A Big Break

WBAI’s 1959 format got me to thinking. Maybe I could do something similar on WNCN. After all, I still had some jazz LPs from those days at WFLN and WOND, and I’d find a way to get classical music LPs, perhaps starting with some from the New York Public Library, since it appeared that WNCN had none of its own.

Since I was at WNCN for six hours overnight, I wondered if Dave Passell or someone else in the management could be convinced to let me host my own show for the same amount of money I was already being paid. And if the program included classical music, that would fit right in with what the station already featured. As for the other elements, maybe they’d go for that, too, even if it seemed unusual. Perhaps it would even attract attention to the station. Plus, I’d make clear that I’d hosted jazz programs before on WHAT and WOND, remaining silent about WFLN.

Mulling it over more, tying selections into some kind of actual program idea seemed an even more special idea. Limiting everything to the 20th century, for example, sounded good, maybe adding to the classics some poetry recordings, film scores, musicals—things about which I already knew something.

As it turned out, surprisingly, Dave sounded interested. He said he’d talk it over with Fred Cain, the general manager.

Albam

Excited, I began to plan how to present the different elements, for example, pairing symphonic music by Leonard Bernstein with selections from West Side Story and Manny Albam’s jazz arrangements of the same scores, plus Moss Hart reading part of his autobiographical theatre reminiscences Act One. Or Laurence Olivier reading scenes from his movie version of Shakespeare’s Henry V on a 10-inch LP which I treasured. Plus, it had some of William Walton’s great music for the film that I could also program. Then maybe something by Vaughan Williams and other English composers and LPs by English jazz musicians. Of course, I didn’t have most of the LPs yet to do all of that, but I’d find a way to acquire them.

When Dave and I met with Fred Cain, Cain seemed interested. “But what will you use for records?” Fred asked. “We don’t have any.” I suggested that I could borrow some, on my own time, from the Public Library and that, also on my own time, I’d contact record companies to see what they could send me and the station. Most major labels had headquarters in New York.

Fred went for it. Especially because it would mean that WNCN would start having its own LPs.

Naturally there first had to be some changes up there on the Pierre’s 40th floor. Dave moved the console and the board away from the transmitter room and its air compressor and put all of it onto the desk in the front room. There he set up two new turntables and a good microphone facing away from the other room. He also put some sound-proofing strips around the door between the rooms. Sitting there in my new studio, I could barely hear the air compressor.

Consequently, in late April 1959 WNCN had its first live broadcasts. From high atop The Pierre. Sounds of the 20th Century. I was 24 years old.

Jazz Canto

I used my own records for the first program. They included Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, as well as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, conducted by Pierre Monteux, both among my favorites for years. Plus Bill Russo’s somewhat Stravinsky-like ballet, The World of Alcina, followed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra playing Russo arrangements, then Kenton alumni as members of Shorty Rogers and His Giants, plus a jazz and poetry record featuring West Coast musicians.

That’s when I discovered a problem.

The turntables sitting there on the desk. This was not a WFLN or WBAI high class set-up. When I opened a drawer in that desk, it made the tone arms shake; they had no padding or cushions. Although I had always taken good care of my LPs and they were unscratched, there were slight interruptions in the music when the tone arms wobbled. At first, when that happened, I quickly faded down what I was playing and set the tone arm back to the right place. That took only a couple of seconds, but still the flow of the music was interrupted. After a couple of times, I figured out that I should just leave the drawers open. Duh.

Was I nervous? Probably. But I also realized that, most likely, few people were listening that night, since I had appeared from nowhere out of the darkness. Or maybe they’d be so drowsy that they might not notice anything that went wrong. Oh, yeah, that was a city of eight million people. Maybe somebody was listening to my New York debut. I never found out if anyone did.

Another problem emerged when borrowing LPs from the Library. Some had not been taken care of. They were scratched. Or dirty. I went to Sam Goody’s and bought some cleaning brushes and cloths. My expense, of course. That helped some.

Quickly the whole project became a passionate obsession. I slept hardly at all those first few months, calling and/or visiting the offices of every record company in town. A great place to do it, New York.

I collected for the station and for my program post-1900 music by Puccini and Mahler, plus works by Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and more. I kept for myself the more obscure and modern works, knowing that WNCN would never broadcast such things anymore than would have WFLN; that’d be too risky for most classical music stations, alienating conservative audiences. Sure, it would be all right for my program; it was overnight, quirky time in New York.

That’s also when I discovered Composers Recordings, Inc.,which featured nothing but the work of modern American composers. They gave me everything they’d published.

And I began collecting jazz from Blue Note, Columbia, RCA, EmArcy; comedy records by Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, former colleague Mike Nichols; film music by Rosza, Tiomkin, Korngold.

I borrowed Library LPs of poets reading their own works. One of them was Dylan Thomas on a Caedmon Record. Fred called me into the office about that. Caedmon had called him about, he said, a “Die LANN Thomas” recording and that it was copyrighted. We got a warning but no fine. That’s when I also discovered Spoken Arts Records, which specialized in exactly what the name indicates. Contacting them, I soon had what I requested, including LPs by Ruth Draper, following in Mike Nichols’s footsteps after all. 

ruth-draper

By the way, in the late 1970s, my second wife Helga and I became friendly with Spoken Arts founder Arthur Luce Klein and his wife, also named Luce. Helga worked for Luce in her antique shop in New Rochelle. Arthur eventually toured schools reading from famed books as The Storyteller.

I needed more record shelves at home, although much of what I collected started the WNCN library.

