While writing this newsletter I listened to:
V-3 - 'Launchpad Explosion'
Soft Machine - 'Triple Echo' (first 2 LPs)
Deux Filles - 'Silence and Vision'
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week of 26 December 2019

I never actually heard Joe Frank on the radio.

Yeah, I know, I already memorialised him in the newsletter I sent on 27 January 2018, just after his death.  But bear with me, please. 

Those of you who are closer to me know that I had a major romantic relationship end last month. I’m not going to write about it here, as that would be vulgar, but it’s thrown my life into a period of change quite suddenly. This is mostly internal change; I’m not making any sudden life decisions such as moving to Antarctica, or embracing Scientology. Actually, it’s been an enormously positive time for me, challenging me to open my eyes, which have been closed for too long, having become sleepy due to… well, comfort and happiness, I think.

My friends and family have been amazingly supportive, and I know my constant reflections have been exhausting. Anyone still talking to me at this point deserves some sort of medal. Eventually, I run out of energy myself and have to sleep. As I prepare for bed each night, I choose an episode from the vast archive of Joe Frank shows I’ve collected.

Art is great, isn’t it? It’s wonderful to explore the changes in one’s own life through art, to find solace in work that is familiar and previously inspiring. It’s always there to go back to, if you need it.

Frank's radio series, The Other Side, which originally aired between 1999 and 2001, is something I’ve turned to repeatedly in critical periods of my life. Times of change, times of crisis, times of emotional confusion –– somehow, the subset of shows which the Joe Frank wiki calls ‘karma style’, serve some sort of therapeutic purpose for me, drawing me closer towards clarity. These shows have been intertwined with the dramatic, emotional undercurrent of my life for the past decade. The specific episodes generally run together for me; I often fall asleep before they finish, and I couldn’t even tell you which one is which (but that’s what the wiki is for). 

The structure of the karma style shows, their content, and Frank’s insane use of juxtaposition are all elements that make these probably the most important pieces of art/media ever for me, personally. Yet I realised this time through how much the form of radio itself makes the aura complete, even though I have never taken much of an interest in radio before, and as I said at the top, I never heard this stuff when it was actually broadcast.

I’m thinking a lot about my place in the world lately, especially as the new decade approaches: what have I experienced, and what are my values now? (To quote Larry Block in one episode: ‘Why is my life happening to me?’). I feel quite a bit younger than I did just two months ago. I feel open, but not naive. 

I’m realising how the essentially obsolete format of radio enhances his work for me. I absolutely love the idea of a strange man sending nihilistic, absurd monologues into the air after midnight, not having any idea who his audience might be, with many listeners stumbling across it completely by accident. This element of chance, and the mystery wrapped around the trajectories of soundwaves in the night, is something that just can’t be replicated in the Internet age. I like to imagine his listeners were like a secret society of weirdos and misfits, bound together by these shows, united without realising it through the very solitary act of late-night listening. 

Jack Nicholson’s character in The King of Marvin Gardens is maybe a proto-Joe Frank, of sorts.

Maybe some of you who are into media archaeology can give me some recommendations on something to read, if there’s anything I might understand more about why this stirs me. I have long felt frustrated with the ways to disseminate culture today; something is missing. I grew up looking at flyers wheat-pasted to telephone poles in Pittsburgh, and that’s how I learned about local bands, and discovered a whole world of people making music on their own terms. I tried to pick up the University radio stations at night in order to hear music I couldn’t otherwise find, sometimes having to fashion my own antennas out of weird metal objects or by putting one hand on the radio and pointing my other hand in a certain direction.

I’m as much of a child of the Internet as anyone else you know, probably even more so (I’ve been ‘online’ since ’93 and was calling BBS systems before that), but I miss what has been lost. Says the guy in his email newsletter, I know, I know. But hypocrisy aside, could there be some way to restore an aura, a sense of mystery, and a challenge to the process of discovering culture? Could it be done in a way that is not a blatant nostalgia trip, not market-orientated, and without any trace of elitism?

(I meant to write this newsletter about the actual shows, trying to convey why they are so powerful for me. I think in some ways the recurring elements of these ‘karma’ shows combine to mirror something about my life, anyone's life. You hear Joe’s bitter rants about his failed relationship, Larry's desperate fears and alcoholism, and Debi Mae West’s impulsive, visceral way of living deeply through her emotions. These phone conversations aren’t necessarily deep, but they’re insanely raw and honest, and Joe’s own cold, restrained scepticism balances so well against his friends and their wild energy. And then you have the Jack Kornfield segments, which are the best parts –– excerpts of Buddhist lectures, taken out of context, and juxtaposed with all of these phone calls and monologues. They are the ideal, describing supremely beautiful and aspirational approaches to consciousness. When taken with the phone conversations, it’s jarring at first, but ultimately completes them, a perfect cocktail. Sometimes I feel like all of the mysteries of living are contained in any single 'karma' episode of The Other Side.)

Merry Christmas, everyone. Sorry if this is a bit rambling; I wanted to send out another newsletter before the year/decade ends, and there’s too much on my mind to write about here so this is my way of writing around it. Go discover Joe Frank. You won’t be sorry.


The end of the year always brings a lot of top 10 lists, which are usually great ways to find out about music since I’m so out of touch with things. This year will probably bring best-of-decade retrospectives as well. I haven’t looked at any yet, but maybe I’ll even compile my own for next time, why not? But please send me yours, I can print others' in the next issue.

The first part of this newsletter was already about media but I can write some more. As I said, I’ve been going back to old touchstones and rediscovering them through the new prism of my life right now. After the third viewing, I’m pretty sure that Love Streams (dir. John Cassavetes, 1984) is now my favourite film of all time, but I’m too tired to write about it now. This conversation says more about it than I could, anyway.

The last Smog record has been particularly resonant lately, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. ’Say Valley Maker’ is especially hitting home right now, despite being about death, which is not on my mind. Still, to let oneself be swept away by a river is a lovely feeling, and its gentle 6/8 strum is delicate and captivating (and also, I think, the start of the pastoral, naturalistic imagery that has taken over Bill Callahan records since). The peak is when, in that wonderfully understated vocal style, he sings ’There is no love / where there is no obstacle / And there is no love / Where there is no bramble / There is no love / On the hacked away plateau / And there is no love / in the unerring’. Chills run though me every time I listen to this. This song came out in 2005, so I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of new music here.

Los Espookys is pretty great. Watchmen was, too.


I don’t have anything to say about the UK election except that it’s fucking tragic and I’m so, so sorry for all of my friends who live there and are going to suffer so much under the forthcoming nightmare. 

I have realised how much less angry of a person I am compared to a few years ago. This is no doubt a good thing, except that with regards to the election, I don't know how to feel. I am just confused. Would anger be helpful? Who would I direct it at? I don’t even live there anymore, and I haven’t for a long time, so maybe I should focus on change that I can affect, but what would that be?

I’m finishing up an essay about blockchain technology for a publication. This article isn’t related to what I am writing, but it’s a pretty fascinating / disturbing piece, where white supremacy meets cryptocurrency. (Just what the world needs.)

Thanks again to everyone who has written, and who has listened to me lately. I’m really grateful, more than I could express in words. I’m about to finish a pretty big project so hopefully the next issue will contain an actual announcement.

Happy holidays,

John W. Fail/Icewhistle website
Not copyright  2019 No Culture Icons, 

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