June 26, 2005
The great Los Angeles-based radio artist Joe Frank has been struggling with health problems over the last few months.
If you’ve never heard of him, Joe is a completely original American storyteller whose shows have pioneered new forms of radio narrative over the last two decades. I’m most obsessed with his monologues, which are usually accompanied by eerie looped music, but his shows often incorporate other formats, including taped phone conversations, found sound, and improvised radio plays that Joe records with actors and then imposes a structure on in the editing room.
Joe’s work might best be described as a cross between Kafka, Nietzsche, Raymond Chandler, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and David Sedaris. He’s a short-story writer, a philosopher, a comedian, a raconteur, and one of the greatest-ever purveyors of the postmodern-noir sensibility. He’s spent his career grappling with all the grand topics: sex, love, morality, lust, greed, sin, fear, hatred, the search for meaning. Much of his best work is both utterly profound and completely hilarious. He often blurs the lines between real life and fiction, and his shows are sometimes explicitly about the creative process. At his core, he’s a tortured man who attempts to make sense of the world by telling stories about it. There is simply no one else like him. Can you tell that I’m completely obsessed?
And I have yet to even mention his voice, which is incredibly rich and expressive and spellbinding.
Since early this year the unofficial Joe Frank discussion list has contained vague chatter about Joe’s health, but it wasn’t until early last week, when his web team sent out an update to joefrank.com subscribers, that any real details had been made public. Here is an excerpt from the message that was sent out last Monday:
Thanks to everyone who has written Joe wishing him well over the past few months. Here’s (briefly) what happened:
In mid-January, Joe was laid up, unable to walk. Medication he was taking led to internal bleeding and a week (February 18-25) at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.
Then, in the early morning hours of April 5th, Joe experienced severe abdominal pain. His girlfriend drove him to the emergency room where, after a battery of diagnostic tests, Joe was told he had experienced sudden, irreversible kidney failure (Joe lost his other kidney in 1991).
After three weeks in the hospital, where he began dialysis treatments, Joe returned home. He now goes for dialysis three times a week.
The ordeal was initially shocking and overwhelming. Joe lost the stamina and motivation to work. In time, though, he began to keep a journal and to record phone conversations with his radio collaborators.
With this material, Joe is now in the process of creating a new radio series based on his experience called “The Santa Monica Book of the Dead.”
From 1986 until 2002, Joe had a regular weekly show on L.A.‘s great independent station KCRW, which is also home to Harry Shearer and Nic Harcourt. His work for KCRW is still in syndication on better radio stations around the country. Since last year, Joe has been creating new shows every month or two for fans who subscribe to his website. (I pay $11.99 per month for access to his full archive; I don’t listen quite enough to justify spending $11.99 per month, but I feel like Joe deserves the money.)
I first became aware of Joe back in 1995, when I heard an excerpt from one of his monologues layered over an eerie electronic breakdown in “Montok Point” [sic], a standout track on William Orbit‘s superb album Hinterland. I was riveted by the man’s thick, rich voice and his clipped, almost robotlike phrasing, and I was slightly creeped out by the story he told, something about a shy young man who is enticed by a sexy but unhinged girl to explore an isolated lighthouse in the middle of the night. When I listened to “Montok Point” over the years, I often wondered who Joe Frank was and what his own work was like; I knew, vaguely, that he had his own radio show in Los Angeles on KCRW, but I never tried to find out more.
One Sunday night a couple of years ago, I got into bed right around 11 o’clock, which is really early for me, and I turned on my clock radio so I could set my alarm and go to sleep; the radio by my bed is always tuned to WNYC, Manhattan’s NPR station. Out of the cheap plastic speaker came a voice that seemed familiar to me, but I couldn’t immediately place it. The man was telling a story about the Garden of Eden, and layered underneath his voice was a repeating eight- or sixteen-bar loop of hypnotic, minor-key music. This Garden of Eden story had a twist: It was a dysfunctional-relationship tale, and it was narrated by Adam, a bitter, self-loathing man who becomes increasingly resentful of Eve as the story progresses. This all-too-human Adam is barely able to contain his anger and frustration over what he sees as Eve’s reckless need for new experiences—not to mention her dangerous willingness to defy God’s orders. Adam ultimately blames Eve for bringing God’s wrath upon them, even as he admits his own role in their transgressions and acknowledges his own weaknesses and lack of ambition.
The story was dark, moving, hilarious, spooky, somewhat blasphemous, and totally mesmerizing, especially with the hypnotic music loop underneath to drive the narrative forward. I really had never heard anything like it before. A few minutes into the show, I realized that the man I was listening to had to be Joe Frank. I turned out the lights and listened to the rest of the show in darkness—often the best way to experience Joe Frank’s work, I soon discovered. The Garden of Eden story was only about ten minutes long; the rest of the hour-long show was devoted to other similar-themed segments in various formats, including taped phone conversations and another classic Joe monologue: a tale that explored the emotional struggles of the biblical Joseph, “a cuckold of God” who feels humiliated by Mary’s relationship with the Almighty and later “[comes to] hate his illegitimate stepson, Jesus, for his success.” By the time I fell asleep that night, I had been converted into a Joe Frank obsessive.
That show is called “Holy Land,” and it’s still one of my favorites. In the spirit of spreading Joe’s work, not of stealing it, I’ve uploaded the Garden of Eden story to my server. Here it is:
(If you don’t see the audio player, here’s a direct link to the audio file.)
Of course, I quickly learned that Joe is well known among a certain subset of discerning radio listeners, and that his shows have long been broadcast on WNYC and WFMU, the tri-state area’s great freeform station. For at least a decade, I’ve only really listened to radio when I wake up in the morning, and even then only for a few minutes. So I simply had never encountered Joe’s shows before.
I could write a lot more here, but I’ll just leave you with some links to some great Joe stuff:
This 2003 NPR profile gives a good sense of Joe’s radio style and contains short excerpts from a handful of his best shows.
If you’re not interested in paying for a subscription, you can register on joefrank.com to access a number of free shows. Among the free programs is “The Loved One,” a favorite of mine and one of his funniest.
This one is more or less brand new: Joe provides the “In a world…” voiceover in the trailer for Night Watch, an upcoming fantasy film made in Russia.