by Mike Keneally
Guitar Player, April 1994
It's his birthday today. At the stroke of midnight I was at home of the spectacular Toss, the drummer in my band, and I had the Baby Snakes video in tow. Toss had never seen it sober (poor lad still hasn't). I hadn't watched any Frank on video since his death, save for the TV obits, and I felt a little strange about it. I saw my hands shaking as I stuck the tape in, and I tried to think about something else. He appeared, teaching the song "Baby Snakes" to his band, grinning, working, alive. My anxieties vanished. Happy birthday.
Those who appreciate the need for something other than mediocrity must celebrate more vigorously than they mourn. Despite his occasional protestations to the contrary, Frank's life was a spectacular success. he agressively and tirelessly championed experimentation in popular music (as a fairly casual by-product of his oft-stated goal: to keep himself amused), and his success validated it. No artists of comparably "out" tendencies have had their work embraced by so many and been appreciated for the right reasons by a surprising percentage thereof. He was not, of course, fully comprehended - a casual survey of the print and television obituaries distressingly confirms this - and it's safe to say he never will be. But who is fully comprehended? Are you? The fact is, a lot of people did suss what Frank was on about - more than he may have suspected for a long time. (I think he caught on in the last few years just how loved he was. I want to think that.)
A line I've been trotting out to comfort callers (and myself in the process) is a comment about time that Frank would sometimes trot out: "Each moment exists simultaneously with all others." Viewed from this perspective - Frank's perspective - he hasn't gone anywhere. But there's no denying that on our mundane plane with its frustatingly linear timepath, it's peculiar to read a headline announcing Frank's death and realize that he wouldn't be up at The House smoking and expounding if you and I went there now.
There is a CD and video product in record stores at the moment, a document of a 1991 live tribute to Frank. I can attest that the performers had the best of intentions, and I'm loath to offend any of them, but it's kind of a piece of shit. One reason is that the mercenary bastards responsible for its release (I use the term "mercenary bastards" in the most affectionate manner possible), a company swimming in heartbreakingly huge sums of cash, alotted virtually no time for mixing and no time for editing, and did not care for a millisecond if the product came within a pachyderm's girth of meeting the technical standards associated with Frank's name. (As a further tribute, this company sued Frank a few weeks ago over a number of issues, including his not taking time out from dying to contribute a new composition to the album. They then took out a fullpage ad in Billboard after his death to honor his memory. Phewww.) but the main reason that it's kind of a piece of shit is the I'm the guy doing most of the singing and guitar playing instead of Frank. Now, I'm wonderful, belive me. But I'm not Frank.
Don't let that last bit of venting dissuade you from playing his music all day long - it tastes good, and it's good for you. I'll play it till the day I die. But Frank - yikes! His presence couldn't be denied and can't be emulated. Watch him in that opening scene from Baby Snakes, shaping the band with equal parts giddy enthusiasm and serious-ass diligence. During the 1988 tour, a sizable portion of each show was devoted to spontaneous composition - not just a bunch of solos over a bunch of vamps, but an amorphous, full-blown musical mutant unique to each show, controlled by Frank's gestures. Certainly, the skill of the bandplayed a large role in making these peculiar beasts walk. Just as certainly, we wouldn't have sounded anything like the way we did without Frank's guilding hands and eyebrows. We were playing music that had never been played before, and it sounded like Frank, whether or not he himself played a note. Sometimes it didn't work so well. And this fearlessness, this willingness to "see what happens" in front of thousands of onlookers, inspires me furiously.
Now's a good time for me and you to follow Frank's example - not to paste on a mustache and soul patch and talk in a low voice, but to apply his fearlessness to our own work. If you don't own all of his albums, go out and score a bunch. Every single one contains something that ought to fire you up if your antennae are adjusted properly. Then start writing. See what happens.
I miss him a lot.
©1994 Guitar Player Magazine