Hard Day’s Night: Radio Unnameable

A Documentary Film About Bob Fass and NYC Station WBAI

by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson

By Ross Altman

Radio UnnameableBroadcaster Bob Fass’s favorite four words are: “You’re on the air.” He said it to every listener who called in to his pioneering midnight show Radio Unnameable on WBAI in NYC, which he started in 1963, an amazing amalgam of the loosely scripted and improvisatory format which LA music writer Michael Simmons dubbed radio jazz.

I saw the premiere screening last night at the Arena Cinema on Las Palmas, a fundraiser for the Pacifica Archives housed at sister station KPFK in Los Angeles. Bob Fass attended the show and answered questions after the screening. In New York he is a living legend, a therapist for the entire city over the past half-century, whom sometimes desperate listeners would call in during the wee small hours when—as Fass put it—the night people are cleaning up the effluvia of the day people, and listening to the radio for company.

It’s a wonderful film, an epic story about a heroic life lived on its own terms, without regard for creature comforts, conventional tokens of success, or any sure knowledge that what he was doing had any value whatsoever, apart from the particular listeners who kept him on the phone sometimes for hours at a time.

Take, for example, Mae Brussels, a conspiracy theorist during the mother of all conspiracy theories—the aftermath of the Warren Report on the Kennedy Assassination. I have heard crackpots on late-night radio, and during the day for that matter; the uniform style of talk-show radio hosts today is to either humiliate their listeners like Dr. Laura, or out-bluster them like Rush Limbaugh. Bob Fass did neither; he listened to them, on an equal footing, for as long as they needed to talk. It was human interaction of the most existential kind, so no wonder he adapted the name for his program from the great existential playwright of our generation—Samuel Beckett—one of whose plays was called The Unnameable.

And then Stanley Kauffman called in—not the theatre critic—just an ordinary citizen who startled Bob Fass with the declaration that he was in the process of committing suicide, and wanted to do it on the air. It was during this call that Bob Fass’s endurance and humanity was tested far beyond the limits of any talk-show host I have ever heard of. His dramatic instincts must have been in stark tension with his human impulse, for at the same time that he did everything he could think of to talk him out of ending his life, he also knew that this was radio at its most intense, and his audience was riveted throughout.

Bob Fass’s humanity won out triumphantly; eight hours after Kauffman called, Fass managed to keep him on the air long enough for his call to be traced, which at the time was a long and arduous process requiring police man-hours to narrow down the scope of where the call could be coming from, literally one phone call at a time.

And this in the city that never sleeps, where there are famously “eight million stories in the naked city.”

Eight hours after Kauffman called, during which time he passed out from the overdose of drugs he had announced he had taken before he called—and Fass refused to cut him off the air, while the police continued to search. By the time they found him he was at death’s door, but the fire department got him to the hospital in time for them to resuscitate him. Bob Fass’s radio show saved Stanley Kauffman’s life—an impromptu and visionary suicide hotline in the making.

But those were the surprises. I went to the screening at the behest of Pacifica Radio Archives Director Brian DeShazor who told me that Bob’s show was famous among New York folkies for having provided a microphone early on to Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and even the New York Folklore Center’s Izzy Young (now perhaps best known as the presumed subject of Dylan’s Positively Fourth Street—a brilliant satire in song about his early supporters who turned on him once he went electric and personal rather than the embodiment of Woody Guthrie for the 1960s). But in this illuminating documentary it is the early Dylan circa 1963 one meets—in the remarkably prescient interviews Bob Fass conducted after midnight, relaxed, engaging and utterly delightful. And what makes this movie so special is Bob Fass himself—for he opened up the microphone to the listeners with his guests as well. Only here, in these unbelievably open archived recordings will one hear a listener call in and talk to Dylan and praise him for his songwriting, but then pause and reluctantly add, “you might work on your singing.” Dylan takes it all in good humor, completely self-possessed but not at all the biting interviewee of 1965s Don’t Look Back. Indeed, it is on Bob Fass’s show that one hears Dylan laughing in a way that is startling different from his public persona. “Don’t I hit all the notes?” was his unguarded reply. It was in those early appearances on Bob Fass’s show that Dylan first sang Blowing In the Wind in public; and fortunately his radio recordings are preserved in Pacifica’s Archives—a priceless MP3s 3 hours plus of material transferred to CD which Brian DeShazor brought with him to the screening for lucky attendees to purchase (and in parting he was kind enough to give me one, along with their 10 hours MP3 CD of highlights from Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable). They are available on-line as well, amongst a treasure trove of over 55,000 programs they have stored, preserved and archived. They are one of LA’s archaeological treasures—and they are all a part of KPFK’s historic studios on Cahuenga Blvd. in Studio City.

But Dylan is only the marquee name; Fass loved Phil Ochs too, and has him on again and again. It was Phil Ochs who dubbed WBAI—as represented by Bob Fass’s rhapsodic program—WLSD—the first audible sign in this documentary that Fass had managed to bring the rolling and tumbling 60s into his studio before anyone really knew what it was or what to call it.

In this wonderful film you will meet a late middle-aged Abbie Hoffman, not long before his suicide, being interviewed looking back on the trial of the Chicago Seven—and see Bob Fass in Chicago during the nightmare of the 1968 Democratic Party Convention with his roving microphone recording it for his listeners back home. While all the other national reporters were in the suites interviewing the party hacks who brought you Mayor Daley’s fascist police department, Bob Fass was in the streets interviewing the Yippies who were being pummeled and beaten on camera. It is historic reporting of the first magnitude and makes you realize how large was the scope of his reporting—a reporter in the mold of Edward R. Murrow who left the comfortable confines of his studio when the story couldn’t be contained within four walls and needed to be told. Astonishing.

