Memory Motel: Farewell to Frank Christian
A Greenwich Village legend leaves us.
Have you ever seen an entire room levitate? I'm pretty certain I witnessed at least a close approximation of that phenomenon numerous times in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s at Greenwich Village's now-defunct, literally underground folk haven The Speakeasy, a dim, dingy MacDougal Street singer/songwriter haunt where I learned the troubadour trade amid a healthy mix of callow peers, well-juiced journeymen, and a precious handful of old-guard masters of the craft. Frank Christian was unquestionably among the latter group, a classic "triple threat" whose singing, songwriting, and guitar-playing expertise instantly placed him several rungs above 95 percent of the performers who ever had entered or ever would enter the creaky-but-cozy club notoriously dubbed "the fire hydrant of the underdog" by multi-talented raconteur Erik Frandsen (who eventually had the last laugh on his fellow musicians by successfully falling back on an acting career).
Admittedly, levitation was far from a frequent occurrence at The Speakeasy. But when Frank Christian stepped on the stage, the small, slender, bespectacled man -- who resembled a cross between a beatnik and a philosophy professor with his beret, black jacket, and owlish countenance -- raised that stale-beer-baptized, basement-level room off its murky moorings towards loftier climes. In true Beat fashion, he seemed to expend a deceptively conservative amount of energy in doing so - other than his hands, little of the man's body was in motion when he performed, and his onstage persona was reliably laconic, the occasional understated bon mot notwithstanding.
Still, as soon as he began to play, it was impossible to overestimate the amount of learning, listening, practice, and dues-paying that shared space with Christian's sheer talent and fueled his head and hands to artistic heights most musicians would deem daunting at the very least. Crucially, Christian's was a syncretic kind of gift: the active elements in his creative crucible included classical, jazz, blues, folk, country, and more, all swirling into a seamless whole via his fleet fingerpicking, sophisticated songwriting, and gently volitant voice. Though usually accompanied by adroit cohorts like bassist Mark Dann and vibraphonist Jeff Berman, and therefore far from lacking in bottom end or rhythmic momentum, Christian could not be grounded. Whether he was winging his way through one of his own gemlike jazz-folk nocturnes, like "Where Were You Last Night" and "From My Hands" or imparting an aura of urbanity to Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" and the jazz/blues standard "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor," Frank couldn't keep from achieving liftoff velocity and bringing his enraptured onlookers along for the flight.
To the wider world beyond small, dark rooms like The Speakeasy, the details of Frank Christian's career were few and relatively uncomplicated. A New Jersey native and habitué of the Village folk scene, he began recording in the early ‘80s, releasing just three albums between 1982 and 1996, and guesting on tracks by everyone from Suzanne Vega to The Smithereens along the way. He performed where and when he could, but earned the bulk of his income as a guitar teacher, and probably gained his greatest renown when Nanci Griffith made use of both his guitar and songwriting skills on her Grammy-winning 1993 album, Other Voices, Other Rooms, covering Christian's "Three Flights Up." His story came to an abrupt end on December 24, 2012, when he died of cardiac arrest at age 60 in a New York hospital after being admitted with pneumonia. For the lucky legions who had born witness to his onstage acts of prestidigitation, no additional information was ever required; for the rest, fortunately, there are still those three albums floating around out there, balloons waiting for the next carnival to commence.
|Where Were You Last Night|