by Misha Lepetic
"It is not humiliating to be unhappy."
It was only a few days ago that I heard about Joe Frank's recent passing, which was an odd feeling, because I'd thought he was already dead. Further reflection made me realize that I based this opinion on no evidence whatsoever, but if you know about Joe Frank, you'll agree that an abiding belief in his demise would have been entirely appropriate, and that he would have likely even approved of such a confusion. If you don't know Frank, though, I envy you the experience of hearing him for the first time. To me, he was the greatest radio ever committed to the airwaves. But, regrettably, the best way to hear Frank's work is to have no idea that it's him at all. In that sense, I apologize for blowing it with this modest appreciation, and take comfort from knowing that Frank would be amused by such ambivalence.
Any fan will remember exactly where they were when they first heard one of Joe Frank's broadcasts. For me, it was back in high school, in 1980s central New Jersey. One of my friends was Nadim, a burly Pakistani guy who lived in the tonier part of my neighborhood. Nadim always tramped around in big black combat boots and teased out his long hair with liberal amounts of hairspray to signal his devotion to The Cure. He also played guitar in a few bands, and was the first person to pass me a joint. His parents were wealthy enough that they gave him a red Trans Am for some birthday or other, and we would cruise down the farm lanes of central Jersey late at night, smoking, listening to Joy Division, The Smiths, Bauhaus, Hüsker Dü or Big Black, and remonstrating against life as only teenagers could.
On one of these bone cruises I was fiddling with the radio when I came across a husky, grieving voice intoning over a short loop of a Jewish cantor singing. Frank's voice is unforgettable in its immediacy. He spoke so closely into the microphone that you could feel the humidity of his breath. Although he had many guests on his shows (both intentional and unintentional) his was the only voice that sounded as if it were coming from inside your head. On the occasion of discovering him, it's difficult to remember what he was talking about; his surrealist's take on life was obscured further by the fact that we'd just parachuted into the middle of one of his stories, and immediately, in the words of Conrad at the start of Heart Of Darkness, "we knew we were fated…to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences." But while Marlow's listeners were mildly irritated at being a captive audience, Nadim and I were hooked. We kept driving, and Joe Frank kept talking. It felt as if we'd made a pact with the radio.
For years, I never told anyone about Joe Frank, mostly because I didn't know who he was, or how I could find him again. But, if I'm to be honest, it also felt like a small secret had been handed to me. Perhaps you've gone for a twilight walk in the forest and seen something unique and striking, something that you felt was only meant for you. You return to the house, and when you're asked how your walk had been, characterize it as perfectly pleasant and unremarkable. To share what you saw – whatever it was – wouldn't necessarily violate the trust between you and your experience, but rather would risk its dilution. You wanted nothing so much as to be able to continue to sit with it. Dreams are like that: every time you describe a dream, it becomes more fixed in language, and less redolent of the ambiguities and somatic traces that make it, uniquely, a dream, and not just another thing wrecked on the reefs of language. The description of a dream is mere and inadequate; compared to its original form, any subsequent discussion is a tawdry, narcissistic act. Dreams are both a wave and a particle, and as long as you resist collapsing the wave function through careless observation, you stand the chance to preserve it, even while knowing that the corrosion of memory sets to work almost immediately.
Listening to Joe Frank can be like this. He was a mesmerist of the highest order, and his themes of depression, loss, insanity, family, faith, love and sickness were always tempered with a healthy regard for the absurd. You could never be sure if what he was saying was actually true, or if it had perhaps once been true and then been allowed to overripen into a putrid fiction. This was especially the case when he shifted from monologue to field recordings or phone calls (oftentimes made to friends or even strangers). Some of these interactions were carefully scripted and some were wholly improvised, then edited to seem like they were scripted. Or they were scripted, then edited to the point where they seemed improvised.
Frank used this artifice to keep the listener off balance, and it served his subject matter well. A general dyspepsia with life and desire might erupt moments later into full-blown misanthropy, followed by a miserable negotiation with himself or his interlocutors. Equally likely was an angry brushoff, especially if the offended party unceremoniously hung up the phone. You could never be sure that the fights you were hearing on his radio weren't real. They were full of spite, pain, self-loathing and resignation. These confrontations recognized the folly and also the inevitability of being an asshole. But they also offered an unparalleled catharsis.
This relentlessness also targeted the medium of radio, and the show itself. In 'Bad Karma' (2000), a man discusses his upcoming open heart surgery with Joe Frank over the telephone (briefly interrupted by Frank's mother calling in on the other line). The conversation is intimate but prosaic – exactly the sort of discussion that friends would have prior to a major but nevertheless common procedure. How is he feeling? Does he have visitors? Does he have a girlfriend, and if so will she visit him in the hospital? This is followed by a second conversation between Frank and another man, who criticizes Frank's line of questioning as voyeuristic, dishonest and even sadistic. Frank then calls the first man back to tell him that he's just not ill enough to make for good radio. Accusations proceed to fly back and forth, and the man in the hospital tells Frank that he feels sorry for him and his tendencies, that he is driven to make radio out of the suffering of others. It turns out that the two are total strangers. Subsequent phone calls with others continue the critique of Frank's methods. How much pain is one justified to cause in others in the name of art?
