Sunday, September 20, 2015

A sad tune-out


Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I [Chris Albertson] have been both a praiser and a critic of Bob. The latter has mainly been directed toward his radio program, Radio Unnameable, which probably won WBAI more listeners than any other offering. That, however, was in another century, the extraordinary era of social upheaval that gave us the antithesis of an apron and apple pie culture as it opened the door to a multitude of dumped taboos. The so-called "Love Generation" faced an open door (and mic) at the three Pacifica stations but none as wide as WBAI's, where Bob Fass reigned over the early night hours.

Bob's freedom to speak a young generation's mind and share the air with amazing artists and trendsetters set Radio Unnameable apart from anything else NYC radio had to offer. The influence of that program lingers on today, decades later, but mostly in a rapidly depleting bank of time-worn. They sometimes embellish needlessly—as memories will do—but such refurbishments are a gold-leafed Spirit of Ecstacy on a Rolls Royce hood.

There was a dimmer side to Bob Fass that most people didn't see and some found outweighed by the clarity he and his extraordinary guests brought them through hot and cold moonlit nights. I used to say that he could strangle you with his love beads, and I meant it, because behind that gentle voice and smile was a man whose loyalty turned with the ease of a weather vane.

The Pacifica Maven is a gentleman who occasionally posts to this blog, a long-time WBAI listener-supporter and friend of Bob's, his concern for his welfare never wavers and often manifests itself in deeds that few are prepared to perform. It is, sad to say, a thankless concern. PM's criticism of Bob is heartfelt and misunderstood—several of us have felt that he ought to have given up the WBAI show a long time ago, when it had run way past its normal life. There have been so many opportunities for Bob to bow out gracefully and spin a fresh career move out of the wealth of experiences he enjoyed as host of Radio Unnameable. Had he listened to well-meant advice, he would not now find himself in his unenviable situation. The following comment from Pacifica Maven should not be misinterpreted as anything but a fond adieu to someone who made a lasting impression.

A Farewell to Radio Unnameable

The audio clip of Radio Unnameable from the show of Friday morning, August 21, offers an accurate picture of what the Radio Unnameable has become:  Three and a half hours of a deluded old man in the initial phase of dementia trying to recreate what was once the best radio program ever.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Radio Unnameable was on every night.  It would begin at 12 midnight and one never knew when it would end.  

At a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in its father’s eye,  Radio Unnameable was undisputedly the center of the nervous system of an important counterculture.  It was a place where you hear the music, the poetry, and the thoughts of some of the greatest artists, poets, intellectuals, and activists of a very important era in American politics and in American culture.  And not only could you hear Paul Krassner, William Kunstler, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Arlo Guthrie, Mark Rudd, The Yippies, The Diggers, and so many more protagonists of what was happening in those formative years of my life, you could actually talk to these people and to Bob himself.  Radio Unnameable was democratic and anyone could get on the air and have his or her five minutes of air time—even more if you were interesting.

It was on Radio Unnameable that I first heard of many of these people; it was on Radio Unnameable where I first heard the songs of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and Phil Ochs; and Tom Paxton and Joni Mitchell.  And The Pearl Before Swine. I first heard “Alice’s Restaurant on Bob’s show as well as “Mr Bo Jangles”, Lori Anderson’s amazing “O Superman”, and the Swines’ wonderful “Amber Lady”.  It was on Radio Unnameable that I first heard Monty Python.

But now, like so much else in my life, Radio Unnameable and its host have grown old and decrepit:  sad, even pathetic parodies of what they once were.

The music you here on the show is usually put together by Bob’s wife, Lynnie.  If you call Bob to ask about the title or artist, more often than not he has no clue.  This has been going on for years.

About four years ago, I heard a famous revolutionary song from Mexico called “El Barz√≥n”.  Bob did not know the title, the artist—the famous Amparo Ochoa, nor what the song was about.  Neither did the vapid Lynnie, whose interests are primarily cats and astrology.  It was then I learned that it was Lynnie who arranged the music for Radio Unnameable.

Lynnie is a good reason for not visiting the Fass family at home.  She’s converted their small house on Staten Island into an animal shelter; when you walk in, you are almost aphyxiated by the stench of cat food, cat piss, and cat shit.  You can’t move through the house without tripping over a cat.  You can’t wash your hands after using the bathroom because the bathroom sink is kept filled with drinking water for the six or seven stray cats that live in the house.  Is it any wonder that Bob treasured Thursday nights and Friday mornings when he could escape from the place for a few hours?

Lynnie is subject to screaming fits.  She will have tantrums directed against Bob, his friends, people who work in restaurants, cops, or total strangers.  She is a serious “student” of the pseudo-science of astrology and often screams at people who challenge it as something to be taken seriously.  One day, Lynnie will start screaming and will not be able to stop until she is restrained and pumped full of Thorazine.

Bob has no house and no money of his own and thus is condemned to spend perpetuity with Lynnie.  He used to be able to get away for a few hours to do Radio Unnameable; now he broadcasts from an improvised studio in his house while trying to avoid tripping over one of Lynnie’s cats.

In WBAI’s last years on Wall Street, I occasionally went into NYC to answer phones for Bob and for Ibrahim Gonzales during marathons.  Both had become my friends and both generously invited me into the studio to participate in their programs.  It was quite a contrast to sit in the studio and watch these two producer/hosts perform their jobs.

Ibrahim was quick, agile, and in total control—like Bob about forty years ago:  Ibrahim was able to maintain a conversation with an in-studio guest or caller while managing the switchboard, changing a record, tape, or cd.  When there were several guests, as there were the night I was there, he would make sure everyone was acknowledged and got the opportunity to speak, perform, or recite.  Even I was invited to share some time with the artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals who surrounded me.  He would solicit our opinions, ask us about our current projects, and joke with us—everyone who showed up in the studio—in his "house", was made to feel welcome, honored, and appreciated.

Bob, in contrast, was slow, clumsy, and lethargic; distracted and soporific.  He had invited about a dozen people to participate in his show, but left most of them sitting around without  even acknowledging their existence.  He allowed the affable, sweet natured David Amram to prattle on for a good part of the show without shaping Mr. Amram’s thoughts and reminiscences into a coherent segment of the show.  He made no space for the other artists, writers, and intellectuals in the studio to speak or perform.  He fell asleep several times during the show—at least once during a phone call, and Bill Propp had to intervene to keep the show functioning.  When Bob spoke, it was difficult to understand him as he now mumbles and slurs his words; and he digresses from one topic to another without any evident thematic unity.

I’ve stopped recording the show on VHS tapes as I had done for more than thirty years.  There is no longer anything worth listening to.  Bob has become an unhappy old man with few other interests except trying to keep together the shreds of his once wonderful radio show.  

He will not acknowledge that he is no longer capable of producing and hosting a late night/early morning radio program because of his physical limitations.  He becomes very angry with friends who dare to suggest retirement.

It is sad to see a legacy soiled—especially if the one who soils it is the same person who created it.  Radio Unnameable has become Radio Unbearable.  

It’s sad:  the show deserves a better fate;  Bob deserves a better fate. 


The Pacifica Maven

16 comments:

  1. Interesting, indeed. To be honest, I never liked his wife when she'd pop up on the radio. She just struck me as weird and domineering. However, reading this, I get the feeling that Bob played around with his life and kind of used her to take care of him. Maybe they used each other. I don't know. However, I always thought Propp chose the music. I have to admit feeling sorry for Bob, but still think he acts like a spoiled child and sucks ass on the air, except when the technical fuck-ups happen and we get some funny audio out of it. Remember a year or so ago and what I called the "no form" radio episode? Man, I wish I had that on tape.

    I once heard someone say that in the old days Bob would put multiple people on the phone likes at once so he could take a 30 minutes nap. Guess it wasn't far from the truth.

    Finally, isn't it funny how Brady comes back and Bob tells us of his extraterrestrial listeners?

    SDL

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  2. I think this is 'beyond the pale' WBAI was destroyed for political & social reasons, hustlers and bigots, Bob played along to get along like Armand, Gary Null & many others whose egotism were more important than any principle. The mess of his private life, should be private

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  3. Great piece, thanks for taking the time to write it up.

    On the commercial side, Don Imus is suffering a similar journey into incoherency and irrelevance. There are differences, of course. Imus sticks by a rightist political agenda, while pretending to be a nonpartisan gadfly, and Imus is also shored up on-air by a cadre of radio pros and sycophants, which Fass would never be able to afford - in any sense of that word.

    It's very sad when talent past its prime keeps putting itself blindly out there in public, and sadder still when friends and relatives of the stale personalities can't be honest enough to tell them to call it a day (or a night).

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  4. I think Bob Fass is more with it than anybody realizes. This dementia gimmick is just a schtick, a goof to bend y'all out of shape.

    KGT

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    Replies
    1. I'm afraid you think wrong, although he has his lucid moments.

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    2. Dismayed to read these September 2015 comments now, April 2016. Please remember that Bob and Lynnie Fass are human beings and they both need some help. Reading these observations, both Bob and Lynnie Fass seem to be in need. Are there no local social services inquiries that can be made to identify, to assess, to offer them whatever assistance is available in Staten Island, New York?

      Whoever Bob was to the world who listened to him in his prime, he now needs some help. The description of Lynnie shows that she is in great discomfort. A well-placed call to whatever social services agencies that are available can start a process rolling to aid these people, if they will be receptive to help. Please, somebody local in the NYC area, make that call and do right for these people.

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    3. There are many of us who endeavored to help Bob and Lynnie.
      One problem is that Bob seems unwilling, unable, or both to do anything for himself.
      The two people who made the film RADIO UNNAMEABLE did everything to facilitate the sale of the show's archives, but Bob and Lynnie refused to pull the trigger because they believed they were being cheated.
      Lynnie's temperament caused her to be fired from a good job she had and continues to cause conflict where she's working now.

      Lynnie is so disruptive, so off center, that when we were examining, writing notations about, and classifying Bob's tapes, the person in charge of the operation told us (before Lynnie arrived) that she was not to touch any of the tapes.

      Bob has been fortunate. There are a lot of us that love him and have done what we can to help hima dn make his life comfortable. But his priorities are screwed up: he'll spend several hours composing a comment to counter a negative comment on The Blue Board, but won't spend a minute writing his autobiography despite offers of help and support.

      I cut off communication when I got an e-mail from Bob "firing" me as a friend, and another e-mail from Lynnie that just said "Fuck you, L....".

      Your heart is in the right place> I hope people respond to your requests.
      However, I'm through.


      TPM

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    4. Oooooh. Yes. I'm the April 1 anonymous writer to whom you responded. Thank you for doing what you have done for Bob and Lynnie. I suspect mental illness plagues both of these people. No blame for being done with trying to help them yourself. This needs professional help. I am glad that Lynnie is working again and I hope that she is able to keep her job. As for Bob, I think you've defined it, that he seems unwilling or unable to do anything for himself. This has been long coming. I suspect mental illness or a descent into dementia. Again, please, someone, get Social Services involved to see if any needed assistance can be gotten. People have the right to be nuts, but people don't let other people go hungry or sick. They may need food, assistance with paying utilities, medical care. Their nutsiness will play itself out in time, burning through the patience of those who try to help. No matter, don't help, just get Social Services to check in on them, and let them play their dramas out. Thank you.

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  5. WBAI had great potential. But too many egos grew bigger than life. There was not enough accountability. The big money charged for certain give aways was a double standard given that the station claimed to be socially conscious. There should have been more public voting, involvement, etc. And new voices from the ghetto rarely got to be heard. Only the more upper class blacks and latinos that had finished college and had that slave tongue mastered. If WBAI, (and the Village Voice, etc) are to both help the main groups they want to help, they need to loosen up and not be so focused on the upper class progressives. There are tons of unsung leaders that dress like hip hoppers, that have no degree, who are awesome. Progressives tend to be in the same circle as the very people/system they claim to hate. No different from democrat/republican politicians. but don't give up hope, there's still the chance to change, but not likely. Re Bob, give him advice and let him live, but he should also be getting younger blood into the show and possibly have him only as special correspondent, etc.

