"His voice seemed to come from his ears."
-- Lou "The Duck" D'Antonio
I once characterized WFMU as "flypaper for misfits and malcontents."
John Narucki was both.
I would not have termed him a "friend." He was, at times, a nemesis. Mostly we tolerated, and as much as possible, avoided each other. He was an ornery, opinionated, uncompromising S.O.B. I suspect that description would draw from him a wry smile. He smoked a smelly cigar, and if you didn't like it, he would graciously point out the nearest exit.
Not that John was without heart. Like many blustery types, there was a core of warmth, and in relaxed moments, he was an amiable conversationalist, even as his views were issued ex cathedra. As a WFMU staffer, he was cooperative when it suited him -- which, in terms of the station's best interests, was most of the time. But not all of the time. John was anything but a compliant bobble-head.
Each year, the WFMU radio crew gathered in the Upsala Chapel lobby, and John's father, a professional photographer, snapped the staff picture, for no charge. At that time, personnel -- office and air -- numbered 25 to 30 (including a handful of actual students, and one or two dogs). Those photos are an indispensable map to WFMU's roster of bygones. In a rotating cast that ranged from free-form firebrands to mumbling muckabouts, John was one of the more colorful and memorable players. His attitude, on and off the air, was no act. It was mavericks like John whose independent spirit contributed to WFMU having what most radio stations lack -- an identity, a personality, a voice.
In fact, for several years, it seemed that John was the voice of WFMU. In the mid- and late-1970s, it was not uncommon for staffers to have two -- or more -- weekly air shifts. John had the time and stamina to handle multiple slots. There was, of course, occasional need for last-minute subs, and because John worked in the office, he was the default fill. When not hosting a program, he often sauntered into the studio and engaged in on-air patter with the DJ. If John was the Iron Man of radio, microphones were his magnet.
A few vignettes about John from the East Orange days:
John loved the blues, rock and some jazz, but seemed indifferent to many other musical strains. He was not indifferent to disco -- he despised it. Around 1979, during Narucki's tenure as Music Director, a new staff DJ named Larry Ozone broke ground of sorts by daring to play disco mixes on a station whose cred rested on prog/punk/DIY and eclectic (read: obscure) free-form fare. Each week when Larry DJ'ed, John carried a basket of that week's twelve-inch disco promos into the performance space, which was separated from the broadcast booth by a large soundproof window. Narucki took smug satisfaction in standing before the glass, in Larry's line of sight, and breaking each 12" platter across his knee.
For several successive schedules, John's program followed mine. His opening theme was Zappa and Beefheart's "Willie the Pimp," which I loathed. John took visible pleasure each week in handing across his intro, knowing that while I vacated the studio and filed records, I'd be subjected to all nine minutes and 16 seconds of "Willie," which he cranked to terrain-shaking decibels. This was the pre-CD era, of course, but John didn't play a vinyl LP. He had "Willie" on cassette -- a budget-brand, normal bias tape, the same tape, week after week, year after year, sounding like it was being played through monitors with blown tweeters.
John packed a switchblade. Don't know that he ever used it, but he brandished it -- at me, on several occasions. During one post-marathon fiesta (or possibly the staff Xmas party) in the old Froeberg Hall basement, I was being chased playfully by a colleague, and ran into the main studio while John was at the console. (In those days, the studio was small -- barely large enough to contain the average DJ's ego.) I inadvertently jostled the amp rack alongside the turntables -- not realizing that someone had placed a full beverage tumbler on top. The glass went horizontal, and the drink cascaded onto the spinning LP. John whipped out his knife and chased me out into the Upsala parking lot. I'm lucky to be here, writing these reflections, because I outran him.
John was intelligent, articulate, and could wisecrack with precision timing. He was personable on the air, but didn't suppress his cynicism. If you cut him verbally, he got the last round. He was a career curmudgeon, who came to WFMU and stayed as long as he did because he didn't fit in anywhere else. He was devoted to the station because it was a community and a cause worth supporting. It was one of the few things on which John and I agreed.
Disco was another.
-- Irwin Chusid
In September 1969, the Free-Form staff hosted a little-publicized, but well-attended farewell picnic at Mayapple Hill in West Orange. We had all recently quit -- or been fired, depending on whose lies you believed -- working at WFMU, and wanted to celebrate a glorious year of Free-Form radio. We were stunned at the number of the faithful who showed up.
As I sat at an Essex County Parks Department picnic table, munching a sausage, a strange figure in an enormous mushroom-shaped hat approached. He extended his hand and squeaked, "At last we meet, my friend." Unmistakably, it was the voice of this rotten kid who phoned in to "The Hour of the Duck" virtually every Sunday afternoon to talk music & trivia. In fact, he was so knowledgeable and entertaining, that he was afforded the dubious distinction of having his own semi-official slot on T.H.O.T.D., alongside Ribbies Crockett, Santa Clausa, Nunzio Beladonna, et al. The Duck dubbed him "Dr. Hyde, Master of the Obscure." Of course, he was John Narucki, who at the time was a grade eight student in Belleville, N.J.