It's one thing to pose this question within the context of a literary piece, replete with finely wrought phrases. You know exactly what you're getting into when you begin reading that sort of an essay. It's entirely another for the subject to begin as a tangent to what one thought was the principal conversation (the impending surgery), only to have it end up as the main course. Furthermore, the telephone is a conceit that implicates us as voyeurs. As if listening to the radio wasn't already an act of voyeurism, or rather auditeurism, putting telephones on, or through, the radio exacerbates the sense of both intimacy and distance.
Frank also took full advantage of radio-as-medium to ask what it meant to pay attention to sound. One program featured an interview with a mime; among other things, the mime expresses his hatred of Marcel Marceau and how, in his opinion, he has trashed the art form. Frank then asks the mime to give a preview – "for the benefit of our listeners" – of the artist's upcoming performance. The mime obliges, and for a minute or two of near silence we can only hear Frank's murmurs of admiration. Another occasion is described by Ira Glass, whose first radio job was as a production assistant to Joe Frank. During an early show ('80 Yard Run', 1978), Frank builds up a story within a story within a story, constantly interrupting himself to begin another. He then announces that he is going to fix himself a cup of tea, which is pretty much what he does, leaving the audience to wait and wonder if he will return and which, if any, of these stories will be continued. In any other hands such a strategy would have been gimmicky, but Glass, founder of the supremely successful radio show This American Life, says "I've spent 30 years trying to figure out how to steal that."
Other monologues are straight parable, such as 'Lost Soul' (1996), whose long and exquisite opener explores the tale of a priest struggling with his faith; it's as if Isak Dinesen had written one of her gothic fairy tales for the airwaves. Following this is another, much shorter parable, about a rabbi and a farmer in a horse-drawn cart. This time the evocation is of Isaac Bashevis Singer. But the parable takes a sharp turn when Frank asks us to consider its meaning from the point of view of the horse. Spoiler: things don't end well for the horse. But things rarely end well for anyone in Joe Frank's universe.
Most often, they end poorly for Frank himself; forces beyond his control are always screwing him. In 'I'm Not Crazy' (1990), Frank sets up shop as a private investigator, and is approached by a man who suspects his wife of having an affair. While Frank agrees to take the case, he notes, almost parenthetically, that he is the wife's lover. Still, he does a good job in documenting the affair – videos and all – and submits the evidence to his client, who proceeds to commit suicide several days later. Unsurprisingly, Frank's fee goes unpaid. No good deed goes unpunished in 'Green Cadillac' (1993), where Frank befriends Brooks, a man who sold him a stolen car. Waiting for Brooks to show up to settle a debt, Frank attempts to do a favor for an alcoholic in a wheelchair, and the consequences are something Larry David might write, but without the humor.
But Frank is at his most lacerating when he explores our obligations to one another, especially within the context of family. In 'Sunken Ship' (2014), his opening monologue is about visiting his mother in a nursing home. She complains about the food and general conditions. Perhaps, she suggests, they could go on a cruise to Japan instead? Or, she goes on, perhaps he ought to just smother her with a pillow right there? The remoreseless crescendo of pleading and recrimination ends with Frank fleeing the home in defeated disgust. And in a universe that is bereft of all meaning, even the very concept of family is negotiable. The Peabody Award-winning series 'Rent-A-Family' (1987) posits a world where Eleanor, a lonely divorcée, contracts with an agency to rent herself and her children out to bachelors. As if this isn't cheery enough, the three episodes are interspersed with phone calls between herself and her ex-husband Arthur. Increasingly desperate to return to Arthur, Eleanor tries to strike deal after deal, finally offering to be the live-in maid to the now remarried Arthur. But Arthur steadfastly refuses. Lest we think that Arthur is doing the right thing, it should also be mentioned that he denies ever having had children with her, contributing to Eleanor's descent into madness. Listening to their exchange, what is most striking is the inevitability with which they both grasp at and destroy one another.
This is perhaps the heart of Joe Frank's body of work: a Camusian search for meaning in the face of absurdity. Even if it exists, it is not accessible to us, but more importantly we have no choice but to continue reaching for it. Therefore, we may as well revel in life. At the conclusion of ‘Lost Souls' Frank growls:
I feel poised on the brink of the cliff of happiness…about to jump into the void of well-being. I'm about to hurtle myself into an ocean of hope. I feel the happiness of the man who sees the spider at the bottom of the goblet, and drinks anyway, knowing that it will all end badly, and that everything is fatal, but who chooses to embrace life anyway, to balance the terror of being human against the joy of being human.
When asked if he prays, and if so to whom, a friend recently answered, "My god is Death. I don't pray but point my finger at him and say, 'Not today.'" Both Camus and Frank asked us to find lives that would be worth living, even if faced with the impossibility of meaning. However, only one gave us hundreds of hours of radio that explored what this might actually look like, and the risks of it falling short. Rest in peace, Joe Frank.