The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest

Introduction

The song is about betrayal and the possibility of redemption. In particular It shows how one person – Frankie Lee – dies in part through his own moral failings, but mainly through the failure of another to take on responsibility for him. And it suggests that people might be saved from moral death if they take responsibility for themselves, despite being let down by others. But the concern is not just with the behaviour of the protagonists but with the way we all behave, especially to one another. For it’s made clear that Frankie Lee’s fate is potentially the fate of us all. The song will be considered under the following headings – Frankie, Judas, The Passing Stranger, Eternity, The Moral, The Little Neighbour Boy, and Revelation – before being briefly summed up in a general Conclusion.

Frankie

Frankie Lee is presented in ambivalent terms. He comes across as an ordinary, highly impressionable and sensitive person. In addition although well meaning, he’s morally weak – in fact a character drawn from life.

The narrator refers to him somewhat undeferentially as ‘Frankie’, which would suggest he’s of little social standing, and probably younger than the narrator himself. That he’s also younger than Judas Priest is suggested when the latter calls him ‘Frankie Boy’. It’s notable that Frankie never addresses Judas by name at all. He’s a simple, childlike character and this comes across in a number of ways. Fatherless, he seems reliant on Judas when he supposedly needs money, and he fails to see just how untrustworthy Judas is. Judas sees him as easy to dupe, as shown when he says ‘My loss will be your gain’, and when he’s able to get him to believe that the money might ‘disappear’. Frankie’s innocence is further apparent when, with Judas in mind, he naively declares to the stranger ‘Oh, yes, he is my friend’. This innocence is also there in his childlike compliance, ‘I’m going to start my picking right now’. The task set by Judas seems to fool him too. He doesn’t seem to realise that he’s effectively being given money by Judas, for winning it requires him to do no more than select from an array of ten-dollar bills.

Frankie’s innocence is accompanied by a propensity for showing simple emotions. On hearing that Judas is stranded, his response is to panic. Earlier, on hearing that Judas will be at ‘Eternity’ he, perhaps justifiably, goes cold with horror. Once Judas has reassured him, we’re told ‘he sat back down’ – implying that he must have sprung to his feet, so intense was his horror. And then we’re told he felt ‘low and mean’ – presumably for having distrusted his mentor. The simplicity of his emotions might also come across in his smiling on hearing that Judas’ destination was ‘Paradise’.

Frankie is clearly being presented realistically, and as someone with whom we might sympathise. However, this realism is enhanced by there being a number of things which suggest that morally Frankie is far from perfect. We find he associates being alone with hiding, as if he cannot possibly be alone without incurring a guilt which needs to be hidden. Yet despite this, he still asks to be alone. And when the stranger tells him he’s needed by Judas, his immediate response is to prevaricate:

‘”Oh, yes, he is my friend”

“I do recall him very well
In fact he just left my sight”‘

In speaking like this he seems to be trying to give the impression he hasn’t seen Judas for some time. You don’t say you recall someone well if they’ve only just left you. And then, too late, realising the hopelessness of being able to fool the stranger, he admits the truth, that Judas has only just left him.

That he can be disingenuous also becomes apparent when he finds Judas at the house:

‘”What kind of house is this,” he said
“Where I have come to roam?”

By saying ‘where I have come to roam’ he is clearly pretending he happened on the house by chance, and yet we know that he set out deliberately to go there.
And once in the house, he appears at his worst. He goes upstairs with ‘a soulful, bounding leap’ – the sounds of ‘soulful’ and ‘bounding’ both beautifully capturing his motion. I doubt if a leap could be both soulful and bounding, but the description reflects the conflicting sides of his character – ‘soulful’ showing he’s aware of his guilt, while ‘bounding’ indicates his decadent enthusiasm. At that point he seems to go mad with a lust so exaggerated it results in his death.

Overall Frankie comes across as a sensitive and loyal, but at the same time a vulnerable person with human weaknesses.