When George Fenwick showed up at my door on Prospect Street in E.O. in the early spring of '70 and asked if the Duck would be interested in going back on the air, and if so, would he be willing to bring along a couple of friends to help re-birth the station, the answer was "yes." The friends he brought along were George Black, Freddie Scelsa, Ed "Tex" Krusheski, and John Narucki. With Fenwick's blessing -- and trepidation -- The Duck organized a Free-Form Reunion Weekend which included all of the above, plus Vin Scelsa and some others. Fenwick's intent was to create a new listenership based on the motley group who had been wildly devoted to Free-Form 'FMU. "Tex" (the Duck's engineer) taped much of the goings-on.
This event marked the beginning of Narucki's in-person (as opposed to phoned-in) association with the station. During his high school years, he appeared regularly on T.H.O.T.D. and during marathons as himself, as Dr Hyde, and in various other guises, but the Naruckian stamp was always evident. His music, his cigars, his hats, his gently sneering chuckle, his voice (which seemed to come from his ears), his switchblade, and his devotion to The Station have left an indelible mark on this old marsh dweller.
-- Lou "The Duck" D'Antonio
I never met John Narucki but he had a profound influence on me. One Saturday night in the late 70's in the nowheresville suburbs of New York, I stumbled upon Narucki and FMU. It was my introduction to free-form radio and it was a mindblowing experience. His on-air patter was funny, wry and entertaining. I had never heard radio that was so informal and freewheeling and it left an indelible impression on me. I called him up to request something (which I'm too embarrassed to mention here) and he was really nice on the phone and acknowledged this pipsqueak high school kid on his show.
I heard from John a handful of times since I've been at the station. The latest was a few months ago when he called during my show and told me how much he dug my Spazzy Answer Songs premium CD. He also told me to keep up the good work.
When I was a kid, listening to Jean Shepherd made me want to listen to more Jean Shepherd. Listening to John Narucki made me want to do a radio show.
-- Dave the Spazz
One of the few things I remember about John today is that "Willie the Pimp" tape. Picture an intro theme, played week after week on Saturday nights at 8:00 or 9:00, that runs for more than nine minutes, features an interminable noodling blues-rock guitar solo, and is recorded on the lowest-fidelity cassette imaginable. It sounded like a twelfth-generation bootleg, even though it was a widely available LP by a major artist. I just never understood that. But it's one of the early memories of FMU that are burned into my brain.
-- Dave Mandl
I recall hanging around with John Morris, who was followed by Narucki for a time. Each week Narucki would hand off the tape and say, "You know the deal." The funny thing was John Morris' closing theme was Eno's "Here Come The Warm Jets."
-- Krys O
That "Willie the Pimp" tape was etched in my brain also. I was a young listener in Morristown, and I remember being really surprised and disappointed when I bought a used copy of Hot Rats at Pellett Records, took it home, slapped it on, and it didn't sound like it did on Narucki's show.
-- Dan Mackta
Let us not forget that for a period of time, "Willie the Pimp" was the most-played song on WFMU. John was filling up early afternoons by broadcasting something like 4-5 days a week, and the broadcast day would start with Frank and The Captain.
In my days of serious record-collecting, I had found a Juicy Lucy album with a cover version of "Willie." I gave it to John as a Christmas gift of sorts in 1979.
He was surprised to receive it, considering how I had "crossed him" when I was applying to get on the station earlier that year. In keeping with what I feel to be my particular case of WFMU idealism (or WFMU egotism), I had chosen to publicly disagree with the way that he was running the music department, and pointed out at a staff meeting that he was throwing out dance records unheard.
I now know much better how to deal with bureaucrats (even WFMU de facto bureaucrats), and even then realized that any conflict we had was unnecessary, my own doing to a degree, and what-the-hell you're SUPPOSED to have learning experiences.
In my state of partial enlightenment I knew that the only known cover of "Willie the Pimp" would do more good being part of John's collection than mine (and I certainly didn't want another copy of the song at WFMU)
John was happy to take it. I have this vision of him mounting the record on his wall, and throwing his knife at it.
-- Lawrence Orchier (a.k.a. Larry Ozone)
I think "misfit" and "malcontent" is the perfect description of John, although I also found him to be very funny. My interactions with him were minimal -- I was only at WFMU a brief time before he left. When I first became involved with the station, John was dating Beth Murphy, who was a college friend. On her show every so often they would do a comic cooking bit called "Aunt Lizzie's Culinary Delights" (a few of which I have on tape). John appeared as "Uncle Jack," and one of the main requirements for the recipe's execution was "a big pot. The kind that the witches mix the brew in."
He certainly was an original.
-- Irene Trudel
Spent many enjoyable evenings late '70s & early '80s hanging out with John at the on-campus shack where DJ/former Station Manager & Scapegoat Bruce Longstreet & Upsala Bookstore Manager/artist Jim Coleman resided for several years. Don't remember much of what we did -- John was a teetotaler, but Bruce's dog did a nifty biscuit-on-nose trick that was probably good enough for Letterman.
