Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ruminations on Atlanta music photographer Frank Mullen (1961-2009)

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2009 at 4:45 AM

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As news of Frank Mullen’s death began to circulate online last month, numerous comments and recollections poured in from friends, fellow photographers and acquaintances who were once subjects of Mullen’s lens. We asked several of Mullen’s closest friends to share anecdotes about him with us. Some of their written responses were used in this week's CL cover story, Frank Mullen (1961-2009): The Atlanta music photographer who never lost his cool.

The testimonials are included in full below.

On a personal note Frank Mullen and I became friends and colleagues in the fall of 2001. I was working as a writer and editor for a regional music trade publication. We had met a few times in the past when we were both freelancing for Creative Loafing's short-lived spin-off nightlife weekly the Scene, but we didn't really get to know each other until we had both moved on.

Frank and I reconnected and he began shooting photos for several cover stories on bands like Of Montreal, Elf Power and Jucifer, and his shots were always gorgeous. As a relative newcomer to the game I was inspired by Frank’s professionalism. He was a total pro, the likes of which I had never encountered in the trenches of the local music scene, and he had taste.

I visited his house once and saw his photos, mingling with his collections of records, cow horns, clown and serial killer art. He told me about his '80s hardcore band Roach Motel, and about the antics they unleashed playing shows with the likes of Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys and every other punk band I idolized as a teenager. A few years later I had the chance to write about Roach Motel when they played a reunion show at Echo Lounge in 2004.

Frank came to my office once in the summer of 2002 to drop off an invoice for some photos he had taken. His son Kyle was with him, who was still in grade school at the time. They left and I was about to do the same, but I couldn’t find my watch. I looked under papers, under my desk and in the trash can but found nothing.

A few minutes later Frank and Kyle appeared in my doorway again. Frank winked at me and in a stern voice said, “Kyle, do you have something to say to Chad?” His son held out his hand and in it was my watch. He quietly apologized without making eye contact. It was adorable, and no sooner than he had finished saying he was sorry, Frank knelt down and calmly explained to him that you should never ever steal anything and that he had done a good thing by bringing it back.

I thought ‘damn, this guy is good! He’s an amazing photographer and he’s an excellent father.' Frank Mullen was a role model to be sure, and I learned a lot from his patience, his personality and his eye.

— Chad Radford

The following songs can all be found on Roach Motel's Worstest Hits CD.

"I Hate the Sunshine State" mp3

"My Dog's Into Anarchy" mp3

"More Beer" mp3

"Brooke Shields Must Die" mp3

View a photo gallery of Frank Mullen's work. Click below to read more testimonials, anecdotes and ruminations on Frank Mullen.

Frank Mullen's wife since 2004, Vanessa Mullen:

The first time I met Frank was in the summer of 1995. I was living in Cabbagetown next to his lifelong friends Mike and Nancy. I had heard all about this guy named Frank Mullen from them for years, and they kept telling me that I was the female equivalent of this guy who was into the same morbid things that I was into. Mike had known him since childhood and Nancy had known him since college, and there was never a shortage of stories about this guy Frank. He sounded cool, but when I meet him I was not impressed. I even wondered if he really was the same guy who had played drums for the Florida hardcore band Roach Motel back in the ‘80s.

When I met him Frank had been in the corporate world for a while and he was taking on the look. …Not that it mattered much, he was married and living in another state.

By the Fall ’96 he had moved back to Atlanta. He was recently divorced and I was recently single. Our mutual friends said that we had a lot in common so we made plans to go out once. After that we were rarely ever apart. I always tell people that we fell in love over live music, sideshow banners, scary clowns, taxidermy and serial killers. He had me from the moment he told me that he was pen pals with John Wayne Gacy. I thought that was the coolest! It took a bit for me to go out with him first and I still cannot tell you why I resisted, because I liked him! I guess I had to learn to like “good guys.” We got married in 2004 and it was the happiest day of my life… It still is.

Fellow music photographer, Perry Julien:

I met Frank in the summer of 2004 at Music Midtown. I had just made the switch from shooting with film to going digital and my new camera was experiencing some major technical difficulties. While hanging in the VIP area, a photographer that could have easily passed for a rock star walked by me carrying two Nikons around his neck. I figured this guy must know a bit about digital cameras, so in the midst of him trying to get the shots he needed, I asked him if he could help me figure out why my camera no longer wanted to take photographs. Anybody else would have kept walking, but Frank sat down with me and after checking out my camera said it looked like it had a bad circuit board and should be sent back for repairs. He gave me his Matteblack business card and said to call if I ever needed him for anything.

I reminded him of that story a couple of years later after I had started photographing music for Creative Loafing and Stomp and Stammer magazine. He remembered and told me that he had watched his good friend Rick Diamond do the same for a photographer years ago whose batteries had died and no one else would help the guy. Frank was never competitive in the photo pit, and whenever he was around, shooting was a lot more fun.

Our friendship continued on and grew until he passed away. His quiet energy was omnipresent whenever we were photographing a show or just hanging out, and he will always be an inspiration to me and for anyone who was fortunate enough to know him.

Musician and family friend James "Slim Chance" Kelly:

I was a latecomer to the Frank Mullen fan club, although I was friends with his wife Vanessa for many years through our mutual work with the developmentally disabled. Vanessa was a Teacher’s Aide at a school that some of my Brook Run residents attended, almost 20 years ago. So when I kept hearing from other mutual friends that Vanessa was with this “really cool guy” I was very happy for her. I cannot recall the first time I actually met Frank, as it seemed like we were old friends from the get-go. The more I got to know him, the more impressed I was by his intellect, talent, kindness, and incredible humor. We thought a lot alike, and it was always a joy to spend time with him and Vanessa. When my band, the Convicts, was developing the art for our CD The Dark Side Of The Moonpie, Frank was recommended to help with the graphics by many people. I gave him my very amateur concept draft, and a few days later he sent me a masterpiece. He had created a perfect rendition of exactly what I wanted, and even got the name correct. Frank was very proud of this work, and we even sent it in for Grammy® Package Design consideration. We didn’t win, but I now have a beautiful piece of art. Other than saying he was gypped, I never saw Frank lamenting a bad day or expressing any negativity, even in the face of death. We were all gypped.

Jim Hayes, who wrote the liner notes for Roach Motel’s Worstest Hits CD:

I grew up in the Northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. It was as far from the “scenes” of NY, Boston, SF & LA as the fucking moon. My only outlet was to read fanzines and write to bands. One of the bands I discovered in a full page Flipside ad was called Roach Motel. Their seven inch was called "Roach and Roll.” I fell in love with the authors of “I Hate the Sunshine State” and through the mail I did an interview for my first fanzine: Dismantled Species. This was in '82 or '83. I had an insert from their record hanging in my locker. Fast forward to '98 or' 99 at the hipster rock club Echo Lounge in East Atlanta. A guy with a goatee and longish hair wielding a camera asked if he could take my spot right in front of the neck of the stage. He explained that he was the house photographer and I said sure. He introduced himself as Frank Mullen and I said 'wasn’t that the name of the singer for Roach Motel?' “I was the drummer,” he deadpanned while extending a firmer paw. Immediately I began singing, “now you’re gonna die, now you’re gonna die you bitch-why don’t you shut up, shut up shut up, heart attack your face is red, heart attack your gonna be dead-border patrol is looking for you.” Frank’s eyes widened as he met someone who could sing their lyrics. The next week he said he found my fanzine! I told him to throw it away. We started talking to each other about once a week for the next ten years. He had a gentle unassuming poise because he was so powerful and fierce so he didn’t have to strut. He just pulled out his camera, shaped how he wanted the present to look and captured. He photographed G.G. Allin, Jimmy & Roslyn, Jimmy Osterburg (Iggy Pop) & Marilyn Manson (Frank told me that for once he was semi-star struck and found it hard to give directions to the Iggy) - Merle Haggard, chicks on top of John Deere tractors-he did it all.

We talked all the time. The last few months the song “slowride” by Foghat became an in joke of ours (long story). Many a time I’d click on my voice mail and there would be a heavily distorted muffling of the pseudo-classic. When Frank was covering the Bonaroo Bonzai festival he made it a point to call me when he was sitting in the chair recently occupied by Mr. Bob Weir. “I did it for you Jim,” he reminded. A few days before he passed it wasn’t very easy to communicate. Suddenly in the most lucid voice he pipelined, “and I don’t want you using this as an excuse to go on a tear.”

I cried when he died. He wasn’t just a husband, a father, a photographer, a raconteur, a drummer, a friend, he was a flash of light that illuminated similarities instead of differences. Once when showing me photos of he and Vanessa’s wedding reception: “She hates you, you don’t know her, he’s friends with your friend Blank and you hated her first. I love all these different people in each picture.”

All I know is that for the past three weeks I’ve wanted to call and tell him some snippet of gossip or incongruity. I’ll never get to see him meticulously rinse out the coffee pot for a second cup during one of our freewheeling discussions at his kitchen table.

Roach Motel guitarist Jeff Hodapp:

Roach Motel was a band before either me or Frank were in it. It was the sloppiest, noisiest thing we had ever heard. I joined the band just after they toured with Black Flag. They liked the two guitar thing, so they asked me to join. We recorded like two days later and Frank produced it. He didn’t play drums yet. Back then they had a different drummer every show. I didn’t even know that Frank played drums because he had played bass in a band before that, called the Bazookas.

The band started around ’80 or ’81. Frank and I got involved around ’82. We were together until about mid ’84. Then we played a few show sin 2004 around the Southeast in places like Chattanooga and at Echo Lounge in Atlanta. That was about it, but we never really lost touch.

Frank told me that he was sick, and told me not to tell anyone, and everything that had to say was all very positive. We e-mailed a lot and talked about music and who’s good and what to look out for, things like that. Had I known that things were going to end up this way I would have bugged the hell out of him, just to have been able to spend more time with him.

When the band was going he was taking a lot of pictures, but I don’t think that he knew that he wanted to make a living off of it. He was in business school, just like I was. He was great to be in a band with and he was a very calming person in a sea of wackos. His opinion always counted a lot, because he was the most rational person in the band.

Childhood friend John McArthy:

I met Frank in 1976 when we were both in eighth grade. I was a new student with long hair at a short-haired school. Frank was one person who really reached out to me, and he was a long hair too. We spent a lot of time together listening to alternative music and going on adventures. We used to go out to a local beach, and explore the magical woods along the shoreline. One day he brought a boom box and a Pink Floyd cassette tape and we grooved to the pink way out on a sandbar as the tide came in and surrounded us. Hard to believe that I remember it like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, Frank and I went different directions and I have not communicated with him in over 30 years, nor did I know what he was doing with his life. Makes me sad that he has passed, but makes me feel great that he realized his dreams and did what he loved doing!

(Photo by Jim Stawniak)

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