FILM / Michael Simmons : How Bob Fass Revolutionized Late-Night Radio

Bob Fass in the WBAI studios in New York. Photo by, yes, Bob Fass. Photos courtesy Radio Unnameable.

Radio Unnameable:
Bob Fass revolutionized late-night radio

Fass and ‘Cabal’ changed history and deserve the credit 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.

By Michael Simmons | The Rag Blog | May 2, 2013

Radio legend Bob Fass and filmmaker Paul Lovelace will be Thorne Dreyer’s guests on Rag Radio this Friday, May 3, from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed live to the world. The show will be rebroadcast by WFTE-FM in Mt. Cobb and Scranton, PA, Sunday morning, May 5, at 10 a.m. (EDT), and the podcast of this interview can be listened to or downloaded at the Internet Archive.

[Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson’s remarkable film, Radio Unnameable, about free-form radio pioneer Bob Fass, is currently being featured at screenings around the country and the DVD will be released later this year. When the film was screened by the Austin Film Society last December, famed singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker — who first performed “Mr. Bojangles” on Fass’ radio show — introduced the film to the Austin audience.]

“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.”

Bob 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 nonconformist, Fass was on the air Monday through Friday from midnight to 5 or 6 a.m. Radio Unnameable was completely free-form and improvisational — radio jazz, as opposed to jazz radio.

Bob would play two or more records simultaneously of eclectic 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 whom he called “Cabal” — a handle that connoted subversion and conspiracy.

Bob Fass. In back, on left, is Abbie Hoffman.
Photo by Robert Altman.

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, organized, 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 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 the 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 10 callers to yap at once — a pre-internet chat room. 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.

Bob’s willingness to screw up in pursuit of the sublime — the audacity of failure, to quote filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery — was a lesson in the creative process — being unafraid to fall on one’s tuchus so that the practice of obliterating limits could reveal 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.

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 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 led to the founding of the Youth International Party — the Yippies — and were all aired on Radio Unnameable. Even though I was initially 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 — eventually millions — of others. Within a year of my first listen, I was in the streets, at the barricades, on the front lines.

Fass c. 1969. Photo by Jim Demetropoulis.

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 a.m. For the rest of the Bob Fass story, check out the extraordinary documentary Radio Unnameable by filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson. Fass and “Cabal” changed history and deserve the credit 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.

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 dreams while wide awake.

[As leader of the band Slewfoot, Michael Simmons was dubbed “The Father Of Country Punk” by Creem magazine in the 1970s. He was an editor at the National Lampoon in the ’80s where he wrote the popular column “Drinking Tips And Other War Stories.” He won a Los Angeles Press Club Award in the ’90s for investigative journalism and has written for MOJO, LA Weekly, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, High Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, CounterPunch, and The Progressive. Currently wrapping a solo album, Michael can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.]

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.