Henry Jacobs' 'Wide Weird World' Pioneering 1950s sound artist Henry Jacobs created soundscapes and satires that some fans never forgot. His recently discovered reel-to-reel recordings have been released.
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Henry Jacobs' 'Wide Weird World'

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Henry Jacobs' 'Wide Weird World'

Henry Jacobs' 'Wide Weird World'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Henry Jacobs is a legend, at least among fans of 1950s radio satire and electronic music. Jacobs has been a composer and radio host, as well as a friend and collaborator with philosopher Alan Watts and poet Ken Nordine. Jacobs' legacy might have existed mostly in the hazy memories of his fans were it not for some of his old tapes. They were recently rediscovered and just released on CD. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

A few years ago, Jack Dangers, the chief songwriter of the San Francisco band Meat Beat Manifesto, got a phone call from some friends who were renovating a house.

Mr. JACK DANGERS (Meat Beat Manifesto): And they found around about 63 reel-to-reel tapes, which had fallen through the floorboards onto earth underneath the house.

ROSE: Curious, Dangers hunted down a working reel-to-reel player, and this is what he heard.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. HENRY JACOBS: "This I Believe," a program of statements of personal faith by outstanding leaders of our time. Tonight, Mr. Delmore Pedisteen(ph). Mr. Pedisteen.

Mr. DELMORE PEDISTEEN: I believe that you should make it swing while you go. I believe that you should try to hear all the sounds, catch all the colors and generally dig because, I mean, you're only here once, you know.

ROSE: Dangers recognized the voice immediately. He bought an old Henry Jacobs LP at a record swap years ago. It seems the tapes found under the house had been there since Jacobs lived in Mill Valley 40 years ago. Dangers and a friend tracked the 80-year-old satirist down and invited him over.

Mr. HENRY JACOBS (Satirist): They first presented me with a box of tapes, and I said, `Gee, I'll have to dig out a reel-to-reel recorder to play them.' They said, `No, not needed, not needed, not needed. Here's some CDs.'

ROSE: They contained copies of the tapes Jacobs had created for his 1950s radio show on public station KPFA in Berkeley. Jacobs and his friends would improvise in character, then he would edit the sessions on his reel-to-reel machine, producing skits like this one about something called `the laughing string.'

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. JACOBS: We're in the beautiful Hollywood home of stage and TV star Dean Marlin(ph), a group of his friends, all people in show business, trying out the laughing string.

It was the idea that you can't produce laughter. The harder you try to do it, the more absurd and stupid and pointless and idiotic it would seem.

(Soundbite of vintage recording; laughter)

Mr. JACOBS: And I see the laughter is beginning, as Mr. Marlin himself is leading the group.

ROSE: Jacobs got his start in radio satire in the 1940s at the University of Illinois hosting a show called "Music and Folklore." Jacobs says he set out to do serious interviews about the music of other countries, but if no real expert could be found, he would sometimes invent one.

Mr. JACOBS: The most successful one was a Hebraic musicologist named Sholem Stein. He pretended to trace the origins of calypso to ancient Hebraic religious texts.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

"Mr. SHOLEM STEIN": The Mishnah? Are you familiar with the Mishnah?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, it's...

"Mr. STEIN": The Mishnah, one of the seven books of Moses, you know.

Mr. JACOBS: Yes. Yeah.

"Mr. STEIN": Yes, it's the third book. There's a similar thing that doesn't refer to bananas, of course. Bananas were unknown in Jerusalem in the Old Testament times, you know, bananas. Plantains...

ROSE: Jacobs took his radio show with him to San Francisco in 1952, and two years later, his friend Mo Asch, who ran the Folkways label, asked to release some highlights. After the LP came out, Jacobs says he got offers to cross over into stand-up comedy, but he says he didn't want to.

Mr. JACOBS: Much more fun to just do it in my little laboratory on tape and edit it forever and start studying the microtemporal considerations of how long a pause--(pauses)--should be before you went on talking.

ROSE: That devotion to his craft did not win Jacobs fame or fortune, but it did earn him the admiration of some hard-core fans, including sound designer Walter Murch, who would later win Academy Awards for his work on the films "Apocalypse Now" and "The English Patient."

Mr. WALTER MURCH (Sound Designer): I think it was his sense of humor, that kind of off-the-wall, edgy, beatnik, sort of hipster, North Beach San Francisco sensibility, which I just immediately respond to.

ROSE: Murch and director George Lucas called Jacobs in to do an improvisation for the soundtrack to their 1971 sci-fi film "THX 1138."

(Soundbite of "THX 1138")

Mr. JACOBS: That's it. OK, now watch that reading. And as it--Uh-oh. Watch the needle on five now. Watch it...

Unidentified Man #1: This nob is loose.


Unidentified Man #1: Wait a minute. Which is the switch to get it out?

Mr. JACOBS: The master at the bottom.

Unidentified Man #1: OK, there we are.

Mr. JACOBS: What is the real dope on the cortex bond problem anyway?

ROSE: For a while Jacobs sold out, as he puts it, creating radio ads for Japan Airlines and working as an audio-visual consultant for Bank of America. But he was involved in other ventures, too.

(Soundbite of vintage recording; music)

Mr. JACOBS: This is muzique concrete (pronounced con-crett).

ROSE: Jacobs co-organized the vortex experiments, a series of mind-expanding sound and light concerts at a San Francisco planetarium starting in 1957. They featured the work of such composers as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Jacobs himself.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Unidentified Man #2: Now this one is called "Chair, 1956,"(ph) and this is one of Henry Jacobs' works that was based on the use of a flute, a guitar and percussion, using some single and double reverberations experimentally.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: There were loudspeakers all around the walls of the planetarium. Sound designer Walter Murch says the vortex experiments later inspired his work on "Apocalypse Now."

Mr. MURCH: He invented this idea of surround sound, a sound that moves all the way around in the theaters--is directly linked to the kind of experiments that Henry was doing at the Morrison Planetarium. It's now the standard format for film sound.

ROSE: Henry Jacobs also designed the music and dialogue for "The Fine Art of Goofing Off," a series of animated programs for public television station KQED.

Mr. JACOBS: One of the best things we did on that program is that we decided to make commercials that would be for weird things, like talking slowly and working overtime and silly stuff like that.

(Soundbite of "The Fine Art of Goofing Off")

Mr. JACOBS: You still have a lot in you, a lot of the real drive and grit that makes America what it is. Don't waste it in idle pastimes; put in some overtime. Log a few golden extra hours at the old grindstone. Remember, there's no time like overtime.

ROSE: Jacobs himself never had much patience for the corporate life. In 1970, he moved to a stretch of remote coastline north of San Francisco. He says he's trying to live as if it's the 19th century, or possibly the fifth.

Mr. JACOBS: I'm discovering that there's something else to life besides electricity and cars. They're OK, but they're not the center of--there's something else about life; I'm positive of this. And that's not a very American thing to say, but what the hell?

ROSE: Today, Jacobs is co-curator of the Alan Watts audio archives and, by his own account, an accomplished left-handed Ping-Pong player. He will interrupt these pursuits next month to make a rare public appearance at a music festival in Los Angeles. Nor NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

SIEGEL: You can watch scenes from "The Fine Art of Goofing Off," the animated public television show Jacobs worked on, at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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