Ideally you first encounter Joe Frank by accident. Driving alone late at night, your radio set to Scan, you catch a distant rasp midsentence: “… Dreamland is dying. The Tilt-a-Whirl tilts, but won’t whirl. Rats infest the Tunnel of Love. People come out screaming. The horses on the merry-go-round have been put out to stud. And life is a circle, a wheel—it’s like being on a merry-go-round, only there’s no music. And even the brass ring is a circle …” You go over the hill, the signal fades and you press Scan again, searching for something to fill the silence. You catch the last three minutes of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on your trusty classic rock station but, somehow, hearing Roger Daltrey’s scream for the ten-trillionth time doesn’t grab you the way it normally does. What was that thing before? You press Scan again and you find that same voice: “… all subject to conflicting tendencies. Love and hate. The desire for freedom and the need for dependence. Monogamous and polygamous strivings. Heterosexual and homosexual impulses. The longing for change and the need for security. The will to power and the will to submission. The human heart is divided against itself …” Another hill, and the signal is gone.
Joe Frank’s radio programs first aired on New York’s WBAI during the mid-1970s, and from the mid-1980s until 2002 they were syndicated on NPR. His collections of experimental monologues, radio plays, short stories, prerecorded phone dialogue and found sounds are a sort of bitter antidote to the usual public radio fare. There are no heartwarming anecdotes, no sincere reflections, no epiphanies coming at ten-minute intervals; nor do they make you feel like one of the tote-bagging “listeners like you.” Instead of offering the soothing humanism of shows like This American Life, Frank’s programs take the listener on a journey where the dead ends are the entire point. They’re particularly suited to the radio, a medium that broadcasts Frank’s voice decoupled from any familiar persona—he calls to mind lone madmen of radio’s earlier eras, like Wolfman Jack or Jean Shepherd, wraiths stuck in the airwaves with no counterpart in the physical world.
Frank does make the occasional live appearance. His March 13th performance at the Steppenwolf Theater was his first in Chicago in over five years. The evening, titled “Just an Ordinary Man,” consisted of old and new spoken material, as well as a screening of his 1992 short film “The Hitchhiker,” and it featured musical accompaniment by guitarist James Harrah. Steppenwolf originally scheduled the show for November, only to cancel mere days beforehand, citing the multifarious illnesses that are often the subject of Frank’s radio programs. The show began inauspiciously: Frank, dressed like an aging Graham Greene knockoff in a Panama hat, sunglasses and white linen sport jacket, barely made it onto the stage, even with help; he walked to his lectern at a pace that can be generously described as a shuffle. The few seconds before he sat down center stage felt like hours, and the audience saw clearly his bodily breakdown. His illness threatened to become the elephant in the room; it was an odd moment in which sympathy for the performer seemed to interfere with enjoyment of the performance.
But Frank confronted his reduced state head-on, informing everyone that he had merely suffered a Rube Goldberg-esque skiing accident involving slope- side laundry lines; moreover, as he recovered, he’d been dating again. Then he read out the eHarmony profiles of the women he’d been seeing. They were all elderly, listing their interests—dating-profile chestnuts like home cooking, walks on the beach, live jazz— alongside their horrifying medical disorders. One woman’s nameless disease spontaneously dissolved the membranes of her red blood cells, causing her to bleed from her mouth, eyes, nose and pores. She foreshadowed the characters and conflicts that emerged later in the show— individuals at the ends of their (physical, emotional, intellectual) ropes whose searches for meaning, survival and human connection—guided by truism and convention—led them step-by-step into the realms of the absurd, the obscene and, occasionally, the sublime.
Frank explored these themes in the closest thing to the evening’s central plot, his abortive Caribbean romance with a mysterious woman named Michelle. It all began typically enough—almost ridiculously so. As Frank described the setting, with its resplendent hotel, perfect beaches and debonair American tourists, it seemed like the start of a beach romance, a spy novel or any number of modes of literary pabulum.
Frank’s narrator spied Michelle in his hotel’s bar and, based on nothing in particular, became instantly infatuated. After this instant of love at first sight, however, Frank began to twist and distort the clichés guiding his plot. He wooed her by way of love letters, but they were hardly your typical missives. One was a seemingly interminable catalogue (like those in many of his radio programs) listing his banal likes and dislikes—a catalogue which proved, as his narrator put it, that he was “just an ordinary man.” As he elaborated on this consummate ordinariness well past its logical conclusion, he led the audience to surreal and unexpected places. The list blurred into personal stories, which at times seemed to take place in separate, unconnected lifetimes; the more the narrator explained himself, the more he seemed to unravel and depersonalize himself.
His efforts to establish meaning in his life or the world at large underscored this. The narrator had written an essay, “The Calculus of Suffering,” both physical and mental. Its starting point was a Buddha-ish truism: “We all suffer because we’re human.” But this doesn’t prompt the usual drippy, enlightened contentment or feeling of universal humanity. Instead, Frank’s narrator uses it to establish a basis for rigorous comparison between the physical handicap of a cripple and his own psychic disability (perpetual loneliness, heavy drinking and other typical literary maladies). Despite the patent absurdity of a theory or algorithm of empathy, the narrator noted that his essay was regarded as seminal (“And when I say seminal, I’m not referring to ejaculatory fluid. I’m referring to a small tribe of Indians who used to live in Florida”). This work, along with his list of the cuisines of which he was a connoisseur, the exotic places he’d visited and the literature he’d read, demonstrated that, as “an ordinary man,” he was more a cipher than anything else.
