Sometimes you can just tell. You see when someone has something special inside them, when they're meant for bigger, better things.
I always felt that way about Frank Campagna Jr., better known around town as Frankie 45 or, more simply, as Frankie. He just exuded that special something—in all walks of life, be it in his mischievous smile, with his disarming sense of humor or in his ever-impressive onstage performances as the frontman for Spector 45.
He was one of the good ones.
Frankie Campagna Jr.
And, man, it pains me to have to use the past tense.
Early on Saturday morning, after having headlined the New Year's Eve festivities at The Bone in Deep Ellum with his punk trio, Spector 45, Campagna killed himself. He seemed in good spirits that night when I spoke with him—just his normal, smiling, wisecracking self.
News of his death traveled fast—incredibly so. Consider it a testament to the number of people who so adored him. By the time his father, Frank Campagna Sr., opened the doors of his Deep Ellum art gallery to the public at 7 o'clock that night, pretty much the entire Deep Ellum neighborhood and Dallas music community had heard the news. And they all gathered at Kettle Art, numbering in the hundreds, standing in near-silence, murmuring memories, expressing their shock and sorrow, and, because they didn't know what else to do, participating in some dark humor.
It was an inspiring but largely unsurprising scene. Frankie, clearly, was a revered figure, whether he knew it or not.
This was especially the case in Deep Ellum, where he literally was raised. The neighborhood was part of his bloodline. So many of the murals that colorfully decorate the small music-centric neighborhood just east of downtown were painted by his father. Of course, Frankie came to leave his own fingerprints throughout the neighborhood, too. Pretty much every club in Deep Ellum, at one point or another, had hosted a Spector 45 show. They had plenty of chances; Spector 45 existed in some capacity for nearly a decade, starting when Campagna was still a student at Booker T. Washington High School, obsessed with rockabilly and punk rock.
His band played often—maybe too often, to the point, perhaps, of being taken for granted. But Campagna didn't mind. When he was offered a gig, he took it. Because, and you could tell, he just loved to perform. He'd strut around on stage, leaping left and right and thrashing about with fury. And he looked comfortable while doing it. Onstage, he was his own man. He wasn't Frank's son—the dangerous-looking but sweet-as-pie one with the slouch—but a magnetic figure people look up at, wide-eyed. He'd just wail away on his guitar, clad in his permanent greaser-punk uniform, looking impossibly tuff and handsome. And, when he was finished, he'd flash his crooked grin out at the crowd, legitimately pleased by their presence and applause, no matter the number of people watching.
Frankie just wanted to please. He just wanted to impress. And, every time he played live, he did. It was near impossible to watch him play and not think that he was destined for bigger, better things. In recent years, that much became even clearer. The crowds sure thought so: In 2009 and 2010, the band was voted as the Best Punk Act in our annual Dallas Observer Music Awards.
Spector 45 deserved those nods. They were, after all, always pretty good.
But, see, here's the thing: They were on the verge of becoming pretty great. Their new material showcased deeper lyrical content—not just the flashy stuff that performers of their caliber could get away with, but actual substantive stuff too. No longer was it all just about speed, either. Campagna was truly coming into his own as a songwriter—the subject matter dictated the band's direction, and not the other way around. He was progressing.
He was, it seemed, on the verge of becoming the star Deep Ellum always knew he could be—fittingly, just as the neighborhood he so adored was starting to awaken from its own slumber, with long-shuttered venues reopening and long-turned-off neon lights sparking back on.
It's fitting that, over the past few days, many have remembered Campagna by recalling how permanent a fixture he was in the neighborhood and its surrounding areas—as a performer, and also as a bartender at Club Dada and later at the Amsterdam Bar in Exposition Park. I'll take that a step further: Frankie had come to embody all that was Deep Ellum.
He pretty much was Deep Ellum. The two mirrored one another in so many ways—colorful figures, obsessed with music, and, though a little rough around the edges, ultimately welcoming souls. Both seemed to have bright futures on the horizon.
And though Campagna will never realize his, nothing made him happier than seeing his neighborhood come back to life.
It was that way the first time I met him too.
Almost three years ago now, the night before my job interview at the Observer, I walked around Deep Ellum pondering the state of the scene I was being asked to cover. It was a slow Thursday night. Nothing was open. Many venues had been closed for what seemed like years. Not Club Dada, though. So I paid my cover, walked in to the room and positioned myself toward the back of the venue's old bar. Campagna, from behind the bar, told me all he knew about the neighborhood's so-called glory days, rambling on and on between serving drinks. I looked around the room, stunned.
"Well, fine, but where is everyone tonight?" I asked. "This is what a Thursday night in storied Deep Ellum looks like?"
He didn't skip a beat. He refused to acknowledge, even to this stranger, that the neighborhood had become a shadow of its former self.
"Well, it's only 11," Frankie told me. "When I go out with my friends, we usually don't hit the bars until around midnight."
I took his word for it, ordered another beer, and, shortly thereafter, left.
Two weekends ago, over a couple drinks and a game of darts at another Deep Ellum bar, I told Campagna that story.
"I was probably just trying to squeeze a couple of extra bucks out of you," he said, laughing his hearty laugh.
I knew better. Campagna was simply doing his part for the neighborhood he loved—something he always did, and gladly at that.
When I saw him on Friday, we shared a quick conversation about all the action taking place in the neighborhood that night. He seemed proud that things were looking up for the neighborhood once more.
"This is a good thing," I said, now a resident of the neighborhood myself.
He nodded, agreeing, before changing the subject to give me grief about beating him in darts the weekend before.
"I'm never playing darts with you again," he said.
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I didn't think anything of it. The kid, I assumed, was kidding again. Just as he always did.
He always seemed so happy to me.
Sometimes you can just tell.
Other times, you can't.