Meanwhile, domestic life went awry. Vene was working at Cosmopolitan Magazine as assistant to the fiction editor, and we were only seeing each other for dinner, after which I usually had to take a nap because I’d been up much of the day, planning and working on creating the show. But sometimes we’d find a way to go to the theatre, after which I’d hurry home to get ready for my show, packing a lunch.

Those six hours overnight became my life. My joy.

Listener reaction? I don’t remember getting letters so long as the broadcasts came from the Hotel. Letters and phone calls would have gone to the office; that was the station’s official address. And the phone at the transmitter had a different, unlisted number.

WNCN may not have been on most people’s radars yet; they’d have to stumble on it just as I had done. Sure, I was offering something original and different. But modern classical music, jazz, poetry, etc. were hardly mainstream radio and probably WBAI had already cornered such an audience.

Actually I hadn’t done or said anything to encourage people to contact me. I wanted to do the show my way, not play requests. And not talk on the phone so as to concentrate on what I was doing. I was following Jean Shepherd’s example on WOR whom I’d heard remind listeners not to call. “I’m at work,” he’d explained. Moreover I wanted to listen to all those wonderful recordings.

But I did get a letter from a magazine writer who wanted to interview me. Roy Hemming of monthly Music Life was working on a feature about New York all-night classical music broadcasts for the October issue. And he’d heard my program.

I was thrilled. It meant somebody actually knew what I was doing, doing it my own way, and liked it. And maybe such publicity would attract a bigger audience. It wasn’t so much that I wanted people to pay attention to me; I wanted to get people to like what I liked, to share the enjoyment, as I had with my jazz shows in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

Hemming came to our tiny Riverside Drive apartment where we offered him coffee and cookies. Still a couple of naïve kids. He knew a lot about the program and said he enjoyed listening.

Music Life (2)

“We think Gordon Spencer’s Sounds of the 20th Century is one of the most imaginatively conceived and presented FM shows being heard in New York these days,” he wrote.       

It was the only time and place that I knew of serious public attention that year.

Meanwhile, WNCN had moved to One Park Avenue. By the end of 1959, Dave had created a real studio there with a professional-looking board, cushioned turntables, good microphones, and several tape decks. Next to it was a glass-windowed room with the large tape decks brought down from The Pierre, and all the big tapes were on orderly metal shelves. The rest of the jumble of equipment remained at the transmitter.

The rapidly filling record library, now that record company promotion people began to take us seriously, was several long corridors away on the same floor at the business office. The rooms were rented from Ziff Davis Publishing that owned one whole floor.

When I told Dad that we’d moved to One Park Avenue he thought that I’d really come up in the world, rather than down, as from up on Fifth Avenue at The Pierre. One Park Avenue is where Park Avenue narrows at 32nd Street, merging into utilitarian Park Avenue South, a business district.

At night I had the whole floor to myself and, when airing a long piece of classical music, I’d wander into the dark Ziff Davis offices, switch on a few lights and look through pictures, or borrow magazines to return the same night. Being alone in those hushed, vast rooms or walking along dim corridors could feel a little spooky. Once or twice I was actually startled, coming across lumpy, grey Eastern European cleaning ladies putting away their buckets and mops, their gold teeth glinting in the shadows.

Roy Harris w name 2

By then I was broadcasting a few interviews with musicians, taping them in the room next to the control room or talking to them on my own portable 7-inch Revox reel-to reel recorder. That’s when I talked to Roy Harris, actually my uncle’s brother-in-law. (My uncle, Julian Kahn, indicative of so much of my family, was also a musician, playing cello in Hollywood movie studio orchestras.)

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Other interviews: Morton Gould, Vincent Persichetti, and Cannonball Adderley. When Cannon and I met he came along with a young saxophonist/clarinetist of whom I’d never heard, Eric Dolphy, a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Since Dolphy was there, I decided to do him a favor and interview him; at least that’s how it now sounds on the tape. The soft-spoken, unassuming man, in the course of my questions, told me he liked the music of Stockhausen and Schoenberg, music I’d never program, not liking or understanding it.      

There I was again, getting jazz musicians to talk about classical music. Adderley said he liked the work of Honegger, by the way.

Then there was Moondog. I had come across a few of the records of this tall, blind street musician while at WOND, finding his sound unique and fascinating, as fascinating as the photos on the record jackets, with his strange clothes and biblical prophet look. I had learned that he liked to spend much time on New York streets, especially on Sixth Avenue near the main offices of CBS and around the corner from NBC at Rockefeller Center.

moondog

I went to find him, saying I’d like record an interview for broadcast. He readily agreed, inviting me to his apartment on West 44th Street off Broadway. It was a tiny two-room space in a dingy walk-up hotel. But then, he couldn’t see the dinginess, could he? We spoke again several times on the street, and I featured his music and the interviews during my second stint at NCN in the late ’60s as well as in 1970 on WBAI.

Moondog book

That broadcast can be heard online as Moondog—The Man on the Street https://archive.org/details/AM_1971_07_03.

Early this century, Robert Scotto was writing a book about Moondog and tracked me down to ask me for copies of the interview as well as about what I remembered of our mutual encounters. Moondog had told him to get in touch with me. Astonishing. More than 30 years had elapsed since my last contact with Moondog.

Then the Concert Network bought its own building on East 47th Street just off Fifth Avenue and started daytime live programming. Why? And why the earlier move to One Park Avenue? No idea. Probably I didn’t ask anyone. Perhaps Concert Network President T. Mitchell Hastings thought it was time for the Network to have a more noticeable New York presence.