Judas

Our initial impression of Judas Priest comes from his names. Being named after the biblical Judas, he clearly represents betrayal – and he’s undoubtably the betrayer of Frankie. The surname, Priest, suggests he has the role of intermediary, on behalf of others, between man and God. However, whereas he should be helping lead Frankie to God (or Paradise), he in fact helps bring about his death. This can be interpreted both as his literal and his moral death. Judas’ guilt is made worse by the fact that he knows that Frankie’s father is dead, and that as a result Frankie is dependent on him.

Judas is not to be trusted. That this is so becomes apparent when his response to Frankie’s needing money is to ‘quickly’ pull out a roll of tens. The ‘quickly’ is highly significant. It tells us this was no natural kindness on behalf of a friend in need. This is Judas seizing an opportunity to exploit Frankie. That he is able to patronise Frankie shows he knows he’s is simpleminded and easy to dupe, and he spares no pains to dupe him. Emotionally Judas is the opposite of Frankie – the difference being brought out by the respective use of ‘cold’ for each. Judas’ ‘cold eyes’ contrast with Frankie’s voice when it’s described as ‘cold as ice’. Frankie is being highly emotional – horrified. Judas is without emotion.

Judas is devious too. He exploits Frankie by ensuring he has the money it suits Judas that he should have. To get him to acquire it quickly he frightens him, yet he does so in language which makes it seem he has Frankie’s interest at heart:

‘”But you better hurry up and choose which of those bills you want
Before they all disappear'”

And Judas’ complicity in Frankie’s implied guilt is implied by his winking.

We’re not told why Frankie needed money, but since he ends up in a brothel it’s reasonable to assume it was for that. Given Frankie’s simplicity we needn’t suppose the idea was his, though. It may well have been Judas’, who then finds a way of supplying him with the necessary money. Once Frankie has the money, Judas sets about luring him to the brothel and his moral destruction.

Judas’ deviousness is further apparent in the message sent via the stranger. First, it plays on Frankie’s fear for Judas by informing him he’s in need of help. Secondly, it employs the language of flattery:

‘… “Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler
Whose father is deceased?’

Not only is Frankie described as ‘the gambler’, which we’ve reason to believe exaggerates his abilities, but the reference to his father can only be designed to afford him status – as does the formality of the language, in particular ‘deceased’ instead of ‘dead’. That the message is unnaturally formal is brought out by the informality of expressions like ‘fellow’ and ‘down the road’ in what are presumably the stranger’s own words which follow:

‘”Well, if you are, there’s a fellow calling you down the road’

The message is a lie. As we find out, Judas is not stranded – at least in the literal sense he has in mind. Morally he is.

It seems, too, that Judas’ guilt, like Frankie’s, involves hiding. it seems he wanted to hide his name from the stranger, who apparently discovered it from others:

‘”And they say his name is priest'”

In not being prepared to divulge his name, Judas can be seen as giving us reason to doubt his intentions.

Perhaps the most damning thing about Judas can be divined from his behaviour, or lack of it, at the end of the song. He does nothing to stop Frankie from his uncontrolled behaviour. And when Frankie dies in Judas’ arms, it’s not because of compassion on Judas’ part. Frankie ‘burst’ into his arms; there’s no sign that it was Judas who put his arms round Frankie. And after Frankie’s death, Judas isn’t in evidence at all. It’s left to someone else, the little neighbour boy, to bury him.

The Passing Stranger

Literally Frankie couldn’t ‘burst’ into Judas’ arms. But the word’s unnatural sound serves a purpose. It has the effect of reminding us of the episode of the passing stranger who ‘burst upon the scene’. Literally strangers who are merely passing don’t ‘burst’ any more than dying young men ‘burst’ into other men’s arms. The passing stranger episode resulted in Frankie setting out to rescue Judas, so an effect of the repetition of ‘burst’ is to remind us of this. In so doing it also reminds us that Frankie then neglected to rescue him and that therefore some of the guilt for what followed lies with him.

While the stranger can be seen literally as the carrier of Judas’ message aimed at bringing Frankie to the brothel, a number of things suggest that he might also be seen as a representation of Frankie’s conscience. One is Frankie’s realisation, referred to above, that he can’t keep the truth from him. Another is his having the effect of spurring Frankie into a charitable act. This would make his ‘bursting’ upon the scene the same thing as Frankie’s sudden realisation that he has a duty – namely to rescue Judas from moral death. It’s apparent, however, this burst of conscience is no longer in evidence once he arrives – for from then on he doesn’t give a further thought to Judas’ being ‘stranded’.