But some of this movie’s most charming moments are the miniature portraits in story and song: Arlo Guthrie singing Alice’s Restaurant for the very first time on-air, April 26, 1967, before it became a national hit later in the year—that hypnotic finger-style guitar hook framing the only Homeric anti-draft song on record—18 and a half minutes of pure subversion. (Not all of it is in the movie—but enough to make you realize its genius—and then you get to hear the current Arlo again reflecting back on what it meant to have an access to public airwaves at a time when the counterculture was still a-borning, and only one program on one station—WBAI’s Radio Unnameable with Bob Fass—in New York was willing to give them a microphone—uncensored and in full flight.

Just as heartwarming is Texan Jerry Jeff Walker singing his signature song Mr. Bojangles for the first time on the air—live—just after he had written it—and hearing Bob Fass responding with the kind of encouragement that kept these songwriters going—and validated their work—the immediate realization that he was listening not just to a new song—but to a classic.

And the greatness of this movie—a monumental legacy fully assured in the hands of its gifted and dedicated young filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson—is Joni Mitchell’s (also in the film, explaining how her name is pronounced) Both Sides Now structure of such gems—where they go out of their way to bring Bob Fass to a present time club performance of the aging Jerry Jeff—singing his now certified classic portrait of the old soft shoe dancer “who stepped so high/he stepped so high/Then he lightly touched down.” Seeing Bob Fass in that audience—deriving such pleasure from seeing the artist he recognized at the very beginning was for me as revealing as the larger political themes the movie addresses so eloquently. Both sides now indeed.

For Bob Fass was an instrumental part of creating the very ethos of the 1960s—he used the power of his small studio—still untried and untested at the time—to become—in effect, and it is no exaggeration to say so—the Internet of his time. He managed to empower—unbeknownst to himself or to them—a community of individual listeners who only found out in the public happenings that Bob inspired that other people were listening too—an entire generation of other people that—as one reporter would describe—“no one knew was there.”

Five years before Woodstock Bob managed to pull together a series of what we would now call “raves”—a “fly-in” at the JFK airport hangar where hundreds of his listeners would congregate and sing—with Buffy St. Marie, no less—an incredible set of songs on the subject of flight; and then another time an early “Occupation” (I mean, that’s what we would call it now, now that we have a name for it) of no less than Grand Central Station in New York—all to a soundtrack of great American train songs.

But this—remember well—Radio Unnameable—and we didn’t have names for these things back then; it took decades to find the right names for some of the public consciousness raising that Bob Fass found—just like Einstein described it—by “groping in the dark.”

Literally, in the dark; for this was radio after midnight—at the same time, for what it’s worth—as this review is now being written, in the infectious spirit of Bob Fass. In the words of a great early song by that forever young folk singer, Bob Dylan,
I saw the morning light

I saw the morning light

It’s not that I am an early riser

I just didn’t get to sleep last night.

(I’m a Walking Down the Line.)

Well, dear Reader, I didn’t get to sleep last night either. Because I wanted to be Bob Fass (and Dylan too) for one night—staying up to get you the story the way it should be told, in the wee small hours as my friend Michael Simmons put it so well.

For those of us out here on the left coast, this movie will finally make you appreciate your own Pacific station—KPFK—even more. For with all the twice-told tales of KPFK’s internecine battles through the years—and some of them were delicious enough to leak out into the mainstream press as well—KPFK, in over fifty years has never gone off the air. Through all its inner sanctum upheavals, coup d’etats and disagreements over its mission, it has remained true to its original vision of listener-sponsored free speech radio.

One cannot say the same thing for its mother station—WBAI in New York (from which its current flagship program Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now is produced and broadcast). For as this warts-and-all documentary about Radio Unnameable painfully reveals, it did go silent—and not just for a few minutes, which characteristically would happen on some of Bob Fass’s psychedelic interviews—but for 51 days—during which time Fass was unceremoniously fired—a more “politically correct” younger more ethnic Program Director tried to take over the station—and Bob spent his forty plus days in the wilderness—which actually turned into seven years before he was able to come back to the studio where he still presides on Thursday in—as Michael (and Frank Sinatra) would say—the wee small hours.

But that’s another story. And to hear how it ends I’m afraid you will have to see the movie. I’m not going to ruin it for you.

As for this one, the sun has come up, it’s now 7:30am, and yes, it’s been a hard day’s night. Memo to John and Paul: I should be sleeping like a log.

Radio Unnameable plays until Thursday, April 11 at the Arena Cinema, 1625 N. Las Palmas, LA 90028 (next to The Egyptian Theatre). You can view the movie trailer

On Tuesday evening, April 9, from 7:00 to 10:00pm at The Talking Stick in Venice, 1411 Lincoln Blvd., LA, CA 90291 Ross Altman will host Rebels With a Cause, celebrating the musical legacies of Paul Robeson (born on April 9, 1898), Marian Anderson (who gave her Easter Sunday Concert in front of The Lincoln Memorial April 9, 1939) and Phil Ochs (who died by his own hand on April 9, 1976).

Would that Phil had called Bob Fass that night; if anyone could have talked him out of it, it would have been his old friend from “WLSD.” This musical tribute at The Talking Stick is free and open to the public, no cover, tips welcome, one drink minimum. 310-450-6052 .Don’t you dare miss it!

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com