It was sometime after midnight in the early hours of January 26, 1966 when I fell asleep, as I usually did on week nights: listening to a show on New York’s WBAI FM called Radio Unnameable, hosted by Bob Fass. I woke up an hour or two later and, in the first few seconds of consciousness, realized that Bob Dylan was on the air, in the studio, and taking phone calls. Let’s just say I woke up really fast, and found myself with a quick decision to make: whether or not to wake up my older brother who was sleeping in the next room.Bob Dylan was on the air, in the studio, and taking phone calls
I was 14 years old and in 9th grade. It was the worst possible night for this to happen – right in the middle of a weeklong nightmare known as midyear exams, and I was supposed to take a math exam (the worst) only a few hours later. I decided that exams come and go, but Bob Dylan at the height of his rock and roll stardom taking phone calls on the air was a one-time-only event. So I ran into my brother’s room and said, “Get up! Dylan’s on BAI.”
For the next hour or so, we listened as Bob Dylan joked around and parried with callers. Dylan was accompanied by a few friends who you could hear laughing in the background, all using aliases, but it’s a good bet that Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson were among them since they had come to the show straight from the recording studio, where Dylan had been working on a new single, “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)”.
Listening to the show 50 years later, many of the callers seem strange and even though Dylan is clearly in good spirits, and for the most part comical, a lot of people hearing the show now would wonder what all the fuss was about.
WBAI was and is a listener-sponsored station; part of the Pacifica Network, which had two other stations in California, one in Berkeley and the other in Los Angeles. Many of the shows were political and while BAI leaned to the left, it did present all sides.
Bob Fass was a sometime actor and Radio Unnameable was one of the first freeform radio shows. The show ran on weeknights, according to the WBAI program guide, from midnight to exhaustion. Anything could – and did – happen on the show. It was underground radio for the city that never sleeps. I consider Bob Fass to be a radio genius. He rarely announced records, and often mixed all kinds of music together – comedy records, poetry records and sound collages – just to make a point. For instance, a Lyndon Johnson speech about the Vietnam War would be accompanied by the sound of bombs dropping and Stormtroopers marching. Yet, even though Fass rarely announced the songs he played, you somehow always found out what they were.”Why are some of your songs so long?” “Well you see I get paid by the word” Bob Dylan
There were usually guests every night; musicians, actors, poets, comedians and people with political agendas, such as Abbie Hoffman. Musicians would come by and play live. Two songs recorded on Radio Unnameable that were heard by those who lived in the New York metropolitan area long before they were on record include “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie and “Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker. When Walker’s recording of the song was finally released in a highly produced version with strings, the reaction in New York was so negative that he included the Radio Unnameable version on his next album, Five Years Gone. Many, many other musicians appeared on the show.
Bob Dylan had played live on the show early in 1963 and Fass had quite a few Bob Dylan recordings that weren’t on any albums. This was quite a few years before bootleg records. One song he played several times a week was “Percy’s Song”. He would also play “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and the electric version of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” regularly. A few years later, songs from The Basement Tapes would be on Radio Unnameable before they were anywhere else.
Fass also pioneered several music events: a “Be In” at Grand Central Station, a “Fly In” at the International Arrivals building at JFK airport and a “Sweep In” of the Lower East Side. The film Radio Unnameable documents all of this and more.
So given this context – that New York was Dylan’s home base, that Fass’ audience was highly political, and of course that Dylan was moving from folk music to rock and roll – imagine your fourteen-year-old self hearing it for the first time, live on the radio and well past midnight on a school night.