I’d met him a couple of times, probably not intimidated, probably indifferent, as if my on-air talent was so irreplaceable that we were some kind of equals.

But you have to consider that my programming may have been making a difference. Maybe that’s why Hastings had decided to give NCN a bigger presence in New York, first at One Park and then with its own building. Certainly I’d put it on the map somehow. Moreover, its initial record library was due to me.

Had I made a public impression for the station? I don’t know. Perhaps nobody in management wanted me to realize that and then ask for a raise, thinking myself significant. I was so wrapped up in what I was doing, loving it, and still so young that I never thought about that and never asked. You have to wonder why I didn’t ask more questions.

For this incarnation of WNCN, Joe Marzano came down from Boston to host programs. Which was fine by him; his family home was on Long Island. Station Manager Cal Miller hosted programs. So did Johnny Lang.

WNCN was making some money with brokered programs just as had WHAT with Sunday morning gospel shows when hosts aired commercials for restaurants, hair dressers, clothing stores, etc. for which they got paid and could defray costs of buying air time and/or profit.

One WNCN feature was Lunch with Casper Citron; he interviewed celebrities and footed the bill. Another was Music and Opportunity with Bernard Haldane. That zingy-titled show featured Haldane’s classical music choices paired with talking about his firm’s professional job counseling. Another program presented ruminations by members of the Theosophical Society.

Plus, a d.j. who seemed younger than I bought himself two hours once a week to play mainstream pop music, on which WNEW was thriving. A little unusual, since rock and roll was more and more becoming the trend. (Eventually, he’d actually become a star on WNEW which stuck with that kind of pop music.) He’d talk about the songs in a friendly, casual way, often digressing into personal musings, Jean Shepherd-like, except not doing it with equal specialness. He had an unconventional name, considering that most program hosts were disguising ethnicity. He was Jonathan Schwartz, the son of famed Broadway and movie song-writer Arthur Schwartz.

Jonathan Schwartz w name

His show came on at midnight, when mine had been starting. And I had to be present; he didn’t know how to run the equipment; he just knew how to talk. So I had to be his engineer. While he sat a glass window away from the control room, he’d watch me for reactions to his comments, thinking me fascinated, of course, when all the time I was actually pissed-off that he could pay to preempt me. Still the actor, though, I sometimes faked a grin and a smile. Once I walked out of his view while he was talking on the air. He yelled, “Gordon! Where are you?” as if fearing he’d lost control. Or maybe he was angry that I didn’t seem to be hanging on his every word.

Clearly, you can see that WNCN was not exactly a traditional classical music station. Look at what I had been doing.

Then Jonathan himself was preempted. And so were two of my regular overnight hours. A new four-hour, daily jazz package took over from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., likewise financed by the producers. They called themselves Communicating Arts Corporation. Tom Wilson and DeDe Daniels, executives at United Artists Records, were up front.

UA had been producing some great jazz records then. Coincidentally, one featured Bill Potts’s arrangements of music from Porgy and Bess, one of several spin-offs of the current movie, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. (Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded another.) In the movie Crown was played and sung by Brock Peters. He was DeDe’s husband.

On the air was quite a line-up of alternating commentators/hosts, some of the biggest names in jazz criticism: Nat Hentoff, Ira Gitler, and Martin Williams.

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Jazz humorist Ed Sherman was there as “George Crater.” (His pseudonym was a goofy spin on the name of Judge Crater who’d become famous by mysteriously disappearing after a jolly night in town. Despite lots of newspaper coverage he was never found, and his story and that of murdered people connected to him make for fascinating reading.) Ed provided lots of funny bits on the air, often dealing with jazz musicians. And more biting commentary—social, satirical—came from Paul Krassner, who’d recently started a newsprint magazine, The Realist, which gained fame as a counter-culture gem for about 10 years. Krassner and I would encounter each other, in passing, during the late ’60s at WBAI.

Meanwhile, two d.j.s anchored, hosting most of the playing of records that made up the bulk of the programming: Les Davis and Sid Shepherd. Except that Shepherd had changed his name to Chris Borgen, which, he told me, was actually his wife’s name. Later, Chris would become a CBS news reporter. Les would keep on being a jazz d.j. The fact that I knew a lot about jazz was irrelevant as far as those producers were concerned.

Les Davis w name

 I was always around, on duty, waiting my turn to follow the moneyed guys, in my dwindled niche, to hear Chris sounding slick and smooth, more like a pop d.j. than the intelligent informative person I believed myself to be. On the air, he spoke of songwriter Frank Loesser as “Frank Lohser” and referred to Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s take on Avery Parrish’s 1940 bluesy “After Hours” as “traditional jazz.”  My superiority felt confirmed. I had sometimes broadcast real traditional jazz, New Orleans style, early in the morning, around 5 a.m.

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Meanwhile, Joe Marzano and I became friends, both harboring sardonic views of society. Together we’d record ad-lib comedy bits while in the recording studio during my shift when a long record was on. Then I’d broadcast them overnight. We did a send-up of Casper Citron’s show, The Horace Hepple Lunch,  in which I, as a nasal-voiced take on Citron, interviewed Joe as “Sal A. Pepe” (Italian: Salt and Pepper), a gravelly-voiced Noo Yawker who sold frozen pizzas to be eaten frozen on sticks, like popsicles. The major bit was talking with our mouths full and asking each other to pass things like napkins and glasses of water or commenting on the bread and butter, making sure to crunch our food loudly. No burps, though. We had taste.

