Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Rick Frank and Elephant's Memory

As a writer, you often find yourself on the fringe of celebrity. You speak with these people, you may have had a drink with these people, they may or may not know your name, but they know your face, and some of them know what you do and are extra nice because of it. I have spent my life on the fringe. Over the years, I have hoped to capture for this readership the history of rock music in a way that is beyond celebratory, indeed here at AM, we tend to gush, particularly over those artists from the 60s and 70s.
With that in mind, it was 20 years ago tomorrow that this writer had an exclusive, one that unfortunately never came to fruition.

Rick Frank was the drummer for Elephant's Memory, a band that shared two claims to fame. The first was two songs on the Midnight Cowboy Soundtrack, but more importantly, Elephant's Memory was the backup band for John Lennon's Madison Square Garden gig known as Sometime in New York City, when Lennon's band was deported from the U.S. for illicit drug use.

I have never been much of a live album fan. I take an interest, wanting to hear the inconsistencies, those mistakes when left in providing character, but there are few LPs that I return to as essential in my canon; Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth being one incredible example and Lou Reed's Rock 'n' Roll Animal, which contains my all-time favorite guitar duet. I won't pretend to love Lennon at Madison Square, finding it overly abrasive at times, but it remains essential in my collection based on my association with Rick Frank.

AM tends to avoid controversy in general, but we've never shied away from the underbelly of rock music, we just prefer to address the music. Nonetheless, in 1996 I took a position in a mental health facility. Our clientele was what you would expect in a suburban New Jersey location. But the facility did indeed entertain its share of celebrity. From an incredible slap bassist to Rick Frank, I was witness to what the industry could do to one, particularly in a facility that addressed dual diagnoses.

Rick Frank was admitted to screening in 1998 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He checked himself into the medical center during an episode of extreme mania and anxiety coupled with his psychosis and drug use. When he appeared on my caseload I didn't know who he was. Slowly the bits and pieces began to emerge. I did my research and found his picture and his name and even an advert from an old Philadelphia underground newspaper called The Drummer. I got the CD at Sam Goody to find Rick Frank's photo on the back. Writing this today, of course, it was simpler; I just looked on Wikipedia.

Elephant's Memory as it turned out, was a big deal.  Not a very big deal, but a big deal who at one time boasted Carly Simon as their vocalist and whose name was modified for the Lennon live LP as Plastic Ono Elephant's Memory Band.

Frank was mild-mannered and a gentleman. He spoke so softly at first that his voice was nearly imperceptible. He talked of Lennon and Ono and gibberish. He spoke of his depression and his drug use. What was more interesting was that here he was in screening, strung out, manic, suicidal, but he wanted to talk about me. He said to "get his mind off it all." I asked what he meant by "it all," and he said "all of it, man." The words made little sense, but you knew the meaning through his eyes.

At the medical center, mental health patients would cycle through, and some, like Frank, would check themselves in, detox, talk to the doc, get an increase in medication and in a week they'd be gone. I visited Rick twice daily for several weeks and in that time we talked about Lennon's rumored deportation and his home life, which was simple, Frank and his significant other sitting on a sofa watching TV. We talked about fame, about the industry, about the recording process and about syncopation. We talked about Star Wars and Harry Potter. We never did talk about Elephant's Memory, Frank seemingly reluctant. I guess he'd told his story endlessly. To me, he wanted to talk about anything else. In the short time that I knew him, he looked upon me as a friend he could open up to.

Formed in 1967 by Rick and saxophonist Stan Bronstein, who met on the New York City strip-joint circuit, the group was an eclectic Frank Zappa-like mix of psychedelia, jazz, and acid-rock, and delivered a truly bizarre stage show complete with inflatable stage sets. Their first album, Elephant's Memory, was released in 1969 on Buddah Records, a label more famous for bubblegum pop groups than whacked-out horn bands.