At some point during every marathon John would utter his famous phrase, "Your mother copulates with barnyard animals" at a crank caller.
Yes, he did have a nasty knife that he loved to show people (or as with Irwin, go berserk) & was also fascinated with various forms of torture & capital punishment through the ages. In fact, John might well have preferred exiting this Mortal Coil via the Sing Sing electric chair, since he knew so much about it.
His cigars were awful, worse than Fatimas.
John was at the notorious Rolling Stone Altamont concert - a mere lad at the time - & published an excellent poem about it, which I'll dig out & post.
-- Bob Rixon
John was one of the first DJs I interacted with on a regular basis when I first started at the station -- he would be doing his show when I came in to prep. My first impression was: Wow, this guy is a serious, hard-core hippie. It turned me off a bit 'cause of his cigar smoke, not so much his appearance, which at that time (mid-eighties) was just not cool, but I thought was a riot cause he was a freak. It also made me feel at home, 'cause here was this total freak and he was doing something totally cool -- free-form radio -- and was smart, funny and hip and VERY opinionated about the whole damn thing.
But what really opened me up to him was his attitude and warm, helpful vibe. I was new and green, and he spent long stretches with me showing how to create a reverb setup with the reel-to-reel decks and all sorts of other stuff I wasn't hip to. We would spend lots of time in the library talking about music, all sorts of music -- his knowledge was deep I came to realize. His take on a La Monte Young LP in the library was just hilarious.
I also learned that John was "odd," to say the least, and realized that it was best to not get too involved, because he could be unpredictable and volatile. Late one night he was on the air and waiting for Frank Balesteri (the Vanilla Bean) to fill in for Ray Franks. Frank was late (not uncommon for the Bean). John was threatening to leave and told me that I had to take over -- meaning I would be doing two overnight programs if Frank didn't show up, and I was not ready, nor in the mood to be barked at and told what to do for possibly 6 hours - or else! I refused, and that didn't sit well with John. He sat at the mixing console in that basement, smoking those smelly cigars and fuming well past his time to leave. When Frank finally arrived it was total mayhem: John lunged at Frank and was literally trying to strangle him against the wall. I was shocked and paralyzed by what was happening. All this because the guy following him was 20 minutes late! Well, things were never quite the same with John after that incident.
The last time I spoke to John was just after the death of another FMU staffer, Ray Franks. He called one day to tell me he was sorry about Ray and how he wished that he could have gone to his funeral, but was not able to due to his own health problems. He recounted how things had been for him in recent years and it was obvious he had been through quite a lot. But what was amazing about it all was his attitude about FMU: One of the last things I remember him saying - which was oddly upbeat, yet also a bit sad -- was that listening to FMU was all he had left that gave him some pleasure.
Many who never met John in person had the pleasure of listening to his incredible broadcasts on WFMU. I met John while I was working at the Upsala Bookstore. At the time, WFMU had offices just across the hall in the basement of Froeberg Hall. John was a frequent and welcome visitor to the store and I made a point of spending as much time as I could in the studio while he was on the air.
John and I spent a good bit of time together socially as well and I counted him among my best friends.
Besides John's rapier wit, wonderful taste in music and one-of-a-kind eccentricity, two memories stand out:
1) I ate my first Wendy's meal with John when he introduced me to that restaurant.
2) John's Father, John, [former DJ/Manager] Bruce Longstreet, and I once hit a $1400 trifecta at the Meadowlands (forgive me if I'm leaving anyone out). [former WFMU manager] Chuck Russo opted out of the bet and didn't partake in the booty. John was unemployed at the time so he collected the payoff against his own income tax, assuring all of us a sizable bonus in next year's return.
John was a wonderful guy and I'll always remember him kindly.
-- Jim Coleman upsala.org
(Jim Coleman was a Froeberg-era WFMU friend who designed the old "Dancing Radio" WFMU teeshirt.)
He could sound like a wailing redneck, a German aristocrat, a hood from Watts, Maurice Chevalier, an old fart from Bloomfield or a Chinaman and always have me in stitches, but when John was "naturally serious," he was a real walking encyclopedia with regards to almost any topic. Although very opinionated and a real pain in the ass many times, I learned so much listening to him and I always was able to see the sensitive person he was even though he always did his best to come across as a "tough guy." We spent many memorable nights working on phony PSA's and fake live reports about all sorts of different themes, and our live on-air transitions often turned out to become entire shows in themselves. My many years on WFMU were definitely marked by John's presence and personality and we did help one another quite a bit. Even though John and I had an unresolved rift dating back to 1982, I always considered him as a friend and respected him as an authority with regards to music, history and radio broadcasting of course. I would have liked for us to have made peace but hold no grudge whatsoever, and I do miss him a lot and hope that he is pestering people the way he used to wherever he is!
-- Dan "The Immigrant" Behrman. CKUT, 90.3FM, Montreal, Canada (ckut.ca)
photos by Dan Chusid.
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