The Joys of WNCN and WBAI. The Sorrows of War

I had become friendly with Matt Edwards (born Mario Stutterheim in Argentina) sometimes on the air at WNCN; he was also filling in at WBAI, which had been donated to Pacifica Radio in 1960 by Louis Schweitzer, the former owner of the old WBAI, with which I’d had encounters up in the heights of The Pierre. Matt suggested that I contact Program Director Frank Millspaugh to see if I could do some announcing there. Millspaugh added me to the stand-by list.

BAI had always been radically different from all the other stations in the city. And the word “radical” fits. By 1967 it was becoming quite an outlet for left-leaning opinions, including plenty of anti-Vietnam War broadcast comments. Would I fit in? Well, I was opposed to the war but not an active protester. I’d followed the movement and what it was doing and saying, as well as what was coming from similar anti-establishment political causes. I believed in what they believed. But whether I chose to be active or not didn’t matter to the people at the station, where non-conformity was the essence. So many people at the station wore clothes that looked like leftovers from Salvation Army sales, but Matt always wore a suit and tie. That was how he was most comfortable and, since that was his thing, so be it. And I was accepted for whatever I believed or didn’t believe.

Most other stations have always deliberately had easily identifiable formats. But WBAI programming varied from day to day, depending on who was hosting and what they wanted to do. Start times varied too. BAI was already being considered a pioneer in what was yet to be called “free-form” radio. How did I fit in? I hosted whatever pre-planned recorded music was scheduled or ran the equipment for someone else while they presented their shows.

Coming in to take over at 10 a.m. I’d encounter Larry Josephson finishing his morning show. We’d exchange a few pleasantries, even though he was not known for being all that pleasant on the air. His program dovetailed with BAI’s unconventionality and was unlike nearly all morning radio elsewhere, often called “morning drive.” Such formats are as much service as entertainment, due to taking place when listeners are presumably driving to work. Typically this means including vital information for that part of the day, frequent time-checks, weather forecasts and details, plus traffic reports. At music stations, classical included, this means short selections.

larry josephson w name

Josephson’s persona and programming were actually close to Bill Watson’s (more below) except that they had different kinds of music. Bill’s was always classical. Larry’s could be anything. Both aired personal opinions, but Larry talked more often about himself and often said things that people would describe as “cranky” humor, plus he took phone calls on the air and interacted directly with listeners. He, too, had quite a following. In fact, such a following must have had something to do with his turning up briefly on WNCN in the 1970s. More about that is below.

Mornings when he’d left the studio I’d find the trash basket under the console overflowing with take-out food detritus, greasy Styrofoam containers on the floor, and plastic take-out coffee cups half-filled with swirls of curdling milk sitting almost anywhere, including the edges of turntables. I always assumed that Larry left them and maybe he did, but he’d been preceded by Bob Fass overnight (Radio Unnameable), and, in time, no matter when I arrived at the station, Larry having been there or not, the same kind of mess could often be found.

I suppose that many people would conclude that such slovenliness was in keeping with the hippie-like nature of what the station most seemed, re: a public image. But I’d encounter equal disdain for order and cleanliness at other stations subsequently, regardless of the more conventional nature of the programming. Such conditions offended my sense of order, and, trying to be relaxed, polished, and presentable on the air, I wanted my surroundings to be as comfortable as I could make them. So I often cleaned up, unasked. As for, subsequently, wiping down microwave ovens at stations in Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh, I was disgusted to think that my food could be contaminated by someone else’s smears of tomato sauce, burned-in cheese, and other disgusting weeks-old garbage.

Somewhere during that time, BAI posted a public notice that it was interviewing people as candidates to be the next station manager. With my major credits I thought I would have been a good choice, even though, realistically, longevity at any job had not been my strong suit. Also, I had no leadership experience. How could that have been a problem?

Frank Millspaugh interviewed me on behalf of the station’s board of directors and asked me about what changes I might come up with. One of the first was to have Josephson do time-checks and weather forecasts so as to attract a larger audience.

Frank: “And what would you do if he refused?”

Me: “Oh, fire him of course.”

Frank: “As popular as he is, you’d fire him?”

Me: “Sure.”

Frank: “I don’t think that would work well.”

Naturally, I didn’t get the job. Interestingly, about 10 years later, Larry had a brief shot at doing such a morning show on that decade’s version of WNCN. It wasn’t his forte. He was replaced within a week. By me. More later.

In early 1968 I cut back on my availability for WBAI, Bernie Alan left WNCN to take a higher-paying job as a booth announcer at WPIX-TV, and I was offered his slot: 6 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. Thus I had a morning show following the glory of Watson. It was a somewhat unconventional starting time for morning drive. But then, we didn’t have traffic reports, but plenty of time-checks and forecasts amid Music Director Maurice Essam’s rather conventional programming choices.

That meant that late afternoons and evenings I was free, so sometimes I’d fill in not only on WBAI but also WQXR.

My earnings were good. And that money was important because Vene and I had separated in early 1967, and I was living by myself elsewhere in Brooklyn while giving her a third of anything I made. I had agreed to do so, thinking that that was only fair, given how often in our years together she’d been the major source of income—especially during my intermittent acting career. This arrangement meant she was free to do something about her own performing ambitions if she chose to do so. Such payments were open-ended, but by early 1971 we came to a mutual understanding that I had done well enough by her that they need not continue. We had a truly amicable relationship. It remains so more than 40 years later, even if contact has become infrequent.

Despite being a lover of classical music, the wider freedoms of jazz seamlessly connected me to so many sounds and styles emerging in pop music and rock, finding fascination and delight, discovering the marvels of The Beatles, John Mayall, Richie Havens, The Doors, Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Chuck Berry, and more. Plus Indian classical music, having become a major fan of Ravi Shankar.

