A fond farewell to Bob Fass, rabbi of a radical radio congregation
I’ve been a member of two unconventional congregations in New York.
One was in the East Village and was financed by several lawyers in the Bronx. Hardly anyone paid dues but our Hasidic rabbi still fed his gaggle of converts, Baal Tshuvahs and crusty Lower East Side geezers, including a Jew known as Murphy who once had a pushcart in the neighborhood. The shul’s caretaker was a veteran of the East Village squatter scene. He scared the bejeezus out of me one shabbos: after drinking a few l’chaim’s, he showed me an AK-47 he kept at the shul.
It may sound hard to top that but the other congregation I’ve been part of was even wackier. Here’s what services sounded like: three disparate Hasidic nigunim are chanted simultaneously; congregants expound on the burning moral issues of the day; musicians strum; poets ramble; the wicked rant and the righteous plead. And The Rav, standing at the bimah, baton in hand, conducts it all.
This congregation was known as The Cabal and it mostly existed in the ether over the broadcast signal of WBAI-FM, though there were actually a few occasions where hundreds or thousands of us assembled in Central Park, Kennedy Airport, Grand Central Terminal and the holy streets of the Lower East Side.
The Rav was Bob Fass and, for more than 50 years, he soothed and infuriated his flock at a station that has been viewed with some degree of truth as not good for the Jews.
On Saturday, April 24, The Rav left us. His 87-year-old bones will return to dust in a Jewish cemetery in North Carolina, far from New York City where he spent most of his life.
I started listening to Fass’ late night show “Radio Unnameable” when I was in college in the early 1970s. Like many, I was entranced by that sonorous voice that could go from gentle to urgent in the course of a sentence. At the time, Fass provided a platform for a west coast conspiracy researcher named Mae Brussel. In my dorm room one night I listened as she reported “troop movements on the mid-peninsula” near San Francisco. Was a coup d’etat underway in America?
Just as riveting were the intimate performances by singers and musicians who sat with Fass in the control room and performed live. The list includes Joni Mitchell, Odetta, Carly Simon, Taj Mahal, the Incredible String Band, Moondog, the Holy Modal Rounders, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.
If you want a good example of the musical magic that happened on “Radio Unnameable,” find the Tiny Tim performance on YouTube. Right after finishing one song, Fass asks if he knows the Beatles tune “Norwegian Wood.” Without missing a beat Tiny Tim starts strumming his ukulele and singing a falsetto version. I witnessed another such moment when Loudon Wainwright III was on circa 1985. Fass came out of record and opened the mics in the control room.
“So, how you doin’, Loudon?” he asked.
“I’m alright,” Wainwright replied. And with that Fass pressed the play button on a CD deck in master control and the title track on Wainwright’s then new album “I’m Alright” started playing. “I woke up this morning/ didn’t feel that bad…”
There was live comedy performed as well, some of it by the brilliant satirist Marshall Efron or a new act known as Stiller and Meara. Professor Irwin Corey was still dropping by into his 90s and smoking weed with Fass when the microphones were off.
I brought Jimmy Breslin by one night and as I squeezed by his chair to bring headphones to another guest, bumped into a metal rack full of broadcasting gear. The resulting loud gong, Breslin wrote in a newspaper column soon thereafter, was reminiscent of Radio Peking.
For a spell I served as the show’s choreographer, arranging the appearances of Breslin, Wainwright and others. It was after Fass’ five-year exile from the radio station he loved, beginning in 1977. He had been arrested and carried out of the Upper East Side church that then served as WBAI’s home. There had been a bitter staff strike that included an occupation of the station’s studios and then its broadcast closet in the Empire State Building.
Fass had ill will for those of us who returned to the station after the strike, some of whom signed a statement apologizing for the revolt. I was a staff reporter at the time and had practically no contact with Fass until he returned to BAI in 1982.
When the “Doonesbury” musical opened on Broadway in 1983, I helped him get a gig doing the voice-over for a radio commercial promoting the show, which was directed by Jacques Levy, Fass’ old pal. I went as Fass’ recording engineer to Yoko Ono’s home at The Dakota. She had once had a show on WBAI. I was also able to help sell an interview Fass did with her to NPR and the CBC.
For many years, I wished that I could help Bob Fass make a living at his craft but he clearly wasn’t wired to function in the straight world. Many of our public radio colleagues managed to create careers in the audio book industry and I often wondered whether Fass could parlay that wonderful voice and the fact that he was a trained actor into work as a narrator.
But one of his WBAI friends who went on to become a Grammy Award-winning audio book director exemplified the attitude of many that Fass was a huge talent but too much of a dope-smoker and an anarchist to function in the commercial world of publishing.
His wife Lynn had a job as a law librarian that kept them afloat but at one point in the early 2000s she was laid off. So friends put together a benefit in 2005 at a restaurant in Tribeca that raised several thousand dollars. Among the attendees were Steve Post and Larry Josephson, two of BAI’s live radio stars who credit Fass with inspiring them, as well as a such colorful characters from Fass’ counter-culture travels as the Yippie pie-thrower Aaron Kay and A.J. Weberman, the garbologist who many would say became a bit preoccupied with Bob Dylan.
Fass was quite enamored with the Minnesota Bob. He played Dylan records constantly on “Radio Unnameable.” Fass told me that someone in Dylan’s entourage regularly sent him cassettes with recordings of live shows. Dylan had already arrived in New York before Fass started doing his show in 1963. Go online and listen to a January 1966 Dylan appearance on “Radio Unnameable” when the great folk singer jokes with listeners calling in.
“I’m a folk singer!” Dylan declares in faux outrage to one caller. “I refuse to be hurt!”
“Why are your songs so long?” a female caller inquires.
“I get paid by the word,” Dylan explained.
One year, my wife and I invited Fass and his wife Lynn to a seder here in the Kalish loft. He came bearing videos, one of Bob Dylan performing at the Vatican and another of Abbie Hoffman making gefilte fish from scratch. In Fass’s mind, this was totally appropriate content for the time when we remember the Exodus from Egypt.
I interviewed Bob Fass many times over the last 45 years, the first being for my senior project in college. I have long realized that despite his difficulty cooperating with The System, The Rav is a very wise man. The black hats in Borough Park would surely scoff at the label of tzadik for him but he told me one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard and that is, “We are all held together with just so many band-aids.”
I asked him once how he would sum up his career, The Rav responded: “What I do is entertain and spread compassion. I sit in a room and have great thinkers, musicians and comedians talk to me. It’s been great.”
The Cabal really does exist. I swear it.
WBAI (99.5 FM and wabi.org) plans to broadcast Bob Fass’ funeral live at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, April 27 at 11 a.m. Eastern time. At 10 p.m. an audio only Zoom Unnameable will take place to “share stories, music, whatever.” Join ZOOM UNNAMEABLE https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88271761753 Meeting ID: 882 7176 1753
*The funeral will be streamed live at 11 a.m. on Facebook