ARCHIVE: Fornatale’s on First

The Atlantic Highlands Arts Council bags legendary DJ Pete Fornatale for a presentation tied in to his book BACK TO THE GARDEN, Sunday at Bellas Bistro. (Photo by Linda Shenkman-Curtis)

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 10, 2009)

His is a voice that doesn’t get taught in the School of Broadcasting: mellow and gentle without being druggy; patient and teacherly without being smuggy. The kind of voice that you’d like to have talk you down from that building ledge, or talk you up prior to that big debate-club meet.

A voice that, were it not to have been used for the good of mankind, would almost certainly have sold you the optional undercoating on a Cadillac Cimarron, or the vinyl siding on a retirement haven in Silver Spring, MD. It’s just that good.

The voice of Pete Fornatale is more than soothing lite-jazz empty calories, however. As one of the gang of scholarly on-air personalities from the long (but long-ago) heyday of the old WNEW-FM in New York, Fornatale and his musical “Mixed Bag” were a big part of what became one of the last major-market holdouts against the playlist-consultant zombies of corporate radio. While they weren’t immune from occasional semi-coherent ramblings and Rolling Stone-style cluelessness, the late program director Scott Muni and company —  Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, plus Richard NeerVin ScelsaDennis ElsasCarol Miller, a pre-Sinatra Jonathan Schwartz — started something that, dead as it may be on commercial terrestrial, continues to inspire the occasional briefly burning little wildfire on better hillsides everywhere. It was the kind of place on the dial where a nervous would-be bank robber could call in one day to be placated into surrender with a request for “Box of Rain,” followed the next day by the DJ reading a lengthy original poem about the incident.

Far from spending this new millennium in playlist-slave exile, Pete Fornatale slung his Mixed Bag over his shoulder and returned to his roots — listener-supported WFUV 90.7 FM out of Fordham University —  where he now spins on Saturday afternoons and airs his hourlong interview program Mixed Bag Radio on Sunday mornings. As a recognized authority on the cultural evolutions and revolutions of rock’s first couple of decades, Fornatale has stepped up his work as an author in recent years, with such well-regarded titles as All You Need is Love and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends making great use of the insights accrued over his decades as both fan and facilitator.

Here in the 40th anniversary summer of the Woodstock Festival, Fornatale is back in the racks with Back to the Garden, a volume that balances the collected memories from more than 100 people who attended the generation-defining event, with the author’s own perspective as a professional on the cutting edge of what was a fast-morphing musical landscape. The author comes to the greater Red Bank orbit this Sunday afternoon, for a special Woodstock-themed presentation in an unexpected place: Bellas Seafood Bistro at 71 First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. It’s the first in a projected series of fundraiser Artists’ Lectures presented by the Atlantic Highlands Arts Council, and it’s accompanied by a meet ‘n greet signing event.

While this great and storied interviewer could certainly teach us a thing or two about the art of interviewing, Red Bank oRBit gave it a go nonetheless — Continue Reading for the lengthy but ‘luminating result.

RED BANK ORBIT: Wow, that voice! It’s Pete Fornatale! I am instantly taken back — I’m in junior high school and that voice is coming out of the little clock radio by my bedside. Do you have this effect on everyone you meet?

PETE FORNATALE: Well, somebody told me a long time ago, you don’t want to be knocked out of your shorts by the radio when you get up in the morning.

That must have been before the advent of the Morning Zoo format.

That’s true; things have since gone to hell. We thought what we had going on back then would last forever. And what other voices would be heard coming from that clock radio of yours?

Late at night, there’d be Alison Steele — still the only person I’ve ever known to play whole album-side songs by Lothar and the Hand People.

I actually had occasion to play Lothar recently, on the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing. I played “Standing On The Moon” by the Grateful Dead, “Walking On The Moon” by The Police, and “Space Hymn” by Lothar and the Hand People.

Well, it’s a big year for fortieth anniversaries, and of course the book that you’ll be promoting locally is on the big anniversary of Woodstock. And of course I haven’t read it — but that’s probably not an uncommon thing with the people who interview you.

You know, I have good relations with both Mike and the Mad Dog, the sports talk guys, since before they were divorced! But I went on both of their new shows, and there’s such a difference in approach. Mad Dog, you could tell he read every page, knew the minutest detail — and Mike Francesa, well, he must have just rifled through it, read the jacket blurb copy.

Mad Dog asked me for my opinion on the top five acts at Woodstock. First I had to name Jimi Hendrix and just say that he was in a league by himself, to the degree that he should be removed from competition. So my five were Richie Havens, for making up that great song on the spot; The Who, who had such great moments on film; Joe Cocker, who took this Beatles song, this Ringo song “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and turned it into a hymn that defined the whole event. Then there was Sly Stone, for just coming on like a Baptist preacher with “I Want to Take You Higher.” And Santana, who didn’t even have their first album out at the time, and who just galvanized the crowd with “Soul Sacrifice.”