Ravi w name

WNCN had opened wide its aural doors to much new music and I had considerable programming freedom during Entr’acte from noon to 2 p.m. The staff included Carly Simon (not the singer/songwriter) who had an office job, but was also a performer, a professional belly dancer, and dance instructor. She knew Ravi Shankar personally and set up for me a broadcast interview with him.

Thus, that and some of his recordings were featured on Entr’acte.

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I never was permitted to present rock on the program, but could share various kinds of ethnic music, such as that played on Japanese wood flutes or a Persian santoor. And my enthusiasm for contemporary concert music connected me via interviews to composers I admired. Once, when programming some of the work of Alan Hovhaness, I mentioned on the air how I’d wished I could interview him. 

He heard about that comment and called me.

It was as if WNCN and WBAI were closer to each other than ever before. And I moved seamlessly between them. NCN Station Managers Stan Gurell, Maurice Essam, and, later, Music Director David Dubal were also personally open to all the fascinating things happening in so many kinds of music of the time, even if we didn’t broadcast them all.

David Dubal w name

From them I got permission to also host my own weekly program on WBAI which I could pre-record on NCN equipment and tapes.

That feature I called American Music; it much resembled Sounds of the 20th Century, of about 10 years before on the old NCN: contemporary “classical” music, jazz, film scores, cast recordings of musicals. My only self-chosen parameters were to focus only on what was American. That was the implied point: there is so much richness, so much variety, so much creativity in our own nation, and I wanted listeners to become aware of that.

Was that deliberately patriotic and, if so, how would it sit with BAI’s focus, dwelling on the distressing, sometimes-evil problems within our own nation? That issue never arose. BAI, like America, was open and free to anyone who wanted such openness and freedom. Politically conservative groups, or even ones such as the libertarian YAF (Young American for Freedom), had slots.

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Due to my continuing love of jazz and including it in my BAI program, I got press passes to the Newport Jazz Festival a couple of times. One of those concerts in 1969 stays memorable, a near-riot. The bill was George Wein’s attempt to broaden his audience base by including rock groups such as Blood Sweat & Tears and Jethro Tull. That worked; tickets ran out. So many people had come for the concert that many were sitting on the grass on hills above the site. And getting restless. Some claimed that the event should be free to “the people” and tried to gate-crash. The police had to be called. Then, when Sly and The Family Stone got into one of their numbers, “I Want to Take You Higher,” yelling to the crowd, the people surrounding me started jumping on the seats, raising their fists and chanting in unison. My date, a rather shy English lady, was terrified. But I loved hearing John Mayall as well as Dave Brubeck plus Miles Davis’s early ventures into fusion.

I was somewhat involved with what many people at BAI most stood for or against, agreeing that the Vietnam War was a tragic, horrid, criminal act by our nation. Although I went to a few station staff-organized protest gatherings, it would be a mistake to call me a true peace activist. I devoted more of my time and attention to dating.

Nonetheless, when asked by the station’s Chief Engineer Tom Whitmore if I’d help run some sound equipment at a Central Park peace rally, I enthusiastically agreed.

It was in April 1967 and called “Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam.” There was a big stage set up inside Central Park’s southeast corner, overlooking Fifth Avenue. Those of us from BAI were there to broadcast and record the speeches. I could see a number of very straight-looking men in conservative suits and ties taking photos of us. Clearly the FBI. We smiled at them and waved.

The speakers included Martin Luther King, Jr. “White Americans are not going to deal in the problems of colored people,” he said, “when they’re exterminating a whole nation of colored people.” There were other speakers talking about racism, Native Americans calling attention to injustices against many tribes, Abbie Hoffman speaking against police hounding hippies. They and other speakers kept on saying that their causes were the most important ones of the day. I felt that they diminished the significance of what they had essentially come to protest: the war. The issue was obscured by every one, using the phrase du jour, “doing his own thing.” I was dismayed. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was there to operate audio equipment, nothing more. Well, at least I must have had my photo filed with the FBI.

I’ve since learned online (Wikipedia) that the number of demonstrators was estimated to be perhaps as many as 400,000, and people carried characteristic placards: “Don’t Make Vietnam an American Reservation,” “Make Love not War,” and “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” About 75 young men burned their draft cards. But there were few arrests, and those were of counter-demonstrators staging an Anti-Communist rally.

“Huge Peace March Spans Wide Social Spectrum” Village Voice April 20, 1967.

Abbie w name
Fass w name

On a Thursday night, almost a year later, March 1968, Abbie Hoffman was a guest on Bob Fass’s show. There I heard him talk about the Yippies declaring that he and other  members of this growing group, plus anyone else interested, should convene on Friday night shortly before midnight at Grand Central Station just “to be together.” (“It’s a spring mating service celebrating the equinox,” read a Yippie handbill, “a back-scratching party, a roller-skating rink, a theatre, with you, performer and audience.”) Hoffman reasoned that Grand Central wouldn’t be crowded with commuters, given the weekend waiting out there along the tracks and in quiet suburban homes. This was not to be a protest meeting.

That Friday evening turned out to be a taste of things yet to come in August: the Democratic National Convention, Chicago.

In fact, the Yippies as a group, if such an amorphous collection of random association can be called a group, had only been around since the start of the year, beginning with that name spurred by Hoffman, his wife Anita, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner.

