True Dreamer

In ‘JackStock,’ filmmaker Thomas Florek documents a passionate singer-songwriter who lived to perform.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 3:29 PM EDT

By Susan Van Dongen

Singer-songwriter Jack Stock had the romantic musical vision of Roy Orbison, the mordant humor of Randy Newman, the passionate performance style of Bruce Springsteen and the songwriting talents of John Lennon, but outside of New York and New Jersey, he was unknown.

   A true dreamer, he lived to perform his remarkable songs. For those tied to the desk, trudging through life in an office cubicle, Mr. Stock is an inspiration. He didn’t seem to worry about making a living and instead poured his heart into his songs and New Jersey’s underground music milieu. In the open mike scene, the middle-aged man was a superstar, with a presence that could make even drunken 17-year-olds fall silent and respectful.

   Beloved by fans, Mr. Stock lived for the day and the moment. Then, as if to consummate the rock star myth, he was gone — felled by heart disease just into his 50s.

   Remembering this extraordinary but unassuming man was the motivation for filmmaker Thomas Florek to create the documentary JackStock (the title is a takeoff on Woodstock). The Lambertville resident, who for years has facilitated and filmed Café Improv at the Arts Council of Princeton, also wanted to celebrate the spirit of open mike nights at the ACP and around the state. The documentary blends Mr. Stock’s live performances and interviews with friends, family and musicians such as Mike Grau, Spook Handy, James Dalton, Keith Beck and Jeff Mastroberti — many of whom also perform Mr. Stock’s songs.

   JackStock will be screened in the Robert L. Solley Theater at the newly renovated Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, home of the ACP, Aug. 1. The free screening will be followed by live music, and Mr. Florek anticipates a kind of Jack Stock family reunion.

   ”I’m a musician in that scene and I’m really interested in what motivates people to create art,” Mr. Florek says. “That’s why (I love) Café Improv. It’s an avenue to really present art for people to watch, as opposed to art (done) to get the attention from the media. It’s music direct from their hearts to your ears, people creating music because they want to affect you.”

   Mr. Florek says the film is mainly about the open mike and indie music scene, but it’s told through Mr. Stock’s eyes and story.

   ”And all the music in the film is his,” Mr. Florek says.

   Recalling his first encounter with Mr. Stock, the filmmaker says he was a kind of mixture between Rodney Dangerfield (looks) and Bruce Springsteen (sound).

   ”Jack was unbelievable,” Mr. Florek says. “I remember he walked into Café Improv, this mysterious person just showed up. It was late, there were very few people still left, but he just mesmerized the place. Then he did it again a few months later, and I found out he was doing this all over the state. He had an interesting persona — he was a little older, with an intense personality.

   ”Eventually, we found out that Jack had passed away (and I wanted to ask), ‘Who is this person?’” he adds. “What made him tick? How did he become such a powerful performer? I kept running into other people who were moved by his performances and tracked down a lot of his friends and relatives. In putting the film together I learned why people play music in general and why they keep playing it when it’s not a financially rewarding thing.”

   Produced and edited by Mr. Florek, the documentary spans Mr. Stock’s long career. Still shots from his early days in the punk band The Flicks give the viewer the sense that those days were really a long time ago. (Did people really dress like that?) Scenes from his later years as a singer-songwriter capture his mystique and passion for the performance. You also get a sense of his talent as a tunesmith — by the end of JackStock you may find yourself humming his songs, even a few days later.

   The interviews with his brother, mother and fiancée are poignant. You see the love but also the bewilderment. Will Mr. Stock ever stop dreaming, ever get over the need to play just one more set?

   ”His life was completely dedicated to music, to the point in which his brother says, ‘I wish he would talk about something else,’” Mr. Florek says. “Jack lost a marriage because he was so focused on his music.”

   This episode of his life is spelled out in the heartbreaking song “Sorry Charlie.” In the film a couple of Mr. Stock’s female friends talk about how that song always makes them cry a little. They’ve been there with a man they loved — forsaken for a gig, a game or another girl.

   On the lighter side, it’s amusing that no one seems to know how Mr. Stock sustained himself financially since his “day job” was as mysterious as his persona.

   ”You never knew who Jack was,” says New Jersey journalist Al Muzer. “Whether he was a rough and tumble dockworker or whether he was a chauffeur somewhere, or maybe with the CIA, we didn’t really know with Jack. He just kind of kept quiet and kept mysterious and maybe a little something would creep out of his lyrics.”

   Mr. Stock had a vision for his music and finally got the chance to record a CD, By the Light of the Moon. A friend and producer, Mr. Grau gave him the chance, admiring his skills with just an acoustic guitar and vocal microphone. That’s what Mr. Grau thought was in the works when he set up the recording sessions. But then other musicians — including an upright bassist, a flutist and a drummer — showed up.

   A perfectionist, Mr. Stock tried Mr. Grau’s patience in the studio until the producer said basically, “Let’s wrap this up or your tapes are going to be out on the front lawn.”

   The film plays a part of the CD and you can hear that Mr. Stock imagined his songs with full arrangements. “Boo Boo” has the beauty and texture of an Orbison song, or maybe John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.”

   JackStock is the first feature-length documentary by Mr. Florek and was recently screened at the ReelHeART International Film Festival in Toronto. His cult music video “Gangsta Knitter,” was featured at ReelHeART in 2007, and won a category prize. It also inspired a generation of punk-knitters after being featured in Knit 1 Magazine. The film has been well received closer to home, too.

   ”(The documentary) is long (almost an hour) but it seems to work really well and I’m pleased at the response,” Mr. Florek says. “I run into people who knew Jack in the ‘70s or saw him play in New York and they get really quiet about the whole thing, it’s very emotional for them.”

   Almost all of the live footage from the documentary comes from Mr. Stock’s performances at Café Improv at the ACP, in what is now the Robert L. Solley Theater. Because Mr. Florek taped the local cable TV show Café Improv, he had great videotape of the singer-songwriter’s appearances.

   ”That became the basis of doing this,” Mr. Florek says. “I’ve been working on this for about three years. Jack passed away in 2005 and I’ve been interviewing and editing since. Most of the live footage was done in that room and it’ll be fun because (his fellow) musicians will be showing up for the Aug. 1 event, playing Jack Stock songs. There will also be some people who discovered Jack after his death and they’re into his music too.”

   At one point in the film, it seems as though Mr. Stock “came to his senses” and decided to give up the life of a vagabond musician in the open mike scene. He even got a regular job. But that didn’t last long and his sabbatical from music seems to have fueled his creativity even more.

   ”Jack decided playing music wouldn’t work and he gave it up, but then he decided, ‘Wait, I like this,’ and that’s when he got really intense,” Mr. Florek says. “He was in his 50s by then. Most people have aspirations to be Elvis or whatever and that’s cool, but they give it up because success isn’t happening. With Jack, even after it became clear to him music wouldn’t be a career, he was still focused on it, and that’s what is most fascinating to me. But you see a lot of that with Café Improv.”

JackStock, produced and directed by Thomas Florek, will be screened at the Robert L. Solley Theater at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon St., Princeton, Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m. Free admission. Live music to follow the documentary. (609) 924-8777; Thomas Florek on the Web: JackStock on the Web: