Sometimes I think that the measure of being a with-it cultural consumer in 2018 is how much you appropriately and publicly grieve when a great artistic hero passes away. The tweets and Facebook posts about whichever obscure musician or writer has most recently left us are really about the person posting, of course; it’s an unsubtle way to brag about your sophisticated n’ cultivated tastes. Like keeping books on the shelf after they’ve been read, its a trophy: 'look what I know about!'
So I try to stay out of it, for the most part, though of course I acknowledge when, say, Mark E. Smith or France Gall leaves this mortal coil, at least if someone else happens to be in the room when I get the news. I don’t need to tell the world any more about my tastes because, really, who cares; anyway, I have an email newsletter for that. If the deceased somehow crossed my path and I had a real life interaction with them, well, of course it’s a little more powerful when they go. Though I still didn’t have anything to say to anyone when, for example, Harry Mathews died about a year ago. I was privileged to know him briefly and spend a few days together once, and I’m grateful for having had the experience. I was sad of course, but didn't need to proclaim it to the world
But – you probably knew this was coming – Joe Frank died on the 15th of January at age 79, and that feels pretty huge. I never met the man, and our only interaction was a drunken email I wrote to him once in 2012. Yet he probably is my single greatest influence, at least for the past decade or so, even though I’ve never made anything remotely like his radio shows. He’s left behind a body of work that I’ll be picking through for the rest of my life, not just because there are hundreds of hours of his programmes, but because some of them are infinitely re-listenable, taking on new shapes and meaning as my own worldview evolves. Which is the mark of any great work(s) of art, I suppose.
What hit me when I first discovered his shows was how much they addressed the conundrum I felt regarding my own engagement with art, specifically with music of a difficult nature, my primary occupation at the time. I wanted a way out from the marginality that I once embraced, not because I desired commercial success or a career, but because I wanted to communicate more directly. Frank’s radio shows from the 1980s and 1990s were somehow a map towards this; free and heavily language-based, absurd and experimental, hilarious and touching, and still in no way commercial.
The last series he did for the radio, The Other Side
, is the pinnacle for me, particularly the episodes referred to as ‘Karma Style’ on the Joe Frank wiki
. This was what I wanted (and still want) to make; not these shows specifically, but something as honest, with the same mastery of style regarding assemblage, continuity, tone, warmth, viewpoint, and juxtaposition - all while remaining light to the touch. I can’t specifically pinpoint what it is about these particular episodes - their intimacy, textuality, humour, or maybe none of the above - but somehow I’ve been guided for the last eight years by this star. Frank’s phone calls with Larry Block in particular are like a bizarre spiritual text for me, really. Ultimately this is no more absurd as any tract used by an actual religion; for me, it’s all there. The two of them are some kind of yin/yang, contrasting visions expressed with alternating madness, depression and frustration. I've listened to some of these conversations so many times that they've become iconic to me. I don't think I've ever convinced anyone else of their genius.
Here’s the drunken email I sent him, and his one-line reply, after which I was too embarrassed to answer.
JWF: Hi Joe Frank, This is weird to write to you like this... but I just wanted to tell you that I discovered your work a few years ago and it really had a big impact on me. I consider your approach to radio to be my biggest influence right now (I work primarily as a transdiciplinary artist and organiser in Estonia, trying to work with intimacy as a medium, if that makes any sense). When I split up with my wife, your 'Karma' shows got me through it... I don't know if you want me to go on about what I find amazing with them, so i will just say : THANK YOU. I have been on-again, off-again working on an experimental music recording which (in some way) is based on your relationship with Larry Block as expressed through 'The Other Side' calls.... I am trying to explore the meaning of abstract and experimental music with regard to what images sound can conjure.... I decided I would make an album inspired by your conversations, as they were more influential to me than any other musc -- which of course raises the questions of what it actually means for music to be 'about' something when literal meaning and language are removed. I admit I've stalled on it and am only about halfway through... regardless, I hope you approve. Anyway, I want to think you again for the effect you've had on me as an artist, etc. Best, John
Joe Frank: Thanks for writing. But I don't understand. Approve of what?
The man was undoubtedly a genius, and he was a genius working the way he wanted in a medium which he mastered, but he kept pushing himself towards reinvention. I’m going to fall into a deep deep soundhole revisiting some of my favourites, and some others which I’ve never listened to before. See you guys on the other side. And hopefully, my next LP, Kilometres for Larry Block
, will be released in 2018 on my old imprint, Cenotaph. That’s not a joke.
I had some minor eye surgery before Christmas (PTK, to help with map-dot dystrophy that I’ve been suffering from) and my vision is still a little blurry. I’ll get new glasses soon and then everything should be totally hyvä, but it’s limited my reading. Normally I would be secretly excited to stay home and do nothing for two weeks, as I did during the holidays, but the eye stuff kept my screen time limited for watching and reading. Still, I managed a few things:
- I’d probably rate Nocilla Dream by Agustin Fernandez Mallo as the best book I read in 2017. It’s hard to explain why.
- I’ve been slowly working through Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge, which was recommended to me last summer by my friend Peter Nicholson. I see why he thought I would like it. It’s an insane retelling of Don Quixote set in Essex and laced with linguistic games, and faux scientific texts; in the long tradition (or anti-tradition, as I liked to say) of postmodern goofs, this is pretty hilarious silliness, masquerading as difficult prose.
- The latest season of Black Mirror didn’t do much for me. Season two of Search Party was great great great, however.
- Of the celebrated ‘Oscar films’ which I’ve managed to watch so far, I agree with the masses about Lady Bird (the Catholic school element of which particularly resonated with me) and I have no problem with Three Billboards, which is already getting a lot of backlash because it doesn’t fit into the correct social politics as cleanly as people would like it to. I found it to be a stunning work whose murky twists and turns were precisely where it’s life and vitality came from.
- I started reading Hardt and Negri’s Empire, and it’s actually pretty fun!
Hey Helsinki people, buy a stake already at Kuusi Palaa
, OK? I’m wavering between optimism and pessimism about it. I’m not as emotionally invested as I maybe should be. I believe that we have designed a neutral, light structure that could enable some really interesting interactions to take place. Or maybe Helsinki is not be the right place for this; maybe no one wants something like this here, and most people are happy with the existing cultural patterns. I will accept that wholeheartedly, but we have to try first. This is also, in a way, a referendum on the last two years of my work with Agnieszka, at least in the eyes of the city we chose to work in (or more accurately, those in the city who are aware of us).
The new season of Mad House (the fifth, wow!) started last week. My only role at this point is website maintenance, but I caught the first couple of performances. First was Every house has a door
in collaboration with Essi Kausalainen, and it was great, the most beautiful example of what live art should be - and it felt like a perfect merging of their two practices, at least in terms of aesthetic balance. Juli Apponen’s Life is Hard and Then You Die
took my favourite style of performance - person at desk delivering a monologue - and pulled the audience through an excruciating series of personal agonies. It was miserable and fun at the same time. Thursday night was much harder to enjoy - a solo dance performance (which is always a hard sell with me) and Mathias Ringgenberg’s PRICE character, which exemplified everything that I dislike about contemporary performance art. Still, there’s a lot of other stuff coming up which looks really good, so I’m going to push myself to see as much of it as possible this season.
Because you can’t stay in recovering from eye surgery forever. There’s a whole cold, snowy world out there and it’s waiting to be explored.
What have you been up to?