Hoffman later explained, “If the press had created ‘hippie,’ could not we five hatch the ‘yippie’?” But it was Krassner who claimed the origin of the name, according to a Wikipedia piece.

one-nation

You may recall that I wrote about having had a little contact with Krassner at the old NCN during the jazz package evenings in the early ’60s. Since then he’d become even more famed, due the accumulation of so many sharp, funny, and provocative articles, editorials, and cartoons in seven or so years of The Realist’s reality. Among his most memorable moments for me was the cartoon “One Nation Under God,” showing the naked hairy deity raping a scrawny, pathetic man wearing an Uncle Sam hat (art by Frank Cieciorka).

Certainly Hoffman, and Krassner in particular, offended conservative people who believed in their own version of patriotism (“Our Country, Love It or Leave It” was one of the anti-hippie slogans). The idea of “counter-culture” had cachet as an alluring, adventurous alternative to straight life, especially for young people disillusioned with the way so many older ones were heading our nation in the wrong direction. I felt empathy, albeit by then not nearly as young as these converts to this form of freedom.  Hanging out at times with these good, sweet people made me feel, as they did themselves, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, belonging, embraced emotionally and physically. They welcomed me, no matter how little I actually joined them in protest events. One more body showing support for the right causes. So, hanging out with some of them in a famed public place, glamorous Grand Central, seemed a good way to warm a few chilly March night hours.

Arriving, I was astonished to see vast amounts of police vehicles and what looked like hundreds of helmeted, armed police standing near the 42nd Street entrance. I also noticed TV and radio station vans. Clearly, this was turning out to be a newsworthy event. Abbie Hoffman had provoked a mighty big reaction.

Inside, the Grand Concourse was densely packed with noisy, chattering, babbling, smiling, happy people, most younger than I, eagerly enjoying being together, hugging, kissing, some sitting in small circles, as if Native Americans vivifying the Circle of Life, one person each facing north, south, east, and west. Grand Central

The hall was like a massive version of a rush hour subway car, everyone tightly squashed together. Except that these people loved being together and loved being there, with no hurry to go anywhere else. This wasn’t their stop. They’d already reached their destination.

The police were still outside.

Then two young man climbed up onto the information booth under the big clock and tried to move the hands. Instantly a mob of police stomped into the hall, boots and shoes making a counter-din. Without warning.

They swung their hard billy clubs into whatever faces, heads, arms, legs were in their paths, north, south, east, west. I was immersed in sudden panic, the marble halls echoing with screams. We were like stampeding cattle, too densely packed with nowhere to turn. I suddenly felt as if I was no longer in charge of my body, but part of some surging, swaying organism over which I had no control.

“It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,” Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference that Saturday. “The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being unleashed,” Levine added. According to the March 28th edition of The Village Voice, he had seen people running a gauntlet of club-wielding cops, “spitting invective through clenched teeth,” saying that “it was like a fire in a theatre.”

Among the wounded was Voice reporter Don McNeill, pushed into a glass door by police despite press credentials pinned to his jacket. Five stitches. He was not the only member of the press assaulted by the police.

My feet propelled me into a cluster of 30 or 40 people who’d somehow broken free of the main crowd. I was running breathlessly to keep pace with them. We rushed to an exit emptying out into Lexington Avenue, where no police waited. We escapees dispersed, stunned, into the night air.

The next day I wrote a letter to Mayor John Lindsay.

“I have never written to a public official before, but I am so upset by things I’ve witnessed that I feel I must say something…

I respect law and order. The absence of it on the part of police is a deeply distressing thing. I was in Grand Central last night and am distressed as never before about something that always has been just a cliché to me: ‘police brutality.’

It was in full swing last night, with clubs and fists. Against whom? Not members of the underworld, not a horde of psychotics who only understand violence, not against an organized rebellion armed to the teeth. No, the police were hitting innocent boys and girls, many in their teens, hitting anybody else who protested about what they were doing.

…I knew that there would be a large gathering of young people…call them ‘hippies’ if you like…but they didn’t seem to be there to protest anything. There were a few who would have liked to mold that crowd into a solid mass about something, but there was no organization, and little sparks of socio-political distrust never caught fire, smothered under the weight of endless milling…

I don’t know if their gathering was legitimate, legal, or in violation of some law. But I heard no policeman tell us to go home, to disperse. There was no use of the station’s public address system saying anything of that nature. There was no use of bull-horn cautions that the crowd was subject to arrest. There was just a sudden outbreak of police violence.

Yes, I went to Grand Central last night to learn. I felt that those kids there may have had something to tell me about myself, about our society. I did learn things: fear, distrust of police, pity, remorse.

I found  my heart pounding with fear, a kind I’d never known before as some of the crowd broke and ran at the first police charge and I was caught up in the panic. I felt fear that I could have been caught in that whirlpool.

The pity comes for those whose heads were cracked and bleeding, about whom I read in this morning’s newspapers, pity for the bodies dragged along the concrete floor or flung up against the walls, shoved into a gauntlet of blue uniforms with pummeling fists and kicking feet.

And I’m filled with remorse that I did not protest this uncalled-for eagerness to cause harm.

…My faith in law and order, in justice, died a little last night. God help us all.”

Village Voice columnist Howard Smith, writing in Scenes, said that the police didn’t seem to have any plan about what to do, wondering why they hadn’t talked beforehand to the Yippie organizers. “Why was a warning never issued to the crowd…primarily high school age—an age particularly sensitive to arbitrariness in other people?”

He reported that the police made no attempt to clear the areas of the station they had already cleared before and, instead, let the crowd fill them in again. He saw no fixed barricades, no demarcation lines.

He saw them drag out people who weren’t resisting, and when those people asked to be allowed to walk, the police called that “resisting”and clubbed them.

