Arthur is very pleased indeed to present a special Los Angeles screening of the new feature-length documentary RADIO UNNAMEABLE about free-form FM radio pioneer Bob Fass and his ridiculously long-running midnight program.
For nearly 50 years, Bob has been heard on New York City listener-supported station WBAI, utilizing the airwaves for in-the-moment journalism, in-studio artistic performance, learned philosophizing and righteous mobilization, long before today’s innovations in social media. He is one of the original Yippies, whose outrageous/visionary actions helped sway pigheaded America in the late ‘60s toward eventual progress (or at least getting the hell out of Viet Nam). The film draws from Bob’s extraordinary personal archive of audio recordings—including appearances by Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman, and performances by Karen Dalton, Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hamza El Din and more.
RADIO UNNAMEABLE opens at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles on Friday, April 5 for a one-week engagement. Arthur is presenting the 7:30 screening this Saturday April 6. Journalist, counterculture scholar and longtime Arthur contributor Michael Simmons will introduce the film with his patented song-dance-and-groove approach. Directors Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson, along with subject Bob Fass, will do a Q and A afterwards.
This piece was originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004), with cover artwork by John Coulthart and design by William T. Nelson, pictured above (click image to view at larger size). A correction involving Cosmic Charlie published in a later issue has been embedded in the text here at the most natural point. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to include the many fantastic photographs from the print article here. However, I have added a still from the film “Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up” by Dick Fontaine, which we did not have access to at the time of print publication into the text, and there are more stills from various films appended. —Jay Babcock
Clip from Arthur No. 13’s Table of Contents page, featuring photo by Robert A. Altman.
OUT, DEMONS, OUT!
On October 21, 1967, the Pentagon came under a most unconventional assault.
An oral history by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Michael Simmons and Jay Babcock
* * *
INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL SIMMONS By Autumn of 1967, the “police action” in Vietnam had escalated. The United States of America waged War—that hideous manifestation of the human race’s worst instincts—against the small, distant, sovereign land. 485,600 American troops were then stationed in Nam; 9,353 would die in ’67 alone. We were there under false pretenses (the “attack’ at the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened), operating under a paranoid doctrine (the Domino Theory, fretting that Vietnamese Communists fighting a civil war in their own country with popular support would envelop all of Southeast Asia and end up invading Dubuque, Iowa). Seven million tons of bombs would eventually be dropped, as opposed to two million during World War II. Indiscriminate use of gruesome weaponry was deployed, most infamously napalm, a jelly that sticks to—and burns through—human skin. Saturation bombings, free-fire zones, massive defoliation with the carcinogen Agent Orange. “Destroying the village to save it,” as one American military man put it.
For a generation that remembered the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals after WW II, something had to be done. Genocidal fugitive Adolf Eichmann’s “I was just following orders” excuse would not fly. The draft was sending 18-year-olds off to die. A domestic anti-war movement emerged, as had a counterculture of hairy young people who rejected the militarism, greed, sexual repression, and stunted consciousness of their parents and leaders to pursue Joy and Sharing as well as Dope, Rock and Roll, and Fucking in the Streets. Pundits spoke of The Generation Gap. A quaking chasm had split the nation.
San Francisco painter Michael Bowen had a dream of people coming together to celebrate his city’s burgeoning hippie subculture, and so he and his wife Martine initiated the Great Human Be-In on Sunday, January 14, 1967. Sub-billed as A Gathering of the Tribes, 10,000 hippies, radicals and free spirits convened in Golden Gate Park. Beat poets emceed (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel), rock bands rocked (Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans), Hell’s Angels returned lost kids to their mommies – and the cops busted no one, despite rampant open marijuana use. For many, the realization that there were other Martians was transcendental. Berkeley anti-war activist Jerry Rubin gave a speech, but his narrow political rap was dubbed “too histrionic” by Ginsberg and many in the crowd. It fortuitously forked Rubin’s direction. “It was the first time I did see a new society,” he said later. “I saw there was no need for a political statement. I didn’t understand that until then, either.”