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  6. Chris,
    I have read the text of your opinion, and have also listened to the sound clip you posted.
    In the period of 1965 to 1968, I listened to Bob's show nightly. After that, I moved out of transmission tange and have not listened until recently, when his broadcasts became available on the network.
    Regarding your complaint about Bob's show, I think that you are misperceiving the situation.
    Bob is not as energetic as a 30 year old anymore, and there are so many experiences stored in his mind that his internal "search engine" takes a few minutes to find the facts. This is a side effect of both age and a rich life. If Bob did not have such a notable life, he would be able to recall any sparse details more quickly.
    If you were a bit older, you might appreciate having to recall a rich life.
    Even though Bob was a bit pedantic in his storytelling (on your posted clip), there was nothing wrong with the sequence or reasoning in his recant of the incidents.
    Bob is a person doing what he loves, and is not ready to give it up. Nobody can blame him for that. He has a loyal following, and continues to provide a valuable frame of reference for those people.
    As for the others, they can continue to support Trump, backstab each other at work, and waste their evenings warching "Kevin can wait" on network television.
    I don't think that Bob's personal life should be a subject of discussion either.
    When you grow up, you will learn that each person's advancing life is a result of the spider web of choices made over the years, and that some people actually have a strong enough relationship that they can overlook their partner's foibles.
    Bob's personal life is really none of your business, or anyone else's for that matter.
    Bob is an Icon of the 60's and is also a valuable historian. He represents a morality and sense of ethics which has sadly been stripped from the american cultire by the "where's mine" generation.
    I am willing to bet that the reason you are "down" on him is that you habe little understanding of these ethics, and that he has embarrased your greed.
    Or perhaps you just don't have a clue about what he stands for.

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    1. At 85, I believe I'm just a little bit older than Bob Fass.

      Were it not for me rehiring Bob in the mid-Sixties, you might not have heard him when you started tuning in to WBAI.

      Bob hasn't had a following to speak of for many years. A bus load is not a following when it comes to radio.

      As for his morality and ethics, I think I know more about that than you seem to.

      Enough said.

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  7. It's me again, your previous compassionate commentator. Just checking in to see if anyone else had perspectives to share. I grieve with you about the situation, the loss of a bright light on the air, the sinking into his own situation, and I agree with your implied knowledge and experience of morality and ethics. Whose business is it really? The memories belong to the people who have them, but the person belongs to himself and must be afforded the dignity of humankind, although full of fobiles. I am so sorry that things have gone this way and not a better way.

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  8. it seems like i have been a listener since i first heard the Lone Ranger on WBAI one night some 50 years ago. Listening to you,Steve, Larry, and Bob was great. almost all of the WBAI programming was varied, more interesting and mostly live.

    Everything has changed and I sure am glad that Bob is still broadcasting on Thursdays and I hope he will be able to continue for a long time.

    Lots of things were different so many years ago. it doesn't do much good to cry about the changes, so much better to be glad for what remains. especially these days.

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  9. Bob often calls friends and pressures them to respond to negative comments about him on the Blue Board or Chris’s blog.

    This appears to be the case with at least two of the above comments.

    I invite all readers of this blog to listen to Radio Unnameable and to see for themselves if Chris’s excerpt is representative of the disaster that the show has become or not.

    It’s tragic that Bob doesn’t realize he is no longer capable of producing a coherent, listenable program. He should have retired five years ago.


    TPM

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  10. nobodoy called me, or asked me to do anything
    i was just looking up bob fass and wbai, found this site, and thought i'd add my two cents
    i stopped listening to wbai a long time ago - when it no longer reflected the crazy ass station i used to adore. yet i continued to listen to bob.
    and annonymous, you are correct: memories do belong to the people that have them and i am glad for the ones i have of the old wbai and the present bob fass

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    Replies
    1. Hey, it's ol' Anonymous here. and "nobody" ever contacted me or asked me to post or refute anything. I wouldn't do it anyway, if "someone" did. Sure, I, too miss what I remember the show to be, but things have changed. Sooner or later, things change. I hope we all change for the better with the time we have. Wishing help for the people who cannot change when they must. Thanks for this blog.

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