Two tracks from the LP, "Jungle Gym at the Zoo" and "Old Man Willow," found their way onto the Midnight Cowboy movie soundtrack later that year, which gave the group some visibility, but didn't translate into sales. A second LP, 1970's Take It to the Streets, had even less commercial impact. Then came John Lennon and Some Time in New York City, and Elephant's Memory had their moment in the sun. They released a third album, also called Elephant's Memory and featuring David Peel, on Apple Records later that year, then backed up Yoko Ono on 1973's Approximately Infinite UniverseAngels Forever appeared in 1974, but no one noticed. 

While my time with Frank was brief, I've spent all these years remembering those weeks together when I was able to simply sit with him and talk. I think he appreciated that. He was released from the hospital and returned home. I visited him once in an outreach and we sat and watched Jeopardy. He answered every question right. 

Twenty years ago today I didn't know him. He checked into the hospital the next day and I was assigned to his case. Our association, indeed our friendship lasted only a month, and then, on December 7, 1998, Rick Frank died at his home in Long Branch. If I close my eyes I can see him sitting there in his living room playing Jeopardy.


  1. I played bass with a guy named Zooch in the mid 80’s at his house in West Nyack, NY. He said that he was the drummer for Elephants Memory. Would he be the same person?

  2. I knew Rick Frank breifly in Long Branch NJ and found this story on him searching his name in google. Back early 80's he was someone special who would answer anything you asked.. sorry to hear he passed away!

  3. Rick Frank was my brother in law and my first musical hero - email me, we should talk on the phone and share some stories etc.

  4. Very good written article. It will be supportive to anyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – can’r wait to read more posts. read more

  5. Rick use to have a horse at my brother's ranch in Pawling, NY so did Tex both came up every weekend to ride. I remember them giving me q od their Elephants Memory albums, both were great guys!I was young 12/13 yrs old 1973 I'm sorry to hear what he went through I remember riding with both of them. Bob Gruen was also there, John Lennon & his wife came a few times also. It truly was a great time with wonderful memories ❤

  6. In the mid 70's, I moved from Baltimore to NYC's West Village on 10th Street to a small, 5th floor walk up apartment with my girlfriend, (later my wife) who made the Wilhelmina Agency modeling 'headsheet'. We'd come from a raucous college campus and quickly learned we were pikers in the party-on 24/7 department in relation to our neighborhood. Our block had the '9th Circle' restaurant that as best I could tell was a gay Drama Queen clubhouse that never slept and when 40 or more Hells Angels rolled in one night and occupied our block (they were somewhat respectful) that's the night I learned that Rick the Drummer for Elephant's Memory lived on the ground floor. I'd met him but had no idea what he did, etc. Seems that Rick was tight with a honcho leader of the Angels., a real playa and for Rick it was just having some family stop by and visit for a day and night or so,with 40 of their close personal friends who take over the block. It was like a 60's biker movie in real time but it wasn't really scary or threatening ,at least not for me, I was a deadhead so knew to tread lightly and respect the angels, just for god's sake don't complain about the inconvenience. Some of them had Dead patches etc. So ok, that guy Rick Frank is connected. That was no local chapter visit and to our neighbor's Yoko and/or John coming and going encounters were no big deal. In fact that was like a RULE... do not freak if or when you see them in the hallway!! That's when I realized that the difficult to attain behavior goal for a startling encounter like that for a hip NYC'er is to pretend you do n ot even notice who it is. No need whatsoever to let John Lennon know that he's freaking John freaking Lennon in the freaking hallway.He knows that already and guess what?? he also already knows you love his music, because everyone does, fool. I. alas, never had that hallway encounter moment, yet I know I'd have flunked the being way cool exam for sure. That's pretty much my Rick the Drummer tales form mid 70's NYC. I didn't really know the guy, yet I was sure as hell impressed about his circle friends. And let me clarify, Rick the Drummer was very well liked in the hood, despite what one may think otherwise. In fact It says something very telling about who he was. Here was a guy who attracted an outlaw biker gang to occupy our block for 36 hours and he was still well liked. Got that? RIP Rick the Drummer, he sure as hell livened up my life and his passing triggered those memories. "But will those days ever come again? Yes!, Yes! they will...but not for me" (or Rick) - Ken Kesey -