Archive for January, 2018

January 16, 2018

#137) Remembering Joe Frank

In the spring of 1992, I was interning at WBUR-FM, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate. As I was sorting through the mail, I came across one letter from a listener who was complaining about a program the station carried called “Joe Frank: Work In Progress.” “Joe Frank should be spouting his mentally disturbing drivel to a psychiatrist, not to listeners who pay to support the station,” the listener wrote. I asked my supervisor if he knew anything about Joe Frank. “Joe Frank,” he said, “is a nut.”

Fancying myself as a sort of nut in my own right, I made a point of staying up late – WBUR broadcast “Work in progress” from midnight to 1 am on Monday mornings, begging the question of why the letter writer was up so late – and tuned in. The first couple of shows didn’t make much of an impression on me so I went about my business, which back then consisted mainly of telling everyone why they should be listening to Dave Brubeck instead of Nirvana and wondering why playing jazz fusion on my portable Kawai keyboard wasn’t getting me laid.

One night I was lying awake pondering the above mentioned when I realized that Joe Frank’s program was on the air. This time, I heard a monologue from a street lunatic who threatened to kill a little girl and make sandwiches out of her. I laughed so hard it’s a wonder I didn’t wake my parents. I had seen my destiny and its name was Joe Frank.

The man whose radio programs spoke of street loonies eating girls, who once put himself on trial for misogyny, who told of a plane ride where the evening movie was a Walt Disney children’s adventure set in Berlin in 1936, who once did an entire hour-long monologue about why he had no show prepared and who set a story in a dystopian city where people line up to commit suicide by jumping into a vat of acid died yesterday at age 79 following a lengthy illness.

Joe Frank was born Joseph Langermann in Strasbourg, France in 1938. His family fled to the U.S. the following year and he grew up in New York. His radio career began in the 1970s on WBAI in New York where his proteges included a young Ira Glass. The future host of “This American Life” said of Joe Frank, “Before I saw Joe put together a show, I had never thought about radio as a place where you could tell a certain kind of story.” In the 1980s he moved to California, where he became a mainstay on KCRW in Santa Monica.

After getting hooked on Joe Frank, his voice and those of his collaborators became the soundtrack to the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I would tape the shows and play them for anyone who would listen. I had been grappling with whether to make music or writing my career and for a good while, Joe Frank swung the needle toward writing. Much of what I wrote was hopelessly derivative, pale imitations of the master, but in my blissful ignorance I was convinced I was the new, cutting edge voice from the mean streets of Brookline, MA, going so far as to call myself Brookline High’s best kept secret. When, in one of his programs, I heard Joe decry “people who send me their Joe Frank style monologues with hopes that I might read them on the air” I enthusiastically refused to get the hint. (I soon checked myself and abstained from sending him anything, but I did submit some stories to magazines, surely providing the editors with unintentional laughter.)

Then, as many summer romances do, this one came to an end. September brought the tragic news that Joe Frank’s “Work in Progress” was going to be discontinued. The show that aired on the last day was part one of a three part program, giving me hope for a few more weeks, but it proved to be an Indian summer. Joe Frank was no longer on WBUR. The World Wide Web was still a few years from ubiquity and the people who invented I Heart Radio were likely prepubescent. In late 1992 the only cure for my Joe fix was to purchase cassettes from KCRW with my limited budget. I bought a few, cherishing them and the programs I’d taped like letters from a departed lover.

The following spring, the needle of my professional goals began its permanent swing back toward music. I started college, began my first long term relationships, moved from one job to another and even had a degree of success with some of my bands. Joe Frank gradually began to fade, although I still revisited those old cassettes from time to time. My new life experiences gave me appreciation for details in Frank’s programs that I missed the first time around, such as a dream sequence in which the character finds himself strapped to two giant gourds, one on each side of his body, and then finds his entire body stiffening and having an acrid white liquid shoot out of his mouth. Once, perusing the personals in the Boston Phoenix (Craigslist before there was Craigslist) I came across one that read, “Help me unravel this knot and find my way back to the place where I first saw you, where all this started, this thirst.” Most would-be suitors probably would have dismissed it as the rantings of a lonely housewife but I frantically called her, convinced that my recognition of this Joe Frank monologue from his program “The Dictator” would be my golden ticket. (In keeping with my luck with women, she turned out to be 17 years older than me, and this was before cougars became a thing.)

Seven years after the Summer of Joe, I packed my bags for Los Angeles. My fascination with California, in particular my craving of the hard-partying L.A. lifestyle – temptation of the highest order for a nerd trapped in cold, proper Boston – predated my interest in Joe Frank, but his presence in Santa Monica was more proof that the Golden State was the promised land. That the L.A. of Joe Frank’s programs was one of wildfires, mudslides and characters by turns lost in the urban sprawl and burned out from one excessive party after another (not far from the truth, as I would learn) didn’t deter me; at least they didn’t have to shovel 40 stairs every time it snowed.

In California, I checked in with Joe Frank every so often. Thanks to Youtube, streaming and social media, I had unlimited access to him, although like many things that were once unattainable that become attainable, the novelty had worn off. I did enjoy bragging that, thanks to Joe Frank, I knew what KCRW was long before it became cool, but that fact didn’t play as impressively as I hoped it would.

I never became the mad genius I was convinced Joe Frank would inspire me to be, but I am still glad that I happened to tune in to his show that night and that WBUR didn’t give into the demands of the irate letter writer. He may be gone now but his dark humor will continue to be a touchstone for those who have shared in the experience.