Smith reported that plainclothesmen had been circulating throughout the crowd before the trouble started and then “actively assisted” in the clubbing, asking, “Is it correct for a plainclothes cop to act as a uniformed policeman without wearing his badge… (a) license to be particularly vicious since he can’t be identified?” He also pointed out that when press people asked for plainclothesmen’s names, they were threatened or arrested, or ignored. “When I asked two who were particularly rough over and over…and showed my police press card I was told to ‘fuck off’.”

On April 10th a letter from Mayor Lindsay was sent to me at WNCN. It seemed a form letter.

“…I share your concern over reports of the incident…

“I have asked the Civilian Complaint Review Board to conduct a full investigation…and report the findings to me…

“We will take all necessary precautions to ensure proper police action the future.”

I’ve since learned from Wikipedia that one month later the Yippies organized a “Yip-Out” in Central Park that drew 20,000 people and was entirely peaceful, according to Neil Hamilton in The ABC-CLIO Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America.

Interestingly, I don’t remember that. Only the negative stays seared in my brain. I think it’s mostly because I had genuine experience of “crowd psychology” and what it feels like. But certainly keeping a copy of Lindsay’s and my letter marks something where I was on the fringes of counter-culture, even if not a serious activist. My letter was meant to have an impact. I thought that the injured people deserved respect and should not have been harmed. Moreover, I had escaped, not stopping to fight or resist. No hero. And, actually, I did not retain fear of the police and had no hostility towards them thereafter.

Alternative media

Growing out of connections to WBAI, Matt Edwards invited me to join him at The Alternative Media conference at Goddard College in Vermont in June 1970. We hung out with people far more hip-looking than either of us. There were, of course, many FM radio d.j.s.

Wavy Gravey 2

(I think that that’s me on the upper right in the white shirt.) Jerry Rubin was there. So was Baba Ram Dass and members of the Hog Farm Collective, along with noticeably toothless founder Wavy Gravy, a.k.a. Hugh Romney.  

BTW, his son, now called Jordan, was born the year after the event as Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, according to Wikipedia.

Mostly we all sat around and talked about whatever interested us. I don’t remember being part of any serious discussions about society-enhancing concepts involving plans of action. That makes sense. I was never that much of an activist.

Barton Heyman w name
Amy Vane w name

The highlight for me, actually, was meeting actor Barton Heyman. I had seen him on Broadway not long before and much admired him playing Wild Bill Hickok in Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a superb, ironic view of show business and exploitation of Native Americans, a play which now seems to have been buried in the dust. (FYI: Stacy Keach starred as Buffalo Bill, and Charles Durning was in the cast, as was Raul Julia). And I had seen and  been impressed by Heyman playing Puck in John Hancock’s 1967 off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a deliberately decadent, suggestive-of-evil version. Heymann had been a friend of a puppet-theatre companion from a few years before, Amy Vane.

Heymann sang the praises of William Reich’s orgone energy theories, saying that an orgone box had improved his performances on stage and made his sex life a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Heymann and I also congenially shared our mutual enthusiasms for Indians, while he lamented things that went wrong on stage and the failure of New York critics to see the many virtues of the script. It ran only two and half months, about twice as long as the Broadway take of Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad in 1963, one year after its 1962 off-Broadway run. That starred Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Harris, and Austin Pendleton. Jerome Robbins had directed. I saw it and was astonished, puzzled, and delighted.

(Here I’m skipping details about changes in my personal life except to say that Vene and I divorced and that, in time, I fell in love with Austria-born Helga Wohlmeyer. We lived together for a few years before deciding to move to Europe.)

War and Peace and Stokowski

In September 1970, the tragedy of the war unceasing, Kathy Dobkin of WBAI came up with an astonishing project: a complete on-air reading of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In English, of course. She had recently read that the final volume had been sent to the publishers on December 4, 1869 and felt that December 4, 1970, could be its centennial year.

http://www.democracynow.org/2005/12/6/wbais_war_and_peace_broadcast_35

I participated in that ultimately major event, a non-stop marathon reading of the entire novel for four-and-a-half days. All kinds of celebrities were enlisted to read parts of the first American translation by Anne Dunnigan. Dobkin got Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra to participate.

Alexandra Tolstoy w name

Some readers were invited. Others, like me, volunteered. The phenomenal cast included Richard Avedon, Anne Bancroft, Theodore Bikel, Mel Brooks, William F. Buckley, Bennett Cerf, Dustin Hoffman, Mitch Miller, Joe Papp, Rip Torn, and Dalton Trumbo. Included were the aforementioned Stacey Keach and Barton Heyman from Arthur Kopit’s already-closed three-month-running Indians. BAI staff members read, as did WBAI subscribers, truck drivers, telephone operators, doctors, lawyers, salesmen.

(The entire list of names: http://pacificaradioarchives.org/1970-war-and-peace-cast-list)

War and Peace

Kathy assigned each of us our pages of the 1455 in Tolstoy’s 15 books within the novel. We readers didn’t necessarily encounter each other. Every part was pre-recorded. I recorded my own at WNCN, using music by Nino Rota as underscoring.

He wrote it for the 1956 Dino De Laurentis/King Vidor movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer.

This was yet another way I stayed involved with WBAI. A further one: a 1971 broadcast about Leopold Stokowski, including an in-depth interview with him from December 1970.

Actually, that October, Stokowski’s management had contacted WNCN to ask if the station would be interested in broadcasting an interview with him to promote a concert by the American Symphony Orchestra that he had founded in 1962 and of which he was very proud, especially due to his hiring and encouragement of many young musicians, including women, Blacks, and Asians.

