John Wentworth recently sat down with the Dark Lord of L.A. radio.
JOE: I'd like to ask everyone about to read this interview to please turn off all beepers and cell phones. If anyone wants to eat candy while reading, I urge you to unwrap it now and not after you begin. And those readers on intravenous drips please adjust the taps now. Also, John, I thought you should know the fire department was here earlier this afternoon to locate the source of a gas leak.
JOE: They came up empty, but nevertheless assured me there is little danger of asphyxiation or explosion and that our discussion can go ahead as scheduled.
JOE: The law also compels me to inform you that this building has been condemned. Never mind. Forgive me. I'm always nervous at the beginning.
JOHN: There's been a lot of resistance to your work, particularly when it's been aired on public radio.
JOE: Do you know what happened when Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" was first performed at the Paris Opera House? The audience rioted. The musicians were chased off the stage. The conductor was assaulted. The police were summoned. And why? Because the piece broke such new rhythmic and melodic ground that it was unrecognizable as music to people who lived in a world of Strauss waltzes, Beethoven sonatas, and Brahms piano trios. Now "The Rite of Spring" is considered a masterpiece.
JOHN: Dada was initially denounced, as well.
JOE: I'll never forget when John Cage sat down before a piano at Carnegie Hall. He did not play a single note for twenty minutes. Then he stood up and left the stage. Since then, it has been performed with variations and interpretations by the greatest of virtuoso pianists Horowitz, Richter, Rubinstein. In fact, Glenn Gould presented a marathon radio broadcast of Cage's masterpiece, playing it over and over again for thirty-six hours.
JOHN:I was fortunate to be present in the studio when Gould performed that concert. It was very moving.
JOE: My work may outrage, but these people may be turning their backs on transcendently great art. Of course, this is doubtful.
JOHN: Have many listeners been hostile to your show?
JOE: Over the years, some people have expressed contempt. Let me read you a letter from a listener who wrote to a station in Los Angeles after my show replaced Car Talk:
I used to take great pleasure in listening to Car Talk with those two lovable goombahs discussing automobile repair. They were charming and funny, and not only did I find their work uplifting, but my sister-in-law, who had been in a coma since 1967, rose from her bed of affliction while their show was on the air, walked across her hospital room, and hurled the radio from her window on the fourteenth floor before dying of a heart attack.
I cannot believe that you would remove the car guys so unceremoniously from the air. Their laughing and wheezing brought humor and light into my life and made me feel like a whole man once again, having lost my penis in a dreadful freak accident years before. And what did you replace it with? Joe Frank: The Other Side, an entirely self-serving, self-indulgent, solipsistic program.
If Joe Frank has a universe, I don't want to be a part of it. The program merely celebrates what is worst in us, and amounts to nothing more than pornography. So, in conclusion, I feel very strongly that you should remove Joe Frank and his program from the air and immediately bring back Car Talk.
Joe takes out a pipe and taps it against the edge of the desk. Then he dips it in a jar of soapy water and, thoughtfully and seriously, begins to blow bubbles. The room fills with floating bubbles of different colors and sizes.
JOHN: Why are you blowing bubbles?
JOE: Health reasons. I'm trying to cut down on tobacco. Besides, I find it relaxing. Do you mind?
JOHN: No. It's all right. Let's go on. What did you do before you went into radio?
JOE: I was a bank robber for a while. In fact, I was so polite and well-dressed and my demeanor so relaxed and calm that I could not only finesse money out of the bank tellers, but also get them to relinquish articles of their own clothing -- shoes, ties, scarves, cufflinks, bracelets, sunglasses. Then I began demanding whatever drugs they had -- antibiotics, allergy medicine, flu pills, aspirin. But even that was not enough for me. I came to feel that I also needed the potted plants, the filing cabinets, the landscape paintings, and the pictures of presidents and founders of the banks. Of course, it became increasingly difficult to remove all this stuff in one visit, so I hired two research assistants to help carry everything out in a few steamer trunks on mechanical dollies and place everything in a semi-tractor trailer. But I remained unsatisfied. That's when I expanded into kidnapping and demanded that the executives at the bank join me. Once, I even excavated an entire bank from a small town in Ohio, and brought it with me to my apartment in Paris.
JOHN: That's ridiculous. You've never even been to Paris. You're lying.
JOE: The truth is open for discussion, John. It can always be challenged. A lie, on the other hand, can be proved with impenetrable dark logic. Truth is relative, dubious. A lie is absolute, incontrovertible. But without lies, the truth would have no context in which to be appreciated. And so, yes, I lied. But only to make the truth forever shine like a great castle on a hill, like a grand citadel in which we can all take refuge.
JOHN: Your work has been described as dark and cynical. Does that accurately reflect your point of view?
