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Henry Jacobs' 'Wide Weird World'

Henry Jacobs, circa mid-1950s, with boobam drums. These instruments were created by William Loughborough and used in several Vortex performances.
William Loughborough
Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Henry Jacobs, circa mid-1950s, with boobam drums. These instruments were created by William Loughborough and used in several Vortex performances.

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.

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.

"And they found around about 63 reel-to-reel tapes, which had fallen through the floorboards onto earth underneath the house," says Dangers.

Curious, Dangers hunted down a working reel-to-reel player and 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.

"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,'" Jacobs says. "They said, 'No, not needed, not needed, not needed. Here's some CDs.'"

They contained copies of the tapes Jacobs had created for his 1950s radio show on public station KPFA in Berkeley, which now make up The Weird Wide World of Henry Jacobs. Jacobs and his friends would improvise in character, then he would edit the sessions on his reel-to-reel machine.

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.

"The most successful one was a Hebraic musicologist named Sholem Stein," says Jacobs. "He pretended to trace the origins of calypso to ancient Hebraic religious texts."

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.

"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," says Jacobs.

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

"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," says Murch.

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

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. He 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. There were loudspeakers all around the walls of the planetarium. Murch says the vortex experiments later inspired his work on Apocalypse Now.

"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," says Murch. "It's now the standard format for film sound."

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.

"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," says Jacobs.

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.

"I'm discovering that there's something else to life besides electricity and cars," says Jacobs. "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?"

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.