I first heard Pete Fornatale's voice on New York's pioneering progressive radio station WNEW-FM in 1970, my junior year in college. Back-announcing a set of rain songs, he reserved special praise for Lovin' Spoonful's sublime romantic ballad Rain on the Roof. (My all-time climate fave is Van Heusen/Burke's 1953 masterpiece Here's That Rainy Day. There's also Chuck Berry's anthem Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, of course, a rock variety of precipitation.)
'NEW-FM, along with KSAN (San Francisco), WMMS (Cleveland) and similar FM stations in other cities, revolutionized commercial radio in the '60s. They offered an alternative to blaring Top-40 hit machines like New York's WABeatleC-AM and over-the-top deejays like "Cousin" Brucie Morrow. Progressive stations played entire albums, introduced exotic new bands and unearthed obscure tracks with interminable drum solos, all woven together with loving commentary by personalities who felt more like friends than crazy relatives.
These days, progressive radio isn't easy to find. It's been marginalized by the corporatization of commercial radio -- Clear Channel owns over 1200 cookie-cutter stations -- and the commodification of rock rebellion -- Nike's late-'80s use of The Beatles' Revolution to sell footwear being only the most egregious example. As OC Weekly writer Jim Washburn put it, "Capitalism will capture a punk rocker's spit before it hits the ground, then bottle it and sell it back to him."
Exceptions to radio's middle-of-the-road conformity do thrive, coincidentally or not, on the far left side of the FM dial. Among the best are the Jersey City-based, listener-supported freeform station WFMU (91.1), Boston-based folk/Americana station WUMB (91.9 ) and Fornatale's home base, WFUV, emanating from his alma mater Fordham U., where he got his start more than 40 years ago. 'FUV's lineup also features erstwhile WNEW stalwarts Vin Scelsa and Dennis Elsas, along with such up-and-comers as Darren DeVivo, who says, "WFUV is a unique beast, where it's common to hear new bands like Broken Bells and classic acts like Buffalo Springfield played side by side. WFUV is also the home to The Alternate Side, our indie and alt rock channel with a New York City slant (90.7 FM-HD3)."
Fornatale's weekly, four-hour live Mixed Bag broadcast is the base for his multi-media mission: spreading the gospel of Woodstock-era rock and roll to boomers and younger fans alike.
Each "Mixed Bag" has a theme. "Name-Droppers" is an audience favorite that features songs mentioning famous people. (E.g. Roy Orbison, who sang for the lonely in Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road, or Albert Einstein who, dressed as Robin Hood, ambled down Bob Dylan's Desolation Row.
Fornatale is also an author. His latest book, Back to the Garden (Touchstone, $24.99), is about the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival that drew half a million young music freaks to a farm in upstate New York to camp out and hear the music of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and other '60s generation-definers. The tome, paperback edition of which is out May 11, brings alive a topic that's usually recalled by boomers with a holier-than-thou nostalgia that encourages eye-rolling from anyone under 50.
The oral history/commentary format combines arcane Festival lore, musical and cultural analysis and a startling reminder of how close, twice, Woodstock came to ending in tragedy. The first time was on Saturday morning, when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller nearly sent in the National Guard to clear out the place. The next day, there was the very real threat of mass electrocutions after rainstorms had shown their non-romantic side by drenching the grounds.
Fornatale -- dubbed "the golden throat" by '60s legend Abbie Hoffman, self-identified citizen of "Woodstock Nation" -- has taken Back to the Garden on the road via a series of appearances at concerts (he opens for another '60s icon, former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn, May 1 at the Morristown-Beard School in Morristown, New Jersey), libraries (Flushing Library May 10) and other public venues. He's also participating in the New York Historical Society's "Tales of the Grateful Dead in New York" extravaganza. (Did someone keep a record of every joint Jerry Garcia smoked within state lines?)
The lecture/q&a format includes an audio-video presentation that features an amazing juggler and Joe Cocker's gloriously indecipherable With A Little Help from My Friends turn, with creative subtitles added.
Fornatale, who still plays rainsong sets that include a certain Lovin' Spoonful chestnut, is at work on a new book which picks up after Woodstock and tells the story of his next 40 years on the radio in New York. Watch for the wild tale of how he introduced Curtis Mayfield to Bob Dylan at a Muhammad Ali fight at Madison Square Garden.