JOE: It's hard to find anything free of worldly taint in modern life. There's an overwhelming sense of disbelief in everyone and everything -- people, institutions, governments, corporations, charities. There's a pervading sense of cynicism poisoning our faith in humanity. Do you remember when you could leave the doors of your home unlocked? Hitchhike without fear of being abducted? Rest your bike against a lamppost when you popped into the grocery store? Park your car and leave the windows rolled down with expensive camera equipment, a diamond necklace, some loose cash, negotiable securities, paintings by old masters, and a fourteen-pointed gold-and-platinum crown inset with rubies, emeralds, and topaz on the backseat -- and you didn't even worry for a second, because you knew it would all still be there when you came back two hours later?
JOHN: But times have changed, Joe.
JOE: Now cars and homes are outfitted with alarm systems. People used to have dogs as pets because they make wonderful companions. Now people get pit bulls, doberman pinschers, and german shepherds for protection. Every other day you hear that one of those dogs just devoured a child. You hear them barking day and night, alongside the shrieking and warbling of car alarms -- endless reminders of the insecurity and fragility of our lives. That's only further reinforced by the evening news, with one story after another about train wrecks, refinery fires, gruesome auto crashes, women who are carjacked, raped, and murdered on their way home from the supermarket, their disemboweled bodies found in the woods weeks later, children exploding as roadside bombs, religious worshippers murdered while praying in mosques and churches.
JOHN: Do you pray?
JOE: If we assume that God is all-wise and all-powerful, prayer seems absurd. That's like trying to tell a perfect being how to do his job. You're petitioning God to yield to your wishes. But what does that act imply, if not that God needs you to plead and prostrate yourself before him to get him to do what he should be doing, anyway? On the other hand, there's the belief among mystics that God is ambiguity, mystery, the unknown. In any case, I don't believe you can come to God through reason, rational demonstration, and empirical evidence.
JOHN: The first chief rabbi of Palestine in the 1920s said that, in the face of the suffering in this world, not to contemplate atheism is in itself almost sinful.
JOE: I agree with that. But many of us long for the transcendent to enter our lives. Another rabbi once spoke to me of what he called "theological pointillism." It's like looking at a Seurat painting. If you view A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte closely, you see a distorted chaos of dots and smudges. But when you step back ten or twenty feet, the painting becomes a beautiful, orderly, and harmonious tapestry. If you look at the world in the same way, what seems evil to us up close might appear orderly and perfect from the divine, or mystical, or cosmic perspective.
JOHN: So you don't practice any formal religion?
JOE: Well, I have trouble with any organized or institutional religion. According to Islam, one who has not submitted to Allah cannot pass through the portal to paradise. Fundamental evangelical Christians believe the only way to salvation is through Christ. Even if you are a caring parent, a good citizen, a benefactor of the poor, a person of profound compassion and love for your fellow man, if you have not accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior the gates to heaven slam shut as you approach. Now why do Christians and Muslims propagate these ideas, if not to swell the numbers of their believers through recruitment? These concepts seem to be more about drawing legions of people to a religion, and thereby extending its own power, than about acting justly or doing good. The notion that, "You are condemned to eternal torment if you do not join us," is, in my opinion, utterly debased and beneath contempt.
JOHN: You've been off the radio for the past few years. What have you been up to?
JOE: I was the leader of a motorcycle gang. I wore a leather jacket with studs and zippers, a red polka dot bandana around my forehead, and jackboots trimmed with metal buckles. My gang was made up of about fifty bearded, gray-haired, mostly overweight middle-aged men driving chopped, souped-up Harleys rigged so the exhaust pipes expelled noxious smoke, without mufflers so you could hear the roar of our approach two or three miles away. Basically, we just wanted to speed down highways, terrorize people and impose our will, and grow fat on other people's food and drink because we were tired of feeling disempowered, of remaining victims of forces over which we had no control.
JOHN: What happened?
JOE: We lived together in an old farmhouse but split up during a bitter dispute over the selection of paint colors for the renovation of the kitchen.
JOHN: Why did you choose radio as your medium?
JOE: Because of its uniquely evocative nature. No two listeners ever see the same images when listening, because radio draws on our creative imagination. That moment when you hear someone say something that you know is true in your own life and provides you with a sense that you are not as alone as you imagined, those moments when the everyday is suddenly illuminated and revealed in a form of modern alchemy, when you listen to something you never imagined or contemplated that catalyzes your thinking these are among the experiences I think we're all after.
JOHN: Your programs are often about searching and unfulfilled longing.
JOE: I feel I've been waiting for something all my life.
JOHN: What have you been waiting for?
JOE: I don't know. But whatever it is, it hasn't happened.
JOHN: And the longer you wait, the more liable you are to forget what it is you're waiting for.
JOE: Well, I prefer to wait, because when I'm not waiting life becomes unendurable. There must be an answer. There has to be something. We haven't been placed here by chance, for no purpose whatsoever. I just can't believe that. And yet, the universe is so vast as to be beyond our comprehension.
JOHN: It's a mystery.
JOE: I suppose.
JOHN: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
JOE: An orgasm is an exquisite neurological event that lasts but a few seconds, whereas spiritual euphoria is an infinite, profound sense of cosmic bliss. Personally, I prefer orgasms. But that's just me.