I can remember the first time I heard Joe Frank on the air. His wasn’t your standard public radio talk show or drama/comedy. This was a different animal altogether. Like all great art, it was a by-product of his experiences, neuroses and obsessions.
Frank’s world was one of loneliness, despair and heartbreak. It was also one of absurdity, passion and the quest for meaning. Highs, lows and everything in between. The singular picture he painted with words and sound felt cinematic to me, like watching a film with the picture turned off.
Old friends, new places
In the early 90s I had moved to Los Angeles from Dallas. The people in L.A. all seemed to be from somewhere else and now I was one of them. I knew a few people in town, they were all Texans who made the journey out west before I did. One of them was a friend I met in a Dallas screenwriting group, Gerry Scott Moore.
Gerry lived in Newport Beach, about an hour’s drive from my apartment in the Fairfax District of Hollywood. Back in Dallas we would often talk about movies, but we didn’t hang out much. He had been in L.A. about a year before me. Now we were living in the same town again.
My first 6 months in L.A. I spent most weekends driving down to hang out with Gerry. He was a Renaissance man with many interests ranging from Brazilian jazz to foreign films. We would often go out for dinner and drinks, talking about writing, reading and finding the ultimate groove in music. During one visit he told me I should listen to Joe Frank, someone the L.A. Weekly described as “a radio artist in a field of one.”
Gerry thought I would find Frank’s radio confessionals irresistible and he was on the money. I started listening to “Work In Progress” every Sunday morning on KCRW, the public radio station in L.A.. If I missed an episode, the repeat would air the following Saturday night. Frank’s monotone voice coupled with his signature background music loops wrapped around you and never let go.
Others Like You
Not long after I started listening to Joe Frank, I became friends with a co-worker who turned out to be an ardent Frankophile, as Gerry called them. His name was Pat Lee and he’d been listening to Frank longer than I had. He too, had a friend who introduced him to the show.
Pat and I would record the episodes if the other couldn’t do it and vice versa. Sometimes we’d both tape the same program. Since every show’s title was not always given, we would laugh at the titles we each gave them based on the content. One such episode was named “Jesus Girl” by Pat, and I’d titled it “The Girl at the End of the Bar.”
In my early L.A. years, I really connected with the running themes in Frank’s work. I didn’t know many people and my job on the graveyard shift insulated me from the world. I was on my own in a city filled with 3.5 million people, but I had Frank’s show to look forward to.
Pat and I had the opportunity to see Frank read from his new book in 1993. “The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories” had just been published and Frank was signing copies at Book Soup on Sunset. Pat and I went and it was a thrill speaking to Frank in person. He signed “Thanks for listening and buying this book!” on my copy of the book. I still have it.
Live and in person
Over the next 25 years I listened to Joe Frank and saw him perform live twice. The first time was in the late 90s at the Wadsworth Theatre in West LA. I’d bought two tickets and hoped to take a woman, but those plans fell through. The night of the sold out performance, I ended up loitering outside the venue, hoping to find a single woman looking for a ticket. If she was a Joe Frank fan, she’d be okay with a stranger offering her the chance to see her idol, no strings attached. I’d give it to her just so she could enjoy the show. However, no single girl ever showed up and I ended up eating the cost of the ticket. Still a great show, even with an empty seat next to me.
The last time I saw him perform was in 2011 at the Village Studios in West LA, my wife getting tickets for the exclusive show. The historic recording facility was the perfect venue for a Joe Frank performance. Among the celebrities in the audience was writer-director Michael Mann, who sat in the row ahead of us. Frank’s fans came from all places.
I would see Joe Frank in person several times over the 23 years I lived in L.A. I saw him at Saint John’s Hospital twice, where he must have been in treatment. I even rode an elevator with him. He was wearing his trademark sunglasses. The building I worked in at the time had recording studios where he must have been doing voiceover work.
As I stood across from him, just the two of us in the elevator, I searched for something to say. I didn’t have anything. “Enjoy your work?” “Really big fan?” All true, but in the heat of the moment, weak words. What I wanted to say couldn’t be uttered, so I chose to leave the air empty. When we reached his floor and the elevator doors closed behind him, I mentally kicked myself. How could I let the opportunity pass without saying anything?
An artist like no other
These are my Joe Frank stories. He leaves behind a legacy of thought provoking work and has influenced countless other artists in multiple disciplines. Not just in radio, but in film, theatre, music, writing and beyond. He’s been an inspiration to me and a kindred spirit as well. You can listen to his work at joefrank.com.
Are you a Joe Frank fan? How did his work affect you?