It was the most awful, the most horrendous, the most punishing experience of our lives. And by virtue of that, we felt triumphant… We thought, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ We felt as though we were on a euphoric drug: our hearts full, our souls, as though for the first time, alive.
—Joe Frank, from “Ascent to K2” (1996)
The artist and his medium were locked in a decades-long dance of death. While still in high school, having already weathered surgery for clubfoot, Joe Frank developed testicular cancer and had to undergo painful cobalt radiation treatments. He would spend the rest of his life in and out of treatment for various severe medical ailments, including bladder cancer. He also endured a kidney transplant. Long spells of medically and chemically induced quarantine provided Frank with ample time to ponder the alienation he felt from the world of the living, and ultimately translate much of that uncertainty into groundbreaking radio fictions—with topics including a very ill-prepared expedition to K2 and an imagined dinner conversation with Hitler, Pol Pot, and the other bigshots of evil. For Frank, illness was a kind of muse, giving him the raw material from which to sculpt something new in a venue that had never seen the likes of him before.
And radio obliged him, recognizing in Frank a fellow death-defier. The once-dominant AM/FM bands—pulsing technology that made a plurality of music and voices (and advertising) instantly available to anyone with an antenna—barely survived the takeover of television in the American home in the 1950s, and was squeezed dry by corporate consolidation of once-independent stations through the ’80s and ’90s. The freewheeling New York station WBAI, Frank’s first home for his surrealist aural delights in the late ’70s, remains on life support today: its workforce gutted, its broke noncom owner, Pacifica Foundation, having just lost a $1.8 million lawsuit brought by the Empire State Building over unpaid rent.
And yet when the Internet, and its endless possibilities for transmitter- and static-free idle distraction, came along to deliver the final blow, radio did not kneel at its feet but rather absorbed it into its very DNA. In podcasts and streaming audio, the medium has mutated into another, more economically viable and (in some ways) accessible form. The next generation may never know the thrill of turning the dial late at night to search for signs of life, bypassing the bleeps and yowls of static like aliens desperately trying to make contact from another world. But podcasting does ensure that all the weirdness of this world can be instantly summoned from the void of cyberspace, for those who want to hear it.
Podcasting began in earnest in the mid-2000s, shortly after Frank was fired from his longtime post at Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, where for two decades he had commandeered the airwaves at night with his weird and grandiose visions of comic nihilism. Although Frank would create a few bits for KCRW’s podcasts in the final decade of his life, his output had already slowed down considerably due to his health. Frank died this past January, at 79, after yet another protracted medical battle—this time with colon cancer. His decades of cutting-edge, surrealist pieces (he hated the term “radio drama,” and any other phrases that would have made his work easier to categorize) would have to live on via his website, and in the station presets of the memories of his fans.
Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There, a new documentary that premiered on March 22, 2018, at the Sonoma International Film Festival, aims to increase the signal of Frank’s afterlife. Its primary audience, though, is likely to remain those who were tuned in years ago. Made with Frank’s widow, Michal Story, as associate producer, and featuring several interviews with Frank himself, the film is a cycle of praise from the artist’s friends and admirers (the latter of which include Harry Shearer, David Cross, Alexander Payne, and Grace Zabriskie) interspersed with a generous selection of clips from his work.
Director D.P. Carlson, a Chicago-based filmmaker and audiophile whose previous films include documentaries about KISS guitarist Paul Stanley and the ’80s-era power-pop band The Bears, makes the talking-head portions overlong and somewhat rote. But the clips speak for themselves, the same way Frank did for all those years: conjuring a world of despair and grim humor, of horrors and deep, uncomfortable revelations. Carlson accentuates them with lo-fi digital scrapbook imagery, doodles of volume levels and other things for the eye to focus on while the mind wanders, hypnotized.
I had a peculiar, Frank-like experience with Somewhere Out There: hours before I settled in to view my screener, I had to give a presentation I desperately did not want to give. As I spoke, my desire to be anywhere but there manifested itself in a persistent, oddly violent fantasy. Gouge my eyes out with a spoon, I thought, over and over. Just scoop them right out and plop them on the floor.
Lo and behold, as I watched Carlson’s film later that night, Frank himself vocalized this exact nightmare. But he goes further, deeper into a vivid chasm of harmful thoughts that welcomed him like an old friend. He ponders what it would be like “to have a spoon dig deep into my eye sockets, severing arteries and veins, my eyes being gouged out of my head while I screamed in agony until they fell to the floor with a wet, plopping sound.”
In the piece, Frank (or a version of him) is recounting how, as a boy, he would torture himself with dark visions of being imprisoned by Nazis, who would give him a kind of Sophie’s choice: volunteer for the eye-gouging or consent to having his parents “beaten to death with rifle butts.” It seems like the sort of thing that would be too bizarre and unsettling to be accessible. But that’s the magic of Frank’s best work: they’re oddly abstract visions that somehow still communicate intimate shared thoughts and anxieties. And when you consider that Frank’s parents were Jews who had fled to the U.S. from Nazi-occupied Poland, only for his father to die when Joe was five and his mother to struggle with severe depression, it takes on the feeling of a man reckoning with his demons by giving them a voice—his own.
