[3 March 2014]
I don’t know if it’s the current cold weather we’re experiencing where I live, but I’ve found myself listening to Michael Franks’ 1979 album Tiger in the Rain lately. The lush rainforest jazz and lyrics about “the land of Sanpaku”, the “slow sambas” in botanical gardens, and lazing “down underneath the apple tree” provide a necessary escapism. I might be compromising my street cred by professing a liking for the music of Michael Franks. If you’re not familiar with Franks, he’s a light jazz singer/songwriter (you might even say “smooth jazz”, though that term has a lot of negative connotation these days).
The subject matter of his song lyrics is often tropical—beaches, Brazil and summer figure prominently. And his voice, well, it’s often referred to as “unique”. “Unique” as a word doesn’t really convey much, though. Lots of singers have unique voices—Bob Dylan and early Kate Bush come to mind. “Unique” can be a polite way of saying challenging or hard to listen to. Yet, Franks’ voice is none of those things. It’s very easy-on-the-ears, inoffensive and non-threatening. In fact, it’s so light and airy, it can be off-putting to some.
Issuing his own music since the mid-‘70s, Franks had a hit early on with “Popsicle Toes” (since covered by Diana Krall, among others), and has built a strong and loyal fan base. You tend not to hear a lot of “serious” music fans mention him, however, despite the caliber of musicians that appear on his albums. This could be because there’s not a lot of angst or drama in his music. Relaxing music is often not taken seriously.
But, let’s take a look at some (perhaps) surprising facts about Michael Franks:
Back to Tiger in the Rain. Maybe the reason I return to this album so often in winter is because of the circumstances surrounding my purchase of it. I had moved from Florida to a semi-rural town in the mountains of Utah to attend school. I was on my own and hadn’t met many people yet. From my small second floor house apartment, I’d make trips to the local CD/video store (I think it was a Blockbuster) and buy music and rent movies. I was working my way through Woody Allen’s filmography and listening to a lot of Thin Lizzy, Sonic Youth, and Bruce Cockburn. A strange mix, to be sure. Somewhere in there, Michael Franks found a place.
With the Rocky Mountain winter coming on with a vengeance, I must have been feeling a little homesick. I needed a tropical jolt as the snows got deep and the winds blew hard across the empty fields between my window and the distant snow-capped mountains. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my view and the natural surroundings, but loneliness makes you think of home and home had been Florida for most of my life till then. I wanted those warm sea breezes, if only vicariously.
Browsing the racks at the CD store brought me eventually to the Michael Franks section. Tiger in the Rain was one of only two of his CDs that they had. Burchfield Nines was the other, but when choosing between the album covers for Tiger or Burchfield, which would you pick? (And what the hell was a Burchfield Nine?). The cover image is, of course, a famous painting by Rousseau called “Tropical Storm With a Tiger”. The hues of lush green foliage presented an attractive alternative to the gray slush and bare, brown tree limbs of my Utah world.
In the first song, “Sanpaku”, the narrator is seemingly in that very jungle, seeking some kind of spiritual transcendence or knowledge by smoking “the twine”, chopping “the line”, chewing “the root” until his “brain was fried” and waking up “red-eye from the wine”. Eventually a “brown-eyed woman” takes him by the hand, saying “’Mercy me, you’ve got to understand / This poison life will be the death of you’ / Then she lead me from the jungles of Sanpaku.”
What seems to be on one level a simple tale of a guy living in the jungle in some exotic land and getting wasted a lot till some girl saves him from killing himself, also works on a more symbolic level as a tale of futility in finding inner peace through chemical means. Yet, there’s even more going on here (Franks wasn’t a literature major for nothing) when one realizes that “sanpaku” is a term from the ancient Chinese, translated as “three whites”. It refers to how much of the whites of the eye show if the eye is delineated into four sections. According to lore, if the bottom white part of the eye is visible below the pupil it represents an imbalance and this “sanpaku eye” can often be found in alcoholics and drug addicts. “Sinking in the quicksand of Sanpaku”, indeed.
A few more songs are set in southern climes, but they’re much more self-evident in their meaning. “Jardin Botanico” is about escaping New York City for a Rio de Janeiro Christmas (“Jardin Botanico” translates as “botanical garden” and refers to the neighborhood and public garden of the same name in that city). The tropics represent an enticing, but always peaceful hedonism to Franks: “Just wearin’ suntan lotion / This is how we spend each day / May, June, and July… / Sunnin’ in our birthday suits / Eatin’ that forbidden fruit”. (“Underneath the Apple Tree”)
Franks is known for his clever turn of phrase (from the earlier “Popsicle Toes”: “You’ve got the nicest North America / This sailor ever saw / I’d like to feel your warm Brazil / And touch your Panama”) and he doesn’t disappoint on Tiger in the Rain. From “When It’s Over”: “Your speciality is not eroticism / I guess your boyfriend’s into masochism” and from the title song, “Tiger in the Rain”: “Most of the time / He’s the lord of the jungle / Everyone grins while he gripes / Usually he’s found just lazing around in his stripes.”
He doesn’t always hit the mark as cutesy lines like “Let’s play Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Bunny / Let’s play Grizzly Bear-Finding-Honey” all too clearly illustrate. As well, the final song, “Lifeline”, runs a bit too long and teeters (but doesn’t quite fall) on the edge of schmaltz with a string section and lines like “Now I’m sailing toward the island of your love.”
These are minor quibbles with what is essentially one of Franks’ strongest albums in a career numbering close to 20 albums now. The year after Tiger he would release One Bad Habit, which according to most accounts was his first album to sell substantial numbers and get lots of radio play. I’m not sure if that’s totally true, as I never heard anything from it on the radio, though the track “Baseball” pops up on most of his greatest hits albums. Apart from that album’s “Lotus Blossom”, he seemed to have temporarily abandoned his fixation with tropical life. With the Paul Gauguin-inspired Objects of Desire in 1982, though, he settled into a style reminiscent of an even more laid back Jimmy Buffett with a jazzy focus on the romance of sun, sand, sea, and distant ports of call.
Oddly, Franks doesn’t live in Rio, Tahiti, Hawaii, or even Florida but the countryside of New York state. I find this perplexing for one whose work has been so informed by place, and warm locales specifically. Perhaps this distance keeps the romance of such places more alive, more vibrant in his mind. In living in “paradise”, he might start to take it for granted and that muse of location would be gone. I know, for instance, that when I lived in Florida I took the beach, the palms, and the temperate winters for granted.
There’s something to be said for escapism, for the armchair-travelling Michael Franks’ music offers. The romance and lure of the exotic keeps that spark of potential discovery alive and burning and keeps us interested in the world beyond our front door. Even on a cold winter day. Especially on a cold winter day.
Rob Caldwell is a writer and librarian living near Toronto. He has written for various online publications, including The Allmusic Guide and No Depression music magazine, and has a music blog called Music To Eat.