NCN Station Manager Stan Gurell and Music Director David Dubal decided to have Bob Adams conduct the interview. I was not chosen. There was no reason that it had to be me. Perhaps they felt safer with Bob talking to such an enduring icon as the venerated 88-year-old conductor. Bob was a sweet and gentle soul, unassuming and modest. My interviews tended to be more probing, perhaps less safe and respectful.* So Bob, Stan, Station Manager Tom Bird, David, and Chief Engineer Ralph Olsen all went off to Stokowski’s. They took with them one of the station’s high quality Teac reel-to-reel recorders. Quite an entourage.

It didn’t go the way they had hoped.

Bob said that right away Stokowski started talking about his orchestra and pulled out a list of the musicians, reading their names, saying something about each person. On and on. Then, after name and bio number 14, he just stopped. He thanked everyone from the station from coming over. And walked them to the door.

When Bob spoke of the visit, he looked a little hurt, as if it had been his fault. David was more critical, angrily saying something about the maestro being senile.

Privately I was amused. I knew I would have done better. And resolved to try. BAI Program Director Bob Kuttner told me he’d be interested when I proposed it to him.

In a letter to the maestro, requesting a meeting, I pointed out that my father had performed under him in the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I asked Stokowski if he’d be willing to discuss not only the American Symphony Orchestra, but also the current state of American music and modern music in general, along with his celebrated, newsworthy, first public performance ever (1965) of the complete Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives and the subsequent recording.

Stokowski’s written reply agreed to meet and talk about those things, inviting me to his apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue, just south of the Guggenheim Museum. When I arrived, he greeted me kindly at the door, dressed in a loose-fitting, tieless dark shirt, with a grey sweater over his shoulders. What else he was wearing I did not notice, except that later, when he got up from the desk where we had been talking, I saw that he had on soft slippers.

He ushered me into his subtly-lit library where two walls were lined with LPs and 78 rpms of his recordings. On a desk, I put down my small Panasonic cassette recorder (BAI didn’t have enough reel-to-reels to lend me one) and its tiny microphone. A far cry from NCN’s classy equipment.

Stokowski w name

I wanted to look at the recordings to find those I already knew and admired so as to praise him. There was no chance. “Please sit down over here,” he said in a soft, gentle voice, motioning to where he had already set up two chairs opposite each other.  

“Now,” he continued, “before we start, I must ask you to not cut out anything that I say or talk about. The conversation must be broadcast in its entirety.” It sounded more like a command than a request. He was used to being in charge, of course.

“That’s fine,” I answered. “May I turn on the recorder?”

He nodded “yes.”

Naturally I began by asking him about his orchestra; that was the reason he wanted to do this. Immediately he pulled out a program from a desk drawer and, opening, began to do the same thing that he had done with Bob. But, after he had spoken about two musicians, I quickly cut in with “You must be very proud, especially because you’ve done so much to include women and Black people.”

He smiled, evidently pleased about the subject, put away the book, and began to explain his thinking behind such choices. Soon he was extrapolating, making clear his distress at the way American society was going, including the “dreadful” war.

Perfect. He had moved into BAI territory. I knew everybody there would love that.

The conversation flowed, covering American and other contemporary music. And, of course, the movie Fantasia, where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had been re-arranged for the film. I asked him how he felt about what Disney had done. “It would be better, if you asked Stravinsky,” closing the subject.

He spoke slowly, deliberately, never seeming critical of me. More patient and polite than challenged. At one point, he asked me to excuse him. He wanted to go to the kitchen to get some tea that he had prepared earlier. Returning with his cup, he set it down gently, as if aware that the still-running tape recorder might hear the sound. Of course, I hadn’t turned it off, given his instructions, knowing full-well that I would nonetheless edit out the silence before broadcast.

After about an hour talking, he held up his hand, as if asking for silence, then moved it in a waving motion, left to right, clearly conducting me to stop talking.

Walking me to the door, thanking me for my interest, he asked when the talk would be broadcast. I didn’t know yet but said that I would call him and let him know. I had been thinking already about which of his performances I would feature on WBAI, including Roger Goeb’s Symphony No. 3 and Lou Harrison’s 1951 gamelan-influenced Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra. Both relative obscurities were among my all-time favorites. I told him so on my way out, hoping he’d be pleased and perhaps impressed with my knowledge. “I’m certain that will be fine,” was his only response.

The broadcast didn’t air until four months later. I taped it in January at NCN, turning it in to BAI just a couple of weeks before fulfilling a plan to leave New York to try to settle in Europe. The delay was deliberate. I had turned the program into something personal, as if some kind of a swansong, influenced by my belief that I might never return. I talked about my father and his connection to Stokowski, about how my brother had almost been named Leopold. I discussed family background in music and my recent years with NCN. That included a discussion about how the interview came about, including telling about Stan, David, and Bob’s failed attempt to get one. Not a kind thing to do, certainly, in retrospect. I’d always been treated well at NCN. They’d even allowed me to tape that feature there. It now seems childish. Moreover, what if I had returned to New York broadcasting at some future date? That could have tarnished my reputation.

And I did return to New York. Four-and-a-half years later. And no one ever said anything to me about that BAI broadcast. As if it had never happened. But so much had transpired at NCN in that time, that, if anyone from there had heard the Stokowski feature, they’d had more important things on their minds. Perhaps that broadcast was so insignificant that no one cared.

From WBAI folio April 1971 “A very strange and personal kind of documentary by the former WNCN producer and commentator.” Interestingly, there’s no reference to my connection to BAI.