"It just ain't like Cole Porter
It's just all too short order."
Michael Franks (almost Ph.D.) hunches toward the Cellar Door's microphone, eyes closed, looking a bit uncomfortable. Shy. Reserved.
These are the trademarks of his relatively rare public performances; even his wildest admirers (and the Cellar Door is full of them this evening) will not claim that he is a great natural showman, but he says that he enjoys performing in public for moderate-sized audiences.
Whether he enjoys it or not, the Cellar Door's audience (a full house at the small end of moderate size) clearly loves it. They bring him back for more applause and encores until he closes the set with his big hit, "Popsicle Toes," which once made it up to No. 29 in the Top 40.
Michael Franks has seen the possibility of popular success (not imminent or enormous, but real) and he has turned pale.
"I remember when 'Popsicle Toes' was released in Philadelphia and I went there to promote it and gave away about 4,000 Popsicles," he recalls. "I looked at all those kids and I kept thinking that they wouldn't like anything else I'm doing; they were much more into things like Led Zeppelin. I'm not sure how much I want to be identified as a crossover artist."
After his first Warner Bros. album, "The Art of Tea," was released (it included "Popsicle Toes") Franks says that the company "sat on it for about eight months - it was a very disappointing period for me. I was able to score a film, "Zandy's Bride" which was good, and I met a lot of excellent studio musicians whom I admire and who helped me to grow musically. But as a songwriter and performer, I was left to myself. I was not given too many signals from the audience, because the audience wasn't there.
"Now I'm glad it happened that way; if I had made a hit during that period, it might have pushed my music in directions where I don't want to go."
When the ambivalent, introspective Michael Franks talks about music, one word that keeps popping up is "aggressive." His music is the opposite, soft an delicate in texture in an age when popular musicians have run out of ideas and, to compensate, have turned up the volume. But who listen to the words of a samba? Particularly when they're hard to understand?
"We Know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow."
A lot of the charm in Franks' music is based on the way he puts his own gentle personality into the songs. In the jargon or our times, he is called 'laid back." Cool, understand, different at times (particularly in live performances), he seems to fit that amorphous term, but there is a better one. He could easily serve as Exhibit A in the running dissertation of "mellow" that ran not long ago in the "Doonesbury" comic strip.
Like everyone else, he writes about the search for love, but many of his six images are either comic ("You got the nicest North Amarican/This sailor ever saw - /I like to feel your warm Brazil/And touch your Panama.") or satirical ("For 25 you get a live nude girl - /She can wrestle so obscene./If you must got 10 you wrestle/Polyethylene.") It might be more precise to say that he writes about the quest for tranquility. Sometimes, for a minute or two (in "Vivaldi's Song," for example), he manages to convince you that he has found it.
Franks is not really much like any other American currently in the popular spotlight; there is a bit of Antonio Carlos Jobim in his music and a bit of Mose Allison in his performing style, and he readily admits to other formative enthusiasms as diverse as Peggy Lee and Blossom Dearie, but the mixture of ingredients is unique.
He works at keeping it that way. When he writes a new song (usually taking about three days, producing the music before the words), he makes a demonstration cassette ('very rough - a lot of 18-year-olds on my street have better tape equipment than I have"). Many of these tapes, he says, "just go into my cassette library - they are too much inspired by someone else."
But some influences are more welcome than others. He tells with pride of how "I played a test pressing for Jobim, and when I heard him absent-mindedly himming my 'Mr. Blue' later in the bathroom, I thought this was the greatest compliment I could have."
Franks is in his mid-30s, married and obviously an enthusiastic family man; his wife and son keep coming up in his conversation as they do in his songs.
"Daddy's just like Coltrane
Baby's just like Miles.
The Lady's just like heaven
When she smiles."
He spent hours yesterday going through the National Gallery with his wife, an expert in Rennaissance art.
He is now a New Yorker (he likes to go down to the Village and hear Bill Evans and other jazz idols "who have not compromised"), but he was raised in La Jolla, Calif., where he used to do a lot of surfing. He got a degree in comparative literature (music was his minor) at UCLA, a master's in contemporary culture from the University of Oregon and worked for a doctorate at the University of Montreal, writing a dissertation on "The Apocalyptic Vision in Contemporary Song." That opus came back with some blue-penciling and, although he has passed his orals, he has decided he probably doesn't want a doctorate: "It's not worth what you have to go through."
He has the same feeling about popular success: "It's better than a sharp stick in the eye, but I don't really relate to the adulation part and the fan part. There's something about staying home and mailing it in that appeals to me."
At the same time, he speaks warmly about his fans, and believes they are more loyal than those who go flocking after the latest pop idol. "The Art of Tea," he says "is still selling well. In about three or four years, it's going to be a golden record. I can wait."