Events ending with the suffix “In” became the rage. Bob Fass hosted the hippest radio show in the country, “Radio Unnameable” on New York’s WBAI. The all-night gab-and-music fest was Freak Centra, functioning as a pre-internet audio website. Regular guests included Realist editor Paul Krassner (dubbed “Father of the Underground Press”), underground film director Robert Downey Sr. (father and namesake of…), actor/writer Marshall Efron (arguably the funniest man on the planet), and a manic activist-gone-psychedelic named Abbie Hoffman—all rapping madly, verbally riffing and improvising like musicians. One night after participating in a UsCo avant-garde multi-media show of projections, movies, music, etc., at an airplane hangar, Fass stopped by nearby JFK International Airport and noticed a group of three dozen young people—clearly ripped to the tits—communally entranced by a giant mobile centerpiecing a terminal. The vast open spaces of an airport, with jet planes and stars in the sky, were the stage for dreams to come to life. Fass flashed on the infinite possibilities.
He conceived a Fly-In at JFK and announced it on Radio Unnameable. Though Saturday night, February 11, was freezing cold, 3,000 of the underground’s finest came to sing Beatles songs, torch reefers, dance the body electric, and groove with their sisters and brothers. “One of the things that happened,” Fass observed, “was that there was such a colossal amount of human connection that there was something akin to feedback that happened, and people really began to experience not ‘happiness,’ but Ecstasy and Joy. We’re planning another one at your house.”
New York responded to San Francisco’s Be-In with its own. Key to its success was Jim Fouratt, a young actor who’d become one of the most effective hippie organizers on the Lower East Side. Promotion for the event cost $250, which paid for posters and leaflets. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 10,000 full and part-time hippies came together—some in the carnal definition—at Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. It was a glistening, no bad vibes, lysergic day. Fouratt was central to virtually every NYC hip community event, including the infamous Soot-In at Consolidated Edison, where he, Abbie Hoffman, and others dumped bags of nasty black soot at the coal burning, energy company’s offices, in a protest that prefigured and influenced the birth of the environmental movement.
Emmett Grogan was a brilliant and enigmatic prankster/con man at the heart of San Francisco’s do-goodnik anarcho-rogues the Diggers. He suggested to his friend Bob Fass that a Sweep-In would strengthen the momentum the Fly-In had sparked. The idea was to “clean up the Lower East Side” area of NYC where the hippies dwelled. Fass conspired with Krassner and Abbie and listeners on his radio show, and they chose Seventh Street, where Krassner lived. The buzz grew louder and one day an inquiring bureaucrat from the Sanitation Department called Radio Unnameable. The potentates of garbage at City Hall were nervous about these beatniks with brooms taking their gig. While appearing cooperative on the phone and in a later meeting, the city pranked the pranksters on the day of the Sweep-In, April 8. When thousands of mop-wielding longhairs appeared at 11 a.m., they beheld a garbage-free, sparkling fresh, squeaky clean street of slums—courtesy of the Sanitation Department. Fass and Krassner were amused that they’d actually forced the city to do its job. Unfazed, they moved the Sweep-In to Third Street. When a city garbage truck turned the corner, the street peeps leaped on it and cleaned it as well.
No single human—other than Tribal Elder Allen Ginsberg—was as influential on this emerging culture than Ed Sanders. He led the satirical-protest-smut-folk-rock band The Fugs with East Village legend Tuli Kupferberg, ran the Peace Eye Bookstore (and community center) on 10th Street, published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, made films like Mongolian Clusterfuck, wrote poetry, rabble roused for myriad peacenik causes and cannabis legalization. Sanders—one of the first public figures to live seamlessly within realms of Politics, Art, and Fun—was a first cousin to Che Guevara’s paradigmatic New Man—albeit thoroughly American and anti-authoritarian.
But the Life Actor who embodies the Revolutionary Prankster in 20th-century history books is Abbie Hoffman. And he is where our story begins…