Plethora Of Pop
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Plethora Of Pop

The Two Faces of ‘Frank Mills’

He’s a lost soul to some, a dreamboat to others

Photo by Kristian Angelo on Unsplash. Modified by author.

Many musicians have managed to write songs that feel complete with runtimes far under the four minutes once considered standard for significant radio play. One such song is “Frank Mills.”

The Lemonheads: The Lost Soul

I was introduced to Frank via The Lemonheads, an alternative rock band that rose to popularity in the nineties. The band had two big hits, “It’s a Shame About Ray” and a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” both off its fifth album It’s a Shame About Ray (1992). The band’s next album charted higher but made less of a mark in the broader music scene as heavier grunge took over. In the years since, Evan Dando and a changing roster of musicians have continued to release music and tour, just to less mainstream attention.

“Frank Mills” is a quiet song. Dando sings about meeting a guy named Frank Mills only to then lose his address, and he asks the listener for help in reconnecting them. You can recognize Frank by his white helmet and his leather jacket bearing gold chains and the words “Mary,” “Mom” and “Hell’s Angels.” He and his girlfriend Angela don’t need Frank to repay the two dollars they loaned him. They just want him back. Despite a runtime of only 1:45, the track is wistful, humorous and powerful.

I’ve always imagined Frank as an idiosyncratic knockabout, more a character from a Jack Kerouac novel than an actual member of a motorcycle club. I’ve known a few of these knockabouts, especially in my school days. He’s the older student whom everyone had met at a party or when he was on his way to or from a party, the girl doing charcoal rubbings of tombstones on the Aran Islands, and the nonstudent who wandered around campus at night talking to anyone he could about ichthyology, especially sharks. You’ve probably known some of these itinerant spirits too.

Part of this image comes from an old MTV special, probably an episode of 120 Minutes. What I remember is a series of interviews with Dando and performances in small clubs, basements, anywhere really, places filled with kids shuffling in for meaning and fellowship at a vespers where the dress code was exceedingly casual. The folk-like approach to songwriting, the poetry and simplicity, created an aura of laidback cool that was less Friends than Singles, and it made a strong impression on me.

I wouldn’t know for a long time, however, that “Frank Mills” wasn’t a Lemonheads original. It was a cover from a much earlier scene.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash. Modified by author.

Hair: The Dreamboat

That scene was sixties counterculture. Jazz guitarist Barry Kessler wrote “Frank Mills” for the musical Hair, which opened off Broadway in 1967. Hair excited for its celebration of hippie enlightenment: racial harmony, sexual revolution and groovy states of being. The lyrics are blunt and eyebrow-raising enough that 21st-century social improvers would raise a cry of protest if it were to appear for the first time today, but I find the frank treatment of the subject matter to be refreshing.

“Frank Mills” is wonderfully structured. After a couple verses, the song strays, then comes back to repeat the opening melody, but there’s no chorus, and no lyrics repeat. The cover notes on my copy of the vinyl soundtrack from 1968 describe it as follows:

“Frank Mills might be called a teeny-bopper’s plaint. It doesn’t rhyme at all. It is really the great American novel.”

Teeny-bopper’s plaint?

This changes everything. Now I imagine a teenaged girl pining for some guy she met while out with her friend Angela. They coaxed him into having vanilla ice cream sodas at the pharmacy and even paid. She wears a gathered skirt, cardigan (backwards), bobby socks and saddle shoes. She giggles a lot, fidgets a lot, and overdramatizes a lot. And Frank… Frank is a greaser who climbs on his motorcycle, rides back to Brooklyn, and doesn’t care if he ever sees those “dolls” again. He’s too dangerous for her, but her crush, however fleeting, is sincere.

That’s more fifties and early sixties than late sixties, more American Graffiti than Easy Rider, but the best music is timeless. If a short track like “Frank Mills,” a sequence of notes drifting through the void, could survive into the nineties and beyond, then who’s to say it wasn’t around before its creation as well?

The Lemonheads still play “Frank Mills” and new stagings of Hair aren’t uncommon, so if you haven’t heard this one, look up performances on YouTube and recall those special visitors who have passed through your life.

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J.P. Williams

J.P. Williams

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas.