Heavy ghosts lurk, as mist in the archives
In the bleakest days of lockdown, when work was scarce and the libraries were closed, I took solace searching through online repositories. One of these in particular offers some interesting insight into the history of freeform radio and the role of the underground press in promoting high energy music. The Independent Voices project at the Reveal Digital Archive contains many issues of the East Village Other, an important underground 60s newspaper. From a May 7, 1969 edition, in the “Kokaine Karma” column, we learn that after a 10-month run, the authors’ namesake radio show had been kicked off WFMU. Readers are informed Kokaine Karma’s “estimated 50,000 to 60,000 listeners…were ignored to placate the America Legion, college alumni, the radio board and a tyrannical, hypocrite station manager.”
The column is worth a read for the writing style alone. It also gives a nice view into the creative boundaries being pushed at the time: “Critics are pompous, snide and out of touch with the people…The Kokaine Karma radio show is a product of the youth culture. Rock and roll records, through the explosive blast that avant garde jazz musicians [sic], are interspersed with the sounds of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, John Sinclair, Adrian Mitchell, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman. Raps are spontaneous, informal and high-energy, concentrating on the evolving new society and satirizing the bizarro American death culture. The sudden cancellation of the Karma Kapers has the thumping bark of cultural repression. It is the latest move to preserve the bland, plastic honky world and leave the new culture stillborn.” The authors go on to blast the station manager who “tried to tie up the facilities by producing his own skonko-cum-chompo 45 record.” (Note: in a recent interview, surviving Karma co-host Dennis Frawley insists the name was a play on words and cocaine was a drug the hosts never indulged in, stating “it was overpriced and overrated.”)
It’s hard to find much fault in the Kokaine Karma writers’ contention that, when “responsible to advertisers and stockholders, radio has a lifeless, unchallenged existence—a bland, formularized state that affords no opportunity for creativity and denies the involvement of radio in contemporary culture. With the concern for programming, radio could be a springboard for new music, comedy, drama and thought, rather than being relegated to a graveyard showcase of Muzak, plastic rock, ugly commercials and right-wing rhetoric. Babylon has indeed developed mindless radio for the honky housewife…The disc jockey personality is low-energy, pseudo-hip, holier-than-Thou and as ignorant of the music and community as Billboard, Cashbox, and the N. Y. Times.” Where, as the youth like to say, is the lie?
Kokaine Karma probably did offend plenty of influential people whose kids happened to tune in. Or maybe the show got booted off the air for more mundane reasons. At this point, it’s almost impossible to verify the facts behind the myth. WFMU station manager Ken Freedman and Liz Berg, in a 2008 blog post, recount how an airing of the non-radio-friendly version of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” led to the station losing access the Christian-station-owned transmitter WFMU then utilized. MC5 singer Rob Tyner’s use of the word “motherfucker” provided the “unintentional catalyst for an early step toward the station’s independence,” as WFMU was forced to eventually build their own transmitter. It’s unknown if the offending DJ was one of the Kokaine Karma hosts. It’s a wonder such a show could exist anywhere in the late 60s.
It would be hard for a similar show to get airtime in 2021. Co-host “Righteous” Bob Rudnick would get kicked off station after station, retiring from radio forever in 1975 and dying 20 years later. As his friend John Sinclair recalled, Rudnick had been “living a life of utter penury, staying in crash pads or people’s basements and scrambling for what he called turd money enough to put something in his belly to hold the beer, wine and spirits which dwelled there in such abundance. His drug use was cut way down, he’d definitely cop every two weeks, though,” and “in the summer of 1991, Bob had started having trouble with his liver.”
After getting thrown off WFMU, Rudnick and co-host Frawley relocated to Michigan, at the behest of MC5 manager John Sinclair. The two began working at WABX in Detroit, but were reportedly fired for “playing too much jazz” and announcing a benefit show for (then-jailed) Sinclair on the air. In the face of pressure, station management offered to rehire both deejays, but Rudnick moved on. Frawley stayed on at WABX, and continued doing vital radio for a few decades. He can be heard on one of the bootlegs of final Stooges material and he surfaced for an interesting Radio Dayz podcast interview in March of this year.
The beginnings of Kokaine Karma
In 1967 Rudnick got fired from an editorial job at a Playboy VIP magazine for taking off to attend an anti-war march before a deadline. This provided the peripatetic Rudnick an impetus to move to New York, where he worked as a chauffeur and fell in with old friend Dennis Frawley. The two got involved with the East Village Other newspaper, and their column, Kokaine Karma was born. They expanded to the airwaves in 1968, with a slot on WFMU, which had recently pioneered its freeform format. Rudnick and Frawley immediately took to the MC5, regularly playing the band’s first single. Elektra records’ Danny Fields, who would sign the MC5 and the Stooges) had a show in the slot after Kokaine Karma. Frawley and Rudnick would host the band live in WFMU’s studio. (The performance, which occurred shortly after the MC5’s disastrous experience at the Fillmore East—also set up by Frawley and Rudnick.
One really interesting thing here was the emphasis on Black music and White rock and roll together. It should be obvious that the music that is credited as giving birth to punk rock was heavily influenced by free jazz and the Black power movement. (This wasn’t just the case with the MC5. Iggy Pop, generally apolitical , started as a blues drummer in Chicago clubs.) In the Kokaine Karma MC5 broadcast, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer replies to a caller asking for musical recommendations with: “Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, MC5, the Stooges.” As Rudnick told the Ann Arbor Sun in 1972: “For instance you start playing jazz; some people never heard it before or it’s alien to them, so you try and put it in a context so it’s not too weird. You fit it in so it’s easy for people to hear it at first and get into it. I talk specifically about jazz, because what I play is mostly rock and roll and avant garde jazz, free music, high-energy music, cosmic music…The thing is not really to play music that people know, but to play music that they WILL WANT TO KNOW once they get a chance to hear it.”
Rudnick, presaging the World Wide Web by decades saw the role of radio “not to just reflect what’s happening in the community but to try and turn people on to what’s happening so they can be a part of it. The radio station should tie the area it reaches together. It should be a web, an information network.”
This approach is still radical today. Few radio programmers still venture into such territory, with a small number of exceptions. A show like Kokaine Karma, despite its indulgences, illustrates the most radical of what was possible in 60s freeform radio. 1960s FMU was one of a few stations in the country pursuing freeform. In the Greater NYC region, BAI and FMU were the only two places to consistently access alternative viewpoints and culture. There was always a schism between the two. The WBAI politicos thought WFMU was too loose and undisciplined. In a 1969 Eye magazine article gleaned from the WFMU website, WBAI’s Steve Post is quoted as saying “There is a generation gap between our audience and WFMU’s, but there’s some overlapping too. We at BAI feel like immigrant parents who had to fight and struggle and then have a kid who has a silver spoon in his mouth. But look, they’ll have their struggles too. They’re a little naïve, a little immature, but they’re sincere.”
Rudnick and Farley did not share this view. In their East Village Other missive against WFMU’s management, they declaimed the tedium of “Pacifica’s WBAI, [which] with a great deal of social involvement, has become stagnant presenting the same consciousness, discussions, and folksy music night after night, year after year.”
This type of freeform radio had some other outposts across the country, Rudnik would work at, and get kicked off a few of them. Most of these stations would either be subsumed into commercial stations or carry on as some form of college radio. The network of underground newspapers like the East Village Other largely floundered as large music publications like Rolling Stone allegedly colluded with record companies to starve the underground press of music ads, a major revenue source. It’s no coincidence that Rolling Stone (and FM radio with it) quickly turned away from coverage of the vital high-energy music championed by Kokaine Karma, especially the Blacker variants.
High-energy music/life, culture
Former MC5 manager John Sinclair, explained the high-energy ethos shared by the MC5 and Kokaine Karma in a 1970 interview with the East Village Other. Sinclair, at the time serving a sentence for giving (not selling) two joints to an undercover cop, explained:
“Why drink alcohol and not smoke dope? Because alcohol makes you go along with all that low-energy bullshit for the straight life-style and job structure. Young people who work in the factory are doing that because essentially they don’t see anything else to do. And along with working in the factory goes all the rest of the stuff: bowling, hunting, buying furniture, getting married, a new car, sharp clothes, beauty parlors. Or else you go into the army for a few years and then into the factory. Or some other job.