But by barely featuring Frank until close to the end, the film muddles both the timeline of his life and the chance to have its own subject lend that distinctive voice to his own story. Frank’s pathways become murky: he had dropped out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because he hated focus-grouping stories with classmates who had no life experience, yet once he found his career, he spent so much time and energy making radio that he admits he gathered little life experience himself. He refuses, in the film, to name any radio hosts who inspired him, determined to be an orbit of one, and some of the only influences he confesses to of any kind are Kafka and Dostoevsky. The film also paints a specific, somewhat unfortunate picture of Frank’s fans: white, middle-aged men in counterculture circles, and women who could apparently think only of bedding him and becoming fodder for some of his randier tapes.
The image of Frank that emerges strongest in Carlson’s film is that of a mercurial obsessive. He would park himself in KCRW’s studios long into the night, fine-tuning segments until a producer could yank the tape from him and stick it on the air. He frequently partnered with actors to improvise little scenes (again here, he hated the terms “script” and “line readings”), but would also secretly tape-record phone conversations with friends, collaborators, and lovers, then use them as part of new pieces. Every relationship in his life was potential radio fodder. And Frank topped all that off with a rather fierce sense of ownership. The film includes a clip of him spitting fire at fans who would mail him their short stories in the hopes of getting him to read them on the air, without revealing how much of his anger is an act:
I’m the author of the material here. It is my work, promulgated by me. It’s my show, it’s not your show. And I’m not here to read your stories. I am not a mirror; I am a source of light. I am not a reflecting surface; I am heat. My purpose is not to vibrate with your experience, but rather to resonate with my own.
To resonate with one’s own experience: such a simple desire, yet one that will always be corrupted somehow. In 2008, Frank superfan Andrew Hearst discovered that Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Joseph Minion plagiarized large portions of one of his stories for their 1985 comedy After Hours. (Frank allegedly settled for an undisclosed sum at the time.) Carlson doesn’t dig into the episode in Somewhere Out There, but it’s essential to understanding Frank’s strange legacy in the art world: the way he seemed to command all the ideas and none of the power. Frank’s “Lies,” broadcast in 1982 on NPR Playhouse, tells of a naive man lured across town by the promise of sex with a kooky woman he’s just met. As the evening progresses, the woman relates several outrageous stories from her life that may or may not be true, but the man, himself recently separated, comes to accept that the both of them are complicit in weaving together the shared fantasy of a one-night stand. “I’m not sure if you’re for real or not,” he says to his companion at the end. “Well, I’ll never tell,” she replies.
After Hours essentially steals this entire piece, including specific jokes, and uses it as the first act of a dream-logic narrative in which its hero (Griffin Dunne) inadvertently becomes the villain to an entire New York neighborhood over the course of one night. The film imagines the woman’s troubles as little more than the first warning bell for the man to flee from, just like all the other crazy, hormonal ladies he meets that night—a mindset later confirmed when the woman (played by Rosanna Arquette) commits suicide shortly after he runs out on her. Scorsese and Minion didn’t want to have to deal with too many depressive loners in their surreal New York odyssey, so they whacked the most compelling one. They did not understand, as Frank did, that surreal odysseys are almost always undertaken by depressive loners. It’s all the blank space in the mind, all that contemplation of otherworldly things, that allows the strangeness of our world to float to the level of conscious thought.
Frank may not have been much of a podcaster himself, but today’s grand buffet of sonic choices includes more than a few of his disciples. Ira Glass, who is interviewed in the film, had his first paid job in public radio as Frank’s production assistant during a short stint at NPR, and has often credited his former boss with expanding his concept of what radio could be. This American Life sometimes feels like a sanitized version of one of Frank’s programs. The variety-show format will often follow a deeply reported investigation with a spoken-word essay from a comedian, describing some absurd incident that may or may not have happened to them in exactly that way, and Glass will connect everything under the umbrella of a single theme, so no one story has to feel like it’s twirling in the void. And Frank’s heavy reliance on drone sounds in his mixing was undoubtedly an influence on Radiolab, whose creator, Jad Abumrad, had followed in Frank’s footsteps at WBAI and pushed his intricate editing and mood-conjuring to new, Pink Floyd-esque heights.
So it was that mere days after Frank’s passing, Radiolab and On the Media dropped lengthy remembrances of his life and work into their feeds. Appearing on Abumrad’s show, Glass marveled at a piece where Frank had once left the microphone to fix himself a cup of tea, while On the Media host Brooke Gladstone remembered how certain pieces of his (one that described trying to go to the bathroom while wearing a chicken suit, for example) had often felt too naughty for radio, when in fact there was nothing explicitly vulgar about them. And millions of listeners, in all likelihood more people than had ever before heard an original Frank broadcast simultaneously, could instantly eavesdrop on this Holy Trinity of public radio as they mourned their shared sensei.
The bard of the loners has an audience, somewhere out there.
Andrew Lapin is a film critic for NPR and Vulture, and has covered the public broadcasting space since 2012. He has been told he has a nice radio voice.
Banner credit: Stephen Laufer