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January 2, 2018

#136) Language court 2018: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 43rd annual list of banished words

Let me ask you this: was 2017 an impactful year or was it a big nothingburger? Hopefully you didn’t spill your covfefe while you were drilling down the tons of fake news stories over the hot water heater at the office – if so, you might have quickly learned about your company’s offboarding process. Let that sink in.

Truthfully, I was a little perplexed and disappointed by this year’s edition of Lake Superior State University’s Banished Words List. Did over use of “pre-owned” really come to that much of a head in 2017? How is it more annoying than the words and phrases that didn’t make the list? Am I really the only one who has to hold back violent impulses when confronted by the terms “Fri-yay”, “Sunday Funday”, “Adulting” and “Fam Bam?”

Oh well, I guess lists are meant to be debated, so debate we will. Because of the tepidity of this year’s list – several items did get me nodding my head but still fell short of making me say, “Thank GOD it’s not just me!” – a new level has been introduced: guilty parties will be divided into misdemeanors (annoying but not as severe) and felonies.

Court is in session. Time to unpack this list!

UNPACK

Charges: “Misused word for analyze, consider, assess.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). The charges are valid but this word will soon run its course and will be as obscure to future generations as “real gone” is to millennials.

TONS

Charges: Refers to an exaggerated quantity…”Lots” would surely suffice

Verdict: Not guilty. Maybe I’m just hopelessly out of touch but I didn’t feel over-saturated by the word “tons” in 2017. Is “Lots” really that much more eloquent?

DISH

Charges: Let’s go back to “talk about” and leave the dishes in the cupboard.

Verdict: Not guilty.

PRE-OWNED

Charges: “What’s so disgraceful about owning a new car now and then?”

Verdict: Not guilty. Like “Tons”, this one has been around and at the same level for a while; sure, it could be retired but it’s harmless enough.

ONBOARDING/OFFBOARDING

Charges: Being a creature from the Human Resources lagoon.

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). If Mike Judge decided to remake “Office Space” he would surely have some fun with this one – but like “Unpack” it will probably just soon fade into obscurity – especially as the gig economy takes over.

NOTHINGBURGER

Charges: Says nothing that “nothing” doesn’t already.

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor).

LET THAT SINK IN

Charges: “One could say, shocking, profound or important.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Yes, it’s a little preachy and ponderous, but there tons of far more preachy and ponderous things out there than this nothingburger.

LET ME ASK YOU THIS

Charges: “Just ask the question already.”

Verdict: Not guilty. These days people are jumping to conclusions without asking enough questions. Questions are important – even if they are wordier than necessary.

IMPACTFUL

Charges: A frivolous word groping for something “effective” or “influential.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). When people realize they will no longer sound hip by using this word, it will fade.

COVFEFE

Charges: Self-explanatory.

Verdict: Guilty (felony). If you reward the two year old with a poopy diaper when he has a temper tantrum, you can’t get upset when it happens again.

DRILL DOWN

Charges: “Instead of expanding on a statement, we drill down on it.”

Verdict: Not guilty.

FAKE NEWS

Charges: “Fake news” is any story you disagree with.

Verdict: Guilty (felony).

HOT WATER HEATER

Charges: “Hot water does not need to be heated.”

Verdict: Not guilty; let’s stay away from this slippery slope. Do we want the court docket clogged every time someone says “ATM Machine” and “PIN Number?”

GIG ECONOMY

Charges: “Gigs are for musicians and stand up comedians.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). The court hopes that a slap on the wrist will prevent this (so far) minor offender from becoming gratuitously overused and making anyone old enough to remember the first Bush presidency embarrass themselves by misusing it.

What say you?

January 2, 2018

#135) No, Steve Harvey doesn’t hate white people

Maybe you’re right, @bvega02: if a white person said it, all hell probably would break loose. Maybe you’re right. Let’s move on.

In response to a performance of “Auld Lang Syne” by three young African American boys on New Years Eve in New York, Fox host Steve Harvey said that they had sung “the song better than all the white people I know.” I was tipped off to this by a friend who posted an outraged rant on Facebook, upset not only with Harvey’s comments but also¬† that social media wasn’t collectively losing its mind over it.

To his point, when I googled Steve Harvey and New Years’ Eve (God forbid I actually start off 2018 by doing something productive) there was far more attention given to his outfit (which, I must say, he wore better than all the white people I know would have – and besides, give the guy a break – it’s cold in NYC) than to his comments about white people. That being said, maybe the fact that the Twitterverse is relatively quiet about this is a good thing.

Everyone – black, white, brown, beige, yellow, red, taupe, chartreuse – can do their race proud by having a sense of humor about it or at least by understanding context and not over-reacting to every tiny thing. Gray area is your friend. A buddy of mine says that he can tell how good a Mexican restaurant is by how many gardening trucks are in the parking lot. Some might be ready to fit him with a white hood for such a remark; I see it as a useful tip. As a Jew, I appreciate that there is a difference between “Why do Jews watch porn backward? So they can see the guy get his money back” and “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? The pizza comes out of the oven.” (Though personally I find them both pretty funny). I’m here to tell you that on scale of backward porn to ovens, Harvey’s comments are closer to backward porn.

Yes, it’s fun to be right. Yes, it’s exciting to have your righteous indignation validated by algorithms that are coded to do just that. Let’s unclench that fist. Steve Harvey made an offhand comment that might not have been terribly funny but doesn’t require the Justine Sacco treatment. He handled his brush with infamy a few years back with humor; let’s give him some slack on this one. You will have plenty of other opportunities to be offended before 2018 is through.

And besides, those boys probably did sing it better than any white people Steve knows.