That the stranger can be seen as Frankie’s conscience is further suggested by the lines:

‘”Yes, that’s the one,” said the stranger
As quiet as a mouse’

said in reply to Frankie’s:

‘”In fact he just left my sight”‘

‘Yes, that’s the one’ is a rather uncomplimentary way of referring to someone. It suggests that the speaker has reason not to respect them. It seems unlikely that a stranger delivering a message would make such an overt moral judgment. And such a judgment is perhaps implied too by his speaking ‘as quiet as a mouse’, suggesting, perhaps, embarrassment at having to be associated with someone like Judas. It also seems unlikely the stranger would have known that Judas had just left Frankie. But Frankie knows that. And Frankie might well have doubts about Judas’ character. This would make it quite plausible that the stranger should be taken as a representation of Frankie’s moral qualms.

Finally there’s the fact, mentioned above, that both the stranger and Frankie have a strange propensity for bursting – the stranger ‘burst upon the scene’ and Frankie ‘burst into the arms of Judas’. This would be accounted for if the propensity is really Frankie’s, the stranger just representing a part of him.

There’s an important consequence to this. If the stranger who bursts onto the scene is really Frankie’s conscience, then Frankie’s bursting into the arms of Judas might be seen as his conscience at work again after a lapse. If on the seventeenth day in the brothel his bursting into Judas’ arms is his conscience making him give up that way of life, the suggestion is that he managed in the end to save himself from moral death.

Eternity

There seems to be a mismatch between the speed at which time passes for Frankie and Judas respectively. It seems that no sooner has Judas left Frankie than a stranger arrives with a message saying Judas is stranded. Frankie has just sat down:

‘When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene’

Judas clearly wouldn’t have had time to get to his destination, the house, let alone realise he was stranded. Nor would the stranger have had time to be entrusted with the message and take it to Frankie.This temporal mismatch seems linked to the concept of ‘eternity’, a term used by Judas to describe his destination. Frankie seems to be not wholly within time in that it doesn’t pass for him at the normal speed it passes for Judas. Since ‘eternity’ can be taken to mean timelessness or existence outside of time, Frankie seems to be partially in eternity. Judas, by contrast, is wholly there. He’s literally at the house called Eternity.

If this Eternity is the opposite of Paradise (rather than simply providing another name for it, as Judas claims) it can be seen as spiritual death. It’s a spiritual death which Judas reaches first. Frankie is not yet spiritually dead, but his atemporal experience suggests he’s on the way. It will only take Judas’ machinations to complete the process for him. And that process is completed for Frankie when he too literally arrives at the house called Eternity.


The Moral

While Frankie and Judas both fail in their duty to each other, one person who doesn’t is the little neighbour boy, and it’s through the moral spoken by the narrator that his importance becomes apparent. What, then is the moral? The moral is in three parts, the first two of which are discussed here. The first is extremely trite, suggesting the narrator doesn’t really see what’s significant about the events he’s related:

‘The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong’

Nevertheless, despite the simplistic expression, there is a moral here. Frankie died because he went where he should not have been – where he did not ‘belong’. The real moral at this point is that one risks moral death if one does not take responsibility for oneself. Although as it happened Frankie may have earned himself a last minute reprieve, he’d have done better not to have needed it in the first place.

The narrator’s simplistic expression of the first part of the moral suggests he might well not fully appreciate the significance of the second part either. (This, after all, is the same narrator who naively thinks Frankie and Judas are ‘the best of friends’.) He advises:

‘So when you see your neighbour carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load’

As presented by the narrator the advice is nothing more than trite. Also, he seems to think that from the fact that someone shouldn’t be where they don’t belong, we ought to help our neighbour when he’s carrying something. Nevertheless, despite the poor logic and its appearing trite it has an import greater than he seems to realise. This will become apparent when we consider the episode of the little neighbour boy.