When I was coming up that was all there was. Ten years ago. You just accepted that shit. And if you went to college you rejected rock and roll as a teenage thing. In college you listened to Dave Brubeck or Peter, Paul and Mary…The more high-energy our music got, the more the establishment tried to kill it: they sent out Frankie Avalon and Fabian, exemplars of honky culture Lawrence Welk.
“Listen to Little Richard and then listen to ‘Venus’ by Frankie Avalon (to see the difference between high and low-energy music.) The establishment was trying to sell the low-energy thing to white youth. Or listen now to CKLW: the same awful shit; songs about boys driving around in cars trying to pick up girls or vice versa. Most pop music is still low-energy music…The contradiction I’m trying to point out is between low-energy life and high-energy life. Low-energy culture prepares people to fit into the consumer (passive) system. (And it has to do with death: consume—kill and shit out; consumption, the poets’ disease.)
A high-energy culture prepares you for revolution…”
Asked about his prison music listening, Sinclair explained, “I listen to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. The MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, which is the most high-energy record ever made—too high energy for anyone except stoned freaks and 16-year-old maniacs. And John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra.”
Reviewers often praised The MC5 for their music while mocking their bombastic politics. Yes, some of what they were saying is terribly dated and silly. There is, though, much to be salvaged from the high-energy philosophy. It’s important to remember this was happening while the US government was pushing an unwinnable war in Vietnam and as riots burned large parts of several major American cities. When I was a kid in the 70s everybody had an older brother or a cousin or father who had fought in Vietnam, and everyone knew someone who didn’t come home. Or came home, but never fully returned. This was the “Human Being Lawnmower” the MC5 sang about, the system that grinds youth and life into mulch. The same forces are still in place. Old farts knock the contemporary youth as “having it easy.” The kids have been dealt a lousy deck—a life of debt peonage, lack of meaningful work, a warming planet they had no hand in wrecking, racial and economic injustice and so on.
There isn’t a lot of programming in the old freeform/high-energy tradition these days, but if you listen in the right places you can hear glimpses. WFMU still admirably carries the freeform torch. While there’s nothing anywhere near as wild as the Kokaine Karma on WFMU (or any other station), there’s still a lot of great music. As I get ready to post this dispatch, Clay Pigeon is delivering his high-energy treatment, as he does every weekday morning. There are too many other FMU deejays doing great work to mention here. WKCR plays John Coltrane marathons and you can still tune in and hear Albert Ayler or Sun Ra.
John Sinclair, in the East Village Other interview quoted above, laid out his beef with mainstream culture: “People used to look on their music listening as separate from their other life. Aristotle’s triumph of separation. I want to say, no to insist, that the music that you listen to shapes your life… You listen to high-energy music, and then when people come to you with low-energy forms, you just can’t stand it. That’s why kids hate school so much: school is the ultimate low-energy trip.” Even the better culture and politics shows on BAI or any of the local NPR affiliates lack teeth. Much as I rely on these stations’ deadly sober news programming, so many of them are a low-energy trip. It would be nice, even occasionally, to hear something a little less Plato’s Republic and more Plato’s Retreat. You know, a little more bacchanalia in the Apollonian/Dionysian balance.
Hopefully at least a reader or two will come away from this dispatch inspired to check out the Other Voices archives. Or maybe you will carry some element of high-energy music/lifestyle into your daily existence. Better yet, why not create your own high-energy art/music/radio?
For more info…
Readers interested in pulling on some of the strands presented here and learning more about freeform radio, the underground press, high-energy music, the MC 5 and the like will find a good starting point at any of the links below.
The Arcane Radio Trivia site did a nice write-up on Rudnick back in 2012; some of the above biographical info on Rudnick was culled from links on that site. This 1970 Creem rundown of the Motor City Scene provides much useful context.
The 1970 John Sinclair interview with the East Village Other contains the best explanation of the theory of high-energy vs low-energy culture.
The Ann Arbor District Library has great archival material on John Sinclair, Bob Rudnick and the Detroit scene online.
This Eye magazine feature on WFMU is essential history. The article is dated November 1969, and places the Kokaine Karma show on FMU at that time. Frawley and Rudnick were already in Detroit by then—this oversight is likely a result of the slow pace of print publications. The article can be accessed via WFMU’s website.
This Dennis Frawley interview on the Radio Dayz podcast interview is well worth listening to.
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