“My greatest desire is to get my picture made with the life-size wax likeness of Harriet Tubman.
If the guards take mercy on me & allow me to indulge in my great attraction …” — David Franks, June 16, 2008.
I first met the Baltimore photographer and writer David Morley when he was a student in Barbara Simon’s English class at North County High School (once known as Andover) in Linthicum.
I was a reporter for the Sun, Barbara — president of the Maryland State Poetry & Literary Society until her death in 2007 — was still with us, and Morley was a kid who wanted in on the writing game.
I’m not sure what I told the students that day, probably something about telling stories for the right reasons (because they need to be told.)
Several years later I bumped into Morley at the Daily Grind on Thames Street in Fells Point. He reminded me of my visit to his class, and I soon commissioned him to write a chapter about Holy Trinity parish in Glen Burnie for my People’s History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, released the year Barbara Simon succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
By then, Morley had made a “documentary” worthy of “This is Spinal Tap” in which he plays a Crabtown street poet named Butchie – complete with ridiculous fake mustache — called Southside Survivor, released by Zinnia Films.
The parts about a niece gone wrong, Butchie scaring away a flock of pigeons, and the local delicacy known as “pit beef” are especially memorable. The movie poster is a send-up of the cover of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album. But Instead of a red baseball cap stuck in the back pocket of Butchie’s jeans, it’s an old-school Orioles cartoon bird hat.
One summer I took Southside Survivor down the ocean to watch with the kids and their mother. My then-teenaged son and I laughed like idiots. The girls and Mom hated it. That’s how good it is.
Now comes Morley with a new film, a video documentary of the January 31, 2010, memorial service for the poet David “Footlong” Franks at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown.
“I didn’t know David Franks very well. I met him a few times when I was slinging coffee at the old Daily Grind, where the maritime museum used to be,” said Morley. “I remember hearing his name — that’s David Franks, someone told me — and hearing about his work. Our relationship was peripheral at best.”
Franks, found dead this past January in his Fells Point apartment just before his 67th birthday, had an epic notoriety as a lothario of letters that led folks to whisper: “that’s David Franks.”
It might be followed by an embrace or slipping out a side door before David made recognition.
And so it was that David Morley learned more about poet David Franks by filming his memorial at the old Patterson Theater than by serving him coffee back when the Daily Grind felt like a real coffee house, the Orpheum Cinema was upstairs, and Franks was banging out tales on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter beneath photos of him with Jorge Luis Borges in New Orleans.
“Given the nature of the service and the number of people speaking at the event, I opted to keep video activity to a minimum — using two cameras and shooting the entire memorial and reading without interruption,” said Morley. “For me, the most rewarding part was being able to hear the speakers and readers over and over while I edited.
“It’s been great to hear people speak of their love for David, his work, his antics,” said Morley. “It is also heartfelt and sad to sit with the knowledge that David will never touch our lives in the same way, but will now only reach us across time, through his work, through memory, and, perhaps, as one of the speakers suggested, by entering his phone number in the Safeway rewards terminal in the checkout line.”
Of the tributes to Franks captured by Morley, one of the most poignant was Footlong’s friend and Foot of Broadway neighbor Glenn Moomau, author of the rock-and-roll road trip memoir, Ted Nugent Condominium, released in 2001 by Tom DiVenti’s Apathy Press.
Here are Moomau’s remarks to the crowd of about 150 friends and admirers of David Franks who gathered to eat, laugh, recite, remember, and pray.
“What you just watched and heard was proof that David’s art always led him in brilliant directions, in this case working with a hand bell choir and a videographer in presenting one of his compositions.
“Throughout his life he sought collaborators of all kinds for their knowledge, technical advice, and inspiration. It helped, too, if that partner had the emotional fortitude, and the patience of Job, to follow his vision.
“He worked with an oceanographer, dead poets such as John Keats, and those unfortunate people in New Orleans who called his phone by mistake. He sought the expertise of sound engineers, other poets, lovers, visual artists, at least one tug boat company, and even the drunken bar patrons who David enjoyed recording as they fought in the alley outside his apartment.
“David loved the word ‘collaboration’ and his work with others could be roughly categorized either as ‘voluntary’ or ‘involuntary.’ The collaborations with Keats, who is dead, and the wrong-number callers, were most definitely involuntary arrangements.
“I know that some of you aren’t sure into which category your collaboration with David fell; for some, it started out voluntary, and then things, well, it went…ahhh…yeah. ‘Kill you later, motherfucker,’ as David often said in lieu of goodbye.
“David and I had nearly two decades of unbroken friendship precisely because I refused ALL of his offers — and they were many and constant. David’s first known involuntary collaboration happened when he was a boy. With a tape recorder he’d gotten as a birthday present, he recorded the arguments between his parents that began after his mother discovered that his father had a girlfriend.
“He did this by holding a microphone to his bedroom wall’s heating vent and capturing an echoing, distorted version of his parents’ voices. Late night after late night he made these recordings — this went on for weeks! Screaming, crying, cursing; murmuring, beseeching, and plain cold logic. The fights got ugly. On at least one night, it got violent.
“How terrible that must have been for David, who loved and admired his parents, especially his father. But in those recordings, he would later discover one of his methods, which was the transfiguration of human voices, turning suffering into beauty, using all manner of conceptual brilliance to do so.
“All of you know that when you called him and he wasn’t answering the phone, even then he was inviting your collaboration. It didn’t matter if you were a friend, a bill collector, or an exasperated landlord. For at least 19 years, David’s voice mail message never changed: ‘You have reached a recording of David Franks. If you would like, please leave a recording of your own.’
“When I saw David for the last time, a week before his death, he told me that he was worried about becoming isolated, having just moved to a new apartment back in Fells Point. This was nothing new for David: isolation was one of David’s recurring fears, and so it makes sense that for all of his productive life he didn’t want to be that lonely boy hiding out with a tape recorder full of terrible voices, but wanted to work with others to make beautiful things.
- “And what beautiful things he did make with the help, advice, love and — sometimes, lack of consent — of others! Some of these collaborations are still in progress. Over a decade ago, David was bemoaning to me how difficult it would be to realize his most ambitious collaboration, one that he wanted to make, essentially, with The Entire City of Baltimore.
“It doesn’t matter that this project has yet to be finished: In this case, as in many others, David’s reach exceeded his grasp. He didn’t have enough time; he didn’t enough money, and he didn’t have a helicopter, which was part of big plan.
“Yet he still figured out a way to leave us with the project’s simple and lovely ‘David Franks brilliance,’ captured at its moment of conception: As I read this, please note how many actual and potential collaborations exist in these few words:
Last summer in the car on the way back from recording the magi-cicadas this happened:
“…suddenly . I’m composing a piece in my head . of Carillons. & . church bells . connecting one to the other. Over tones.
Touching to carry a song in a ring ringing around the entire city at dawn.
steeple to steeple
One song . of unity . praise . & joy — transparent!
& I tell . Becky Bafford . my simple transcendent vision
Fearfully . as such simple beauty . mostly seems madness
Until it’s heard . but she says . “oh that’s beautiful!”
“I know you will do it” . & . I’m thinking . yes . probably
Copies of the “David Franks Memorial Service” video are available from David Morley for $15 or $20 via PayPal. For more information, contact Morley at email@example.com. Please specify “Franks Memorial Video” in the subject line.
Photos by Macon Street Books