It’s great having you come to town for a signing appearance, but it’s a bit of an odd choice of venue — a comfortable little restaurant and bar that I like to frequent, but it’s not a book store.

I’m going there on the faith of the organization that’s promoting it. We do have some technical issues to work out — there’s an audio-visual aspect that’s a big part of the presentation. I hate it when things go wrong, you know; ‘what do you mean you need an extension cord?’

Well, Atlantic Highlands, like so few towns these days, actually has a mom and pop hardware store just up the street where you could wrangle up that extension cord.

I’m familiar with Atlantic Highlands, because Bill Kollar, one of the producers ofMixed Bag Radio, lived there — he’s an engineer and we actually recorded some shows at his house. We dragged Graham Nash over there, when he was at theCount Basie Theatre — and we did a show with Glen Hansard when he was withThe Frames. He’s since become very well known for the movie Once, and we got him before any of that happened.

Your book is sort of an outgrowth of what you’ve done for many years on the radio; you’ve always put your guests at ease and you’ve incorporated a lot of oral history in this volume. Would you say you took some inspiration from the late Studs Terkel, who we lost a year or so ago and who’s pretty much regarded as the master of this sort of thing?

It’s a different sort of content than Studs would have dealt with, I think — but really, all credit for this book must go to my oldest son, who’s had a successful career in publishing as a writer, editor and packager. Two years ago we did a Simon & Garfunkel book, and we had fun, so the question became what do we do for a followup. He suggested that the anniversary of Woodstock was coming up, and that we could do a book that puts the focus more on the music, rather than the drugs, the money, or anything else.

Now, I didn’t go to Woodstock — I was on the radio; I was fairly new to the station and the program director said that we need fill-ins back here at the studio. So, the book is half oral history by people who were there, and the other half is my perspective on the whole thing. I take everything in the order that it happened, so I start with Richie Havens and finish with Jimi. And Max Yasgur doesn’t appear in the story until he gets up on stage and makes his ‘I’m a farmer’ speech, that made him an international folk hero.

How long did it take to chase down all the various interviews and get it all in shape?

It took about one and a half to two years — doing the interviews, digitizing them from reel-to-reel tapes, transcribing and editing.

One of my favorite interviews was with Henry Gross — I don’t know if you remember him from his solo career, but he had been the guitarist for Sha Na Na when they played Woodstock. His Woodstock memories are a little cloudy, but he had spent a day, as he described it, drinking with Jimi Hendrix and smoking with Jerry Garcia — and he said, “there were three million pounds of marijuana consumed that weekend, and not one reported case of glaucoma!’

There seems to be a lot of debate now as to approximately how many people attended this thing — of course a lot of people claim to have been there, but some writers now are scaling back the real attendance to as low as 40 thousand. But once the crowd broke through and it became an inadvertently free event, that was pretty much the end of any consensus on the head count.

I quarrel with the 40 thousand number — the reason for that is the organizers planned facilities for 70 thousand and they became swamped — dangerously so as regards the Porta-Sans — and they had to make a decision: finish the stage or fix the fence? And don’t forget, the actual box office never got there! So they lost control of their ticketed event from the start.

Not too many people remember this, but on Saturday morning Nelson Rockefeller, who was then the governor of New York, threatened to send in the National Guard! Can you imagine having to get up onstage and announce that there’d be no more music, everyone would have to go home — it could’ve been a riot, a bloodbath. It teetered between becoming a national disaster, and one of the biggest cultural events in history.

This is a tricky question to ask, but how reliable do you find most of the accounts of what happened that weekend?

I find that I got wildly divergent accounts of the same events — what they call the Rashomon effect, if you’re familiar with that. For instance, the story of how Max got involved exists in eight different versions — we laid them all out and tried to sift through what the gist was.

But for most of us, our perception has been defined by the album and the movie — to the point that if you didn’t make it into the movie, like CreedenceThe BandBlood Sweat & Tears — it’s almost like you weren’t there.

To return to the Porta-Sans, that’s my favorite part of the movie, where they interview the Porta-San man, who’s running a loud machine; they almost didn’t use the footage but they wound up running it with subtitles. They asked him what he thought of the whole thing, and he said ‘I’ve got one son in Vietnam, and one son out there’ — meaning there at the event — ‘and this is all right with me.’

So will we be paying the same attention to the anniversary of Altamont when that comes up?

We can reference Altamont as the yin/yang of that time — it’s the anti-Woodstock. Bear in mind that Woodstock was the second largest city in New York that weekend, and there was a lot less violence and mayhem there than in any other city in America. But we tried not to sweep anything under the rug; there were two ODs and other bad things going on.

Well, we look forward to your presentation on the subject. We’re counting on you to help us sift through some of the facts and urban legends behind what, we all have to admit, is an event that still gets a real rise from people after all this time.

Woodstock has moved from the realm of reality to the realm of mythology. But it’s still a Rorschach test in our society — many people still feel threatened by what it represents.