This led into a third letter. Searching for something new to say to entice his beloved, he finds only psychotic fantasy: he no longer wants to stroll along the beach with Michelle, but to nail her hands and feet to casters and send her careening down a mountain.
Much of the rest of the show resembled these letters—stories and thoughts that at first seemed formally or syntactically connected, but soon grew disparate and blurred. As the show stretched and meandered off course, its parts swirled around this theme of frustrated desire, of high and noble goals lampooned and made futile, of characters lost within themselves. One first- person narrator was a brilliant scientist-philosopher reminiscent of Da Vinci, designing a telescope whose powers verged on the spiritual. But on the precipice of his greatest discovery, he found that every evening, just as he sat down to perfect his final equation, a woman claiming to be his ex-wife appeared at his door to hash out their failed past, make love, and share an awkward morning after; night after night, the same endless charade. Such anecdotes struggled to a frustrated anticlimax, then drifted back into the doldrums of wordless, repetitive music, themselves filled with a sense of metaphysical blue balls (often in his radio programs, this music will fade into an ambient droning hum, which seems a sinister take on the Aum syllable featured in Buddhist meditation). The show followed a dream logic, out of which a dramatic pattern mistily established itself—a nameless Frank stand-in grows obsessed with a romantic, intellectual or artistic goal, but the quest renders the goal itself meaningless.
With his mixture of broodiness, cliché, and deep psychological probing, Frank calls to mind the eerie mood of David Lynch, whose stories also send the audience down rabbit holes that turn their worlds inside out and stretch the possibility of rational explanation. But there are significant differences: Lynch populates his world with potent, archetypal characters, both good, like Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper, and evil, like Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth. His plots are driven by the conflicts between these characters, which are symbolic of terrifyingly vital psychological drives. And his films reveal the sutures that hold together our mental life as a whole.
Frank’s stories reveal the inverse: just how frayed are the stitches that purport to hold our lives together. His accounts don’t uncover deep-seated forces pulsing through the world, but rather reveal these forces to be impotent and absurdly comic. Frank’s protagonists sometimes find themselves subject to violent outbursts, yet these are not at the white-hot core of events, as in Twin Peaks. Instead, they come when his characters find themselves spent and alone, on the margins of meaningful experience; they’re tantrums. The paradox at the center of the evening’s performance, and indeed of much of Frank’s work, was that the characters set out to structure their worlds according to a greater purpose, to break through the banality of everyday life, to identify with a human condition greater than themselves— only to find themselves in a state of almost radical loneliness and irrationality, unsure of who they themselves seem to be. The more they strive to define themselves, the more the particularities of their life float away.
They faced a conundrum that, toward the end of the show, Frank posed directly to the audience in a sort of philosophical coda: If symbols signify a meaning greater than themselves, what happens when that meaning is interrogated and deciphered? Do we discard the initial symbol as now meaningless, displaced by the capital-M Meaning? If a symbol is now void, how could it have led to meaning in the first place? The characters were symbolic in this sense. They confronted the fragile, perhaps even arbitrary connection between the facts and structures of everyday life and the stories they told themselves to give that life meaning. They were signifiers mocked and belittled by what they attempted to signify.
This dilemma is faced in each of the loosely connected stories that preceded it, and it skirts a juvenile nihilism and philosophical vacancy. If the search for meaning inevitably strands individuals in a void, is the solution just to give up? To resign from life and its attendant frustrations and disappointments? The effect the show has on the audience suggests otherwise.
Listening, one feels like Michelle’s jilted admirer, entranced by the abstract string of notes issuing from a sax player’s horn: “And it’s no longer me, sitting at a table in a club in a city on earth. But I become a free-floating soul— attached to nothing, yet connected to everything.” As one anecdote blends seamlessly into another, one loses track of time, as well as concern for cause, effect or resolution. The parts of the show engage in a distinctly dreamlike dialogue with one another, rearranging the same characters and situations in different constellations, not unlike jazz musicians improvising on a theme. Frank drove this home in the final segment, a rhyming, rhythmic weave of images taken from earlier in the show, along with nonsense phrases and unanswered questions, all set to gradually swelling music.
Human endeavor demands contingency, frustration and perhaps even total failure to achieve any sort of significance—like Frank’s own effort to get onto the stage at the very beginning. In this sense, the anxiety felt in that moment—how will a man so fragile pull this thing together?—was the germ for the whole show. For Frank, worth and transcendence paradoxically emerge from their opposites. Thus, unintentional as it may have been, the sight of his body at odds with his art was a pitch-perfect point of departure. Only a guide himself running on vapors could bring the audience to a place this eerie, absurd and otherworldly.