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Improvisational Radio

by MICHAEL SIMMONS

“I wanna be a neuron – I don’t wanna be the brain,” said all-night radio host Bob Fass in the 1960s to his audience. “We’re all the brain.”

Fass began his show Radio Unnameable at non-commercial, listener-sponsored WBAI-FM in New York City in 1963. By 1966 when I began listening as a fledgling non-conformist, Fass was on the air Monday through Friday from midnight to 5 or 6 am. Radio Unnameable was completely free-form and improvisational – radio jazz, as opposed to jazz radio. Bob would play two (sometimes more) records at once of all kinds of music and spoken word. Musicians would show up unexpectedly and perform. His friends came and shpritzed free-associative comedy routines or rapped about politics du jour or cultural happenings in the underground that were being created in real time. Friends included Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Wavy Gravy. These characters were in cahoots with Fass’ audience who he called “Cabal” — a handle that connoted subversion and conspiracy.

An actor in his youth, Fass knew how to underplay. His voice was like a muted baritone saxophone – calm and reassuring, but at moments – always the right ones — he was capable of removing the mute and that bari would modulate, rising in excited exhortation. He entertained, comforted, educated, raised consciousness, and inspired.

I was 11-years old in 1966 and I too wanted to be a neuron. A child of Top 40 radio (“W-A-Beatle-C!”), I was one of those kids with the transistor radio and earplugs under the sheets when I was supposed to be asleep. One day while futzing with the dial at 2 a.m., I landed on WBAI and heard Phil Ochs sing “Draft Dodger Rag,” an absurdist satire about the serious subject of avoiding the military draft and thus that human-meat grinder that was The War In/On Vietnam. The combination of Ochs’ idealism and irony was irresistible and I was hooked on Fass at 99.5 on my FM dial.

Every night with Bob was different. There was no playlist, no formula, no commercials. Fass took phone calls and a techie had rigged a system that enabled ten callers to yap at once. At times the show was indecipherable chaos, but mostly it was compelling for a restless and skeptical nipper like myself who’d been raised on rules and unquestioning respect for the authority of parents and so-called teachers and leaders. The audacity of failure, to quote filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery, was a lesson in the creative process – being unafraid to fall on one’s face so that through the practice of limiting limits one could attain higher levels of artistry and consciousness. Ultimately we Cabalists discovered that the medium of radio alone could not only get one high, but get many high simultaneously.

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Being a Fass listener in those days was to witness an emerging counterculture, watching it form on a molecular level in real time through experimentation and connection. One night in early ’67, Bob announced a Fly-In at a JFK Airport terminal and a thousand young people showed up to give flowers to the passengers arriving from Hong Kong or Barcelona, giving birth to Flower Power. The Sweep-In followed and young ‘uns armed with brooms and mops helped clean up the untended ghetto of East Village streets. These events were aired on Radio Unnameable and even though I was too young to participate, the energetic positivity – the desire to change the human dynamic for the better – was infectious. I got bit and so did tens of thousands of others.

Plenty more happened to Fass — both good and bad — but 40-sumpin’ years later, Bob is still on WBAI: Thursday night/Friday morning from midnight to 3 am. For the rest of the Bob Fass story, check out the extraordinary documentary Radio Unnameable by filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson. Fass and The Cabal changed history and deserve to be noted and Lovelace and Wolfson have provided the first in-depth cinematic look. It resonates like an epic tale with the hero emerging as a long-shot survivor. Fass, filmmakers and film have hit the road and will be screening in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema beginning tonight April 5th through the 11th. The mighty 21st Century underground periodical Arthur Magazine presents the 7:30 screening on Saturday night and I’ll be present to introduce the film and participate in a Q&A afterwards with Fass and filmmakers.

Like so many young people in any era, I had a difficult adolescence. Mainstream adults with their arbitrary expectations and – worse – greed and slaughter were all transparently fucked up. At the age of 58 I still view most of conventional society with horror. But Bob Fass has helped keep me sane in an insane world for a half-century. Radio Unnameable is a roadmap for rebels, those who believe – as the saying goes – that another world is possible. Fass and Lovelace and Wolfson show that political and cultural transformation are often generated in the wee small hours of the morning — that perfect time when the moon shines, the squares sleep, and dreamers share while wide awake.

MICHAEL SIMMONS is a musician and journalist. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.

 

Michael Simmons is a musician and journalist. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.

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