I first heard him as a voice in the dark, coming through on a cheap AM radio, speaking of the doomed love between an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman. Beneath the high concept was something else, though: extraordinary use of language, and an honest accounting of the emotional lacerations encountered by everyone trying to make a relationship last. The next time I heard him, I recognized the voice, but this time he was conveying the first person complaint of the biblical Joseph, describing in pained detail the tormented jealousy and rage he felt towards the God who decided to make him an eternal cuckold. The voice, at once deep and soothing, but speaking of profound loneliness and emotional violence would leap fearlessly between stories, and, as I’d listen to more of his work, between monologues, phone conversations, found scholarly lectures, and music to create vital tapestries of human experience that were honest, and completely unique. There’s no one like Joe Frank, and his work is worth the effort to seek out.
He came through New York last October, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience. It was his first time in the city in 24 years, and for the first time on the stage, where he performed the monologue “Too Close To Home.” It was the second time I saw him perform - the first was at Largo in LA a few years back. That time I actually flew across the country for his show. This time, I didn’t need to travel so far, but I still came with the spirit of a pilgrim, to pay respect and draw wisdom from an admired mind. Frank didn’t disappoint.
He’s ancient now, and his body is frail. His hands shake when he turns a page of his script. But he shoulders this with dignity, and his voice booms, and his eyes shine with clarity and authority.
That show was an exploration of mortality - the indignities of old age, the spiritual suffering of physical decline for both the fading and the survivors, and the yearning for grace and connection. Frank blends autobiographical detail with invention, fantasy, and observation, and creates a sense of surrealism by describing mundane details one strives to ignore with precise, cutting language. A room of elderly women with identical blonde dye jobs becomes a fantasia of Joe looking for his mother, being surrounded by her facsimile but unable to reach her. The cheap, mean dinner table where his step father and mother masticate their meal puts us in the narrator’s shoes, and we feel his mingled revulsion and empathy. There are moments described where the desire to connect is trumped by the fear of destroying what fragile life force remains. A desperate mid-day jog becomes a botched bargain with God. An elderly woman’s memories of fleeing the war as a small child but feeling so full with life are juxtaposed with her self-loathing and sincere desire for death, because she is disgusted by her condition of being a burden. “Too Close To Home” portrays a desire to reconnect not merely with lost youth, but with the pure vitality that permits us to nourish and be nourished by our connections with each other.
In recent years, Frank suffered a great deal of physical indignity, including a near-fatal kidney failure, and it's taken a toll out on him. But when you watch him, he doesn't look like a martyr. He holds himself with grace, and he tells the truth with a style that's arresting and moving.
There’s no one like Joe Frank. Probably there never was and never will be again. I hope he gets a serious victory lap, and that he gets to publish in as many venues as he'd like for his writing. He's earned it by creating a body of work unlike any other, and all on his own terms. To me, he's the rarest of artists, and as such, a unique and honest human treasure.