It’s apparent that the narrator’s simple outlook seems to make him a reflection of Frankie whose character is one of simple minded innocence. This is similar to the way the passing stranger can be seen as Frankie’s conscience. Another example of characters sharing characteristics is involves Frankie and Judas for not only are both guilty, but this guilt becomes apparent in each case through there interest in hiding it. If the characters can be identified with each other, or at least be een to share each other’s characterisics, it suggests that these characteristics belong to everybody. The song is thus made to appear especially relevant to us because, sadly, we too will often have these characterisics. We are in the narrator, and Frankie and Judas just as much as they are in each other. Whatever applies to them will equally apply to us. That the various characters are to be sen reflected in each other will be reinforced when we consider the little neighbour boy, for it will become clear that he too is a reflection of Frankie.

The Little Neighbour Boy

What the narrator seems not to realise is just how pertinent his words are with respect to the little neighbour boy. Not only is this boy a neighbour, but he has a load – his guilt, for in the previous verse we were told:

‘And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed’

Whatever his guilt is, it makes him seem just like Frankie. Frankie too had wanted to be alone. And being alone was a substitute for hiding – or concealing his guilt. In hiding his guilt, the little neighbour boy, it would seem, is being presented as another Frankie. And accordingly he will be in danger, like Frankie, and in need of help so that he too does not suffer Frankie’s fate. In the person of the little neighbour boy the narrator’s tritely expressed moral is brought home to us. He, a real person – not just one’s neighbour in the abstract, as the narrator would have it – is the one who needs help with his load.

Guilt is not the neighbour boy’s only load, however. He is carrying another one – the body of Frankie Lee. This suggests he need not just be seen negatively – as a potential victim of people like Judas. We can see him positively – as someone who takes on responsibility. He helps others with their load in that he helps Judas with the body that is actually Judas’ responsibility.

What the neighbour boy episode suggests is that despite Frankie’s moral death, and the neighbour boy’s own danger from those like Judas, there is hope. If people take on responsibility and assist others, as the neighbour is doing here, tragedies like Frankie’s can be avoided. There’s no need for humanity to be represented just by the morally corrupt. But the virtuous will only be representative of humanity if people decide to follow the little neighbour boy’s example.

This last point is made clear in the third part of the moral – the closing words of the song – where it’s the listener who is told:

‘… don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road’

Across the road! The listener is being addressed and the source of moral death is no longer the remote ‘down the road’ from Frankie and Judas. It’s near. It’s across the road, the listener’s road. Our road! The clear implication is that if others are to avoid the fate of Frankie, it is we who must act.

Revelation

It’s ironic that we’re told the ‘house’ – the brothel – is ‘as bright as any sun’. The description might make us recall the House of the Rising Sun, in the song of that name, and the preventable misery of its narrator. But more than that, the words ‘any sun’ are likely to remind us of one particular sun, or son – Christ. It’s Christ who revealed the means of avoiding moral death, and ultimately it’s Christian attitudes that Judas Priest is working against to the eternal detriment of both himself and Frankie.

This might throw light on the cryptic words muttered by the little neighbour boy – ‘Nothing is revealed’. Literally they might mean that Frankie’s, and perhaps Judas’, guilt has been hushed up. Or they might mean the neighbour boy’s own guilt is safely hidden. But in a song replete with Christian imagery, the remark is likely to remind us of Christian revelation. As such it represents the attitudes of those like Judas who act as if there has been no revelation. But it also comes across as ironic, since the way to Paradise has ‘been revealed’ – by way of the revelation of Christ.

Conclusion

Frankie Lee’s literal death might be seen either as representing his moral death, or  as a happy end to life given a last minute moral about turn. What distinguishes Frankie’s treatment from Judas’ is that, whereas Judas is presented as morally dead from the start, Frankie’s moral development unfolds before our eyes. The source of his moral demise is in part his own weakness, but it’s first and foremost Judas’ refusal to ‘help him with his load’. The song’s focus, then, is not primarily on human weakness itself, as represented by Frankie, but more on the failure of people like Judas to be responsible for others. Even if Frankie redeemed himself at the last moment, he might not have done and much of the fault would have been Judas’. The moral is not just that we should reject temptation for our own good, but that we should help others avoid it for their good.

Last revised 9.11.15

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