Joe Frank, public radio icon, might chuck the $8 cane


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I had lost track of Joe Frank, the groundbreaking storyteller who created dozens of riveting radio dramas for KCRW-FM (89.9) in the 1980s and ‘90s. That changed when I got an invitation from the station to see Frank perform at the Village, the legendary West L.A. recording studio.

Although no one announced that the show would be a departure, it was. Never before had the mysterious performer so directly addressed his family life, particularly his relationship with a difficult mother, who died some years ago.


The crowd seemed to lap up the performance, which centered partly on how people disintegrate with age. But when I met him this week, Frank surprised me with his take on the show. He said he had been persuaded by a couple of friends to deal with the more personal material, but he ended up hating the piece.

“In live performance you always make mistakes. What you do is imperfect,’ he said. ‘Usually I wear shades and a hat. But that seemed entirely inappropriate given the kind of material I was doing, which was very honest, very open. Which I also hated. What I do is usually surreal.

“I like going further out, expanding the imaginations of people. There are lots of people who tell stories about themselves.”

Although he intends to keep his own story out of future performances, Frank had decided he would share more about himself in our interview, which I also detailed in my On the Media column. He talked at length about his own aging.

“Suddenly I find myself an old man with a cane,” said Frank, 72, who has struggled through a series of illnesses and recently recovered from pneumonia. “And in my interior life I feel so much younger. There seems to be a real disconnect with this old, deteriorating, decrepit body ... which is carrying my brain and heart around in it.”

Franks said he hates when people defer to him, offering an arm or holding open a door, even if he knows they mean well. His hands shake as a result of medication he takes. The need to hold a glass aloft for a toast at a party, or to eat with people he doesn’t know well, can cause a moment of panic.


But then Frank wonders if he simply needs to embrace the changes.

“Maybe I can transcend it by taking advantage of it, by making it into a persona,” he said. He muses about chucking the cane he bought for $8 at CVS. “I could have a cane with a wolf’s head and ruby eyes. I could wear a white suit or some bizarre getup, a hip-hop kind of hat and always a pair of sunglasses. And then instead of me being invisible maybe they would see this old man and I would, as you say, own it.”

In some of his old radio pieces that conveyed a good dose of anxiety and despair, Frank would edit in a teacher speaking about equanimity, a respite from the prevailing darkness. I wondered if he had ever tried meditation, a break from “the monkey mind.”

“I once had a friend come over to my house and urged me to meditate with him,” Frank said. “He kneeled down on the floor of my house and I kneeled down beside him and focused my mind on a word or something. And I was there for maybe 30 seconds when I felt so ridiculous and so stupid and thought it was so absurd that I got up.”

I couldn’t resist: “So you gave him a full 30 seconds?”

“I did,” Frank said, laughing. “I might have even given him a minute or a minute and a half. But certainly not more than that.”

I told Frank he sounded a little like Woody Allen’s character in “Annie Hall.” Alvy Singer memorably celebrated the fact that most people are only “miserable,” knowing they could be among the “horrible,” those who are crippled or dying.

But Frank told me he really does have a little more perspective than that. “I can’t say I am miserable because I have a body of work behind me. I have a considerable following,” he said, adding: “You can’t be unhappy. It’s not fair under these circumstances. So even though I may be depressed a fair amount of the time I am still grateful for what I’ve got.”

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey