This is the story of Frank’s Depression, a state of mind that outlived the unlucky punk poet who used it as a tag. Frank Hobbs (a/k/a Frank’s Depression) died on St. Marks Place in the early morning hours of August 21, 1996, under circumstances his friends still think were criminal. After a fight with a bouncer, he apparently walked down the block and collapsed in a doorway. He was DOA at Cabrini, where doctors diagnosed a cardiac arrest.
Frank’s Depression was 30, a classic punked-out social reject with studded leather jacket and dog collar, green hair rubber-banded into spikes, and two front teeth lost to slam dancing. He was not a New Yorker, just a frequent visitor, and apparently an inspiration to many on the local scene because of his dedication to his zines and his ‘tude—a morbid sense of humor, an uncompromising fatalism. If he’d had a chance to describe his own hapless death, he might have used his fave phrase: “It figures.”
Fly, one of his East Village friends, decided she would keep Frank’s memory alive by hosting a Day of Depression on the anniversary of his death. “I thought he deserved more out of life,” she said. Last year, she only had time to enlarge and hang some of his poems at ABC No Rio. This year, she lined up vocalists from various punk bands to perform their songs as spoken word. No music. Lyrics would be audible for the first time because no one would have to scream. And Frank was a word guy. Frank with his sixth-grade education.
Frank and Fly met on the street in San Francisco, through a mutual friend in a band called the Spider Cunts. Fly was on a do-it-yourself spoken-word tour, showing up at punk gigs and asking the bands if she could read stuff between sets. Mostly, they let her. That night Frank came to see Fly read, then he read himself, right through his self-consciousness about the missing front teeth. (He could no longer pronounce certain words.) Punk is the culture of the-wretched-can-do-it. Maybe it’s also about mutual empowerment in the guise of egging each other on.
Fly was never Frank’s best friend, but they were major letter writers. What she knew of his life was: Tough childhood in Maine. A mother who killed herself. Frank running away after that, at age 11, to God-knows-where. Later he lived in Oakland, California. His three most important possessions were his jacket, his zines, and a three-ring binder holding letters from fans. Frank was truly depressed, sometimes on medication. He’d inscribed the words “Frank’s Depression Poetry” everywhere he could—even into cracks in a wall. Apparently it’s been tattooed all over No Rio.
He was the legend no one ever heard of.
A fangless vampire/clutching an icepick, straw,/is chasing me through a shopping mall.
If depression is what you’re after, No Rio can make for the perfect Slough of Despond, what with its cruddy lawn furniture, battered folding chairs, and a jagged hole in the ceiling where part of a plastic garbage bag is visible. The current exhibit commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Tompkins Square riot: flyers and other effluvia about the People and the Pigs.
One of Fly’s bandmates from God Is My Co-Pilot did a preshow pre-depression warm-down, reading Frank’s poem about the heart attack he had at age 21 from injecting cocaine:
I was clinically dead for 10 minutes
All I recall is opening my eyes in a brick alley
somewhere in Heaven,
where a group of angels wearing baseball caps
kicked the shit out of me,
’cause they didn’t like my green hair.
Ten minutes in Heaven
equals a year on Earth.
Dressed in black shorts, combat boots, and sequined vest, Fly then read from her postcard zine “The Death of Depression,” the story of her last encounter with Frank on the night he died and then having to identify his body at the morgue five days later. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to recognize him… I’ve been looking in the mirror trying to practice… because I feel like I could be dead myself… looking in the mirror… saying yes… that’s him… I recognize that sadness and fury.”
Later Fly told me that on the night he died, she’d come looking for him outside Munchies on St. Marks, the spot where he liked to sell his zines. This was maybe an hour before the bouncer incident, and Frank was drunk. She didn’t want to hang with him when he was drunk, so they made a plan. Tomorrow. She noticed that he’d added some facial tattoos. “He was, like, a little crustier-looking, a little more worn and torn. He still had no front teeth.”
Before Fly left him, he’d said something about wanting to harass yuppies. Kaya Chaos from the band Deviant Behavior got up to testify that he hadn’t been doing that: “I’m the most coherent of the few that were there.” The bouncer (“this big cue ball”) asked Frank and his friend Stitches to move away from the front of his bar. They did, but as they got three four feet away, Frank said, “Fuck you.” That was it. In the words of Kaya Chaos, “this big cue ball just monsters towards him and grabs him in some Vulcan Death Grip. The fight ensued.”
Fly had organized everyone to go to the precinct and file reports. They did, but nothing happened.
Punk is the first youth culture to last more than 20 years. Frank’s look comes right out of the late ’70s. Maybe this is the real rebellion and true anticapitalism: the refusal to invent a whole new style.
Fly speculates that punk is still here because “it’s action-packed and spectacular,” perfect for the TV generation. It was family for dysfunctional kids. And it was fun.
At the tribute to Frank’s Depression, the songs without music became rants, little capsules of the culture of opposition as it’s lived now, Loisaida style. Vocalists from bands like The Dreggs and White Collar Crime offered current variations on the eternal verities of youth: oppose the fascist pigs and hate the rich.
But it didn’t sound all that “fun.” Fly did some songs from her other band, her punk band, Zero Content, in the standard machine-gun delivery: “1-2-3-4 Piss! Piss! Piss! Pissbucket! Shit! [pause] I spilled it but it doesn’t matter because it’s frozen solid anyway.” This, she explained, was “a true story about squatting.” Then, among others, “1-2-3-4! Heat the rich! Burn them! Burn them! Heat the rich!”
Fly lives in a squat because she likes the do-it-yourself lifestyle, which in her case meant building an apartment almost from scratch—not just new floorboards but new support beams, windows, and walls. For two years previously, she’d lived at Gargoyle Mechanique, a now defunct performance space on Avenue B, where she had a place to sleep with a shelf for her belongings.
Fly says that she and Frank disagreed about squatting, that he was “more transient, more flippant.” Where he might catch a night’s sleep on a hunk of cardboard in some abandoned building, she had spent money and sweat to homestead a place. That makes for a hard, stressful life, but it’s forward-looking. For Frank, there was no future.
This is a story about life on the permanent margin. Some thrive there, while others self-destruct. Of course, to the rest of the world, the tattooed, the leathered, and the spiked are all the same—and all despised.