of him being passed around and posted to an online remembrance web site (davidfranks.ning.com) include Franks in the early 1970s, dry humping a Xerox machine, Franks conducting a symphony of tugboats, and Franks as a courtly poet reading his poem "Poontang!" at Red Emma's, while the Poet Laureate of Nepal, standing next to him, translates it into Nepali.

While stories about Franks are easy to find, hard facts about his life are few and far between. It doesn't help that his papers and files, for the moment, are inaccessible. But facts weren't really the way to measure David Franks anyway.

This writer received two birth dates for Franks from different sources: He was born either Jan. 30, 1943, or Jan. 30, 1948. The Baltimore Sun says Franks was 61 when he died.

In Detroit in the late '60s, Franks had a friendly association with John Sinclair, leader of the revolutionary and anti-racist White Panther Party and manager of the protopunk band MC5. Rumor had it that Franks was Brother J.C. Crawford, the emcee whose infamous rant opens the band's live 1968 album Kick Out the Jams. It was a rumor that Franks did not discourage, but Sinclair's ex-wife Leni says in an e-mail that while she remembers Franks fondly, he was not J.C. Crawford. In the early '70s, however, he was an onstage provocateur for Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, a D.C. act best known for its minor hit, "Boogie 'Til You Puke."

Less than a week after Franks' death, a new myth sprang up about him. Since 1949, an anonymous "Poe Toaster" has appeared at the grave of Edgar Allen Poe every year on Jan. 19, to leave a bottle of cognac and a bouquet of roses in honor of the poet's birthday. The baton has been passed over the years, and a new Poe Toaster allegedly took the duty over in 1999. This year, for the first time in 61 years, Poe had a birthday without cognac. "According to the details," says Joe Wall, a longtime friend of Franks, "that could very well have been David Franks."

Some facts about the poet are not in dispute: Franks had a reputation early on as a talented and ambitious poet. He married and divorced in his late teens. He attended the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a master's degree in writing in the 1970s. In his early 20s, he published his first book of poetry, TOUCH, which is no longer in print. He worked as a speech writer for Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. He taught poetry classes in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art and he did a residency at University of California, Berkeley. He had a strong mentor and friend in the influential poet Robert Creeley, and he was heavily influenced by the Black Mountain School of poetry.

But Franks' life was really his art, and Wall is trying to collect all of the DVDs, CDs, homemade books, written work, quotes, and recollections of performances to be uploaded to Franks' web site (poetdavidfranks.com), which has been down since 2008. Wall, a Baltimore writer and sound engineer and manager of the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, knew Franks for about 12 years and collaborated with him on several projects, including "Frozen Tears," a complex musical poem that they worked on until 2008. Wall says that although Franks appeared to be a trickster and a court jester, he endlessly obsessed over artistic white whales.

Wall worked for six years as sound engineer on "Frozen Tears," in which Franks collected recordings of women crying and, apparently, having orgasms, as well as the sounds of raindrops and bubbles. He reconfigured the sounds into music by linking letters of the alphabet--specifically, the letters in the word "tears"--to musical notes. Franks explained in a 2005 interview with Aaron Henkin on WYPR-FM radio show The Signal that by recording the crying against the sound of voices singing, he felt he had unlocked the tears hidden inside words. "Our words are limited to what we can speak about," he told Henkin. "We all know those words are bursting at the seams to mirror our emotions."

The final product was about 14 minutes long, and Wall says it took six years of arduous recording, splicing, and engineering to finish it, although Franks never considered it complete. (Wall notes that artist David Crandall spent several years working with Franks on the same piece, as well.)

"He kept coming up with variations," Wall says. "He rarely considered anything of his done. That was the great and horrifying thing about working with him. It was an intense experience."

"He was always taking it to the edge," recalls Franks' friend Glenn Moomau, a writer and literature instructor at American University. "On one hand, he was a prankster, pulling an in-your-face stunt. But his work had a human charm to it that makes it great. It came from a deep emotional well."

In a piece called "Dead Letters," for example, Franks took letters from his father to a shooting range and blew them to bits. He created a poem out of the pieces. Moomau says the work offers a glimpse into Franks' personal life.

"It wasn't a repudiation of his father," Moomau says. "His father was a hero to him. From all of David's accounts, he was accomplished, driven, an amateur boxer, the son of Eastern European immigrants. David respected him and was always looking for his approval. He never thought [his father] got it. And he wanted to be buried next to his parents."

Another friend, writer Betsy Boyd, contributed illustrations for Franks' last book of poems, Love Is Making Me Sick. She says that with Franks the creative sessions "never ended. If we went to dinner, it was all he'd talk about. It was who he was. . . . There was nothing pretentious about it. His body only operated in a few gears, and work was one of them."

She says his drive to realize his projects could overwhelm, inspire, and aggravate people close to him, but she says the rewards outweighed the frustrations.

"When you worked with him, you had this sense of accomplishment," she says. "You really knew you were making art with him."

Franks found inspiration and collaborators outside of artistic circles as well. In the late '70s, Franks lived at an apartment at 910 Fell St., where tugboats in the harbor honked and tooted outside his window. Franks set to work composing "Whistling in the Dark," a three-part piece made of tone clusters of the horns and whistles of seven tugboats. When he had composed it, he asked the Baker-Whiteley tugboat company for assistance in recording the piece.

Baltimore writer Rafael Alvarez was in high school at the time, and he heard the story from his father Manuel, who was chief engineer for Baker-Whiteley. "[The tugboat operators] thought he was 'goofy', which is what they called someone who is not quite right," Alvarez says. "They were convinced he had to be gay. Anyone who conducted tugboats had to be gay. Except that he had the most beautiful girls in town with him."

Eventually, though, the tugboat captains came around. After several rehearsals, the tugboat operators and Franks produced a series of recordings, which--after extensive splicing and mixing--turned into a haunting, fluid composition of what Franks would call "noise heard as music."

His unfinished and most ambitious work was another sound piece, called "Sunday Morning Bells." If it had been completed, it would have demanded collaboration on a massive scale. He wanted the bells from every church in the city to ring in a coordinated pattern that would gradually transform from harmonic chords to a cacophony of celebration.

"It could be done," Franks said in his 2005 Signal interview. "And we could do it. It would bring a beautiful face to Baltimore that would inspire other cities. I have no doubt of that. I'm not claiming that this would cure everything in a fractured city. But it would be a huge gesture which no city has ever made."

That project went unrealized--although, in conversations with this writer, he had never quite given up on it. He researched, looked for funding, and even had plans for filming the event from a helicopter above the city. With his death, he left to the imagination the sound the bells of all the churches in Baltimore might have made, as they moved from the city's outskirts to the Washington Monument.

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