Frank Justich was the older brother (by 1 year) of one of my best friends when I was growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens NYC during the early ‘80s. Their home, in those halcyon days of 1982, was the neighborhood clubhouse. Myself, along with his brother Jimmy & friends our age would lay claim to territory on one side of the house; Frank & his buddies would be doing the same thing on the other. While we were a mixed bunch ethnically: White, Spanish, Black & every sort of intermingling in between. The one thing that separated us, besides the age difference, was the at-times insurmountable musical styles that we each pledged allegiance to.
Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” had come out that year, Jimmy & our crew would be in his room blasting that 12” record alongside dubbed tapes of Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack radio show. We would tape his weekly broadcast religiously, Hip-Hop culture was in its nascent pre-breakout stage & we were eager B-Boy disciples. Our preferred gear being shell-top Adidas sneakers, creased Lee pants, name belt-buckles, all worn while practicing our best break-dancing routines like our idols The Rock Steady crew. We also of dreamed of Graffiti glory by copiously practicing sketches on paper that would one day, we hoped, would make it on to the holy grail: an actual NYC subway car. On the other side of the divide, Frank & friends were all about the Rock n Roll look & sound. Long hair with a studded earring on one ear was the de rigueur look. Alongside Levi jeans or dungarees, jackets with band patches & motorcycle/work boots. Classic guitar fare like Rush/Skynard/Led Zep was on a continuous loop; Hendrix & Duane Allman was their role model along with the zeal of true believers on the all-redeeming powers of Rock music.
The two factions pretty much kept to themselves except for the weekend beer drinking games that served as the great social lubricant around the kitchen table which was situated in the neutral, non-combatant approved area. I distinctly remember walking one day across no man’s land, en route to the bathroom, and hearing AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. I said to myself “Damn, that’s a funky beat”. I wouldn’t have admitted that in public, as anything with guitars was considered wack or heresy in our circle. Frank must have sensed an interest on my part & he discreetly invited me to hang out in the shrine to all-things Rock: his room. It was there that I was turned on to Neil Peart’s dexterous drumming, Richie Blackmore’s monster riffs & Geezer Butler’s thunderous bass sounds. Frank was patient & generous with expanding my musical vocabulary, all the while remaining tight-lipped about it, lest my crew finding out I was consorting with the other side.
Frank in the middle. Picture by Yvette Rodriguez
As the years went by & I moved out of the neighborhood, I would keep Frank’s lessons close to heart: Hip Hop & Rock were not mutually exclusive entities. As the former emphasized the beat & the latter was all about the melody or “groove”, they ultimately emanated from the same source, each taking different routes to express themselves. The same could be said for Frank & the other boys from that summer of ’82 as we went through life’s litany of ups & downs. I lost touch with a lot of the guys until, through serendipity; I got an invite in ’09 for Jimmy’s 40th b-day bash. This proved to be a gathering of the tribes as I had a blast reconnecting with the old crew & seeing Frank again was a bonus. We hadn’t spoken since we were teenagers & at one point I thanked him for opening my musical horizons. His response was something along the lines of: “Man, that stuff didn’t need me to sell it, Rock ‘n Roll rules & it always will!” As I explained it to him, that initial encouragement led me to a life long involvement with guitar-based music, both on the producing & spectator ends of the spectrum. He good-naturedly brushed off my praise & we made some tentative plans to get together at a later date with our respective spouses.
This was sadly not to be as I heard the news, several months later that a Sanitation worker had been killed on the job in Astoria, Queens. All those years that I’d spent getting away from the old neighborhood, Frank had gone in the opposite direction. He’d joined the Sanitation Dept; keeping sidewalks clean on blocks not too far from where we grew up. The outpouring of appreciation for this, at times, thankless task was overwhelming. The number of people with anecdotes on how Frank always went the extra mile with endless good humor & a cheerful attitude while performing backbreaking labor were a mile long. A couple that stuck with me, was the cleanup trucks were being called back into the garage due to bad weather, Frank pleading to his supervisor “Please let me stay out there, my people need me”. Another telling detail of how he was the only one along the route that would routinely get Christmas/Birthday gifts of homemade items like knitted hats as a token of appreciation by people that understood he was no ordinary city employee. His subsequent funeral was among the most attended this town has ever seen for a city worker, with the mayor & other dignitaries eulogizing him.
As times change & the social fabric of our neighborhoods rearrange themselves, Frank’s way of giving back to the community was his last & probably most important lesson to me. The same qualities that defined him as an adult were present when we were growing up: an all-embracing attitude & an innate sense of helping others coupled with the ever-present smile or joke to lighten up the load.
I don’t know if kids today have a sense of their neighborhood as a self-containing universe or the concept of distinct musical youth tribes still apply, but if they do, one can only hope they have a kinder older-brother figure like Frank. Someone that can show them it’s ok to step of your comfort zone, check out different views & realize that the place/people you grow up with are forever implanted in your DNA.
You were right, my big (rock) brother, Rock ‘n Roll will always rule and so will you. RIP Frankie.
Donate to the fund set up for his family, view photos/recollections & his artwork at: