Back in the day when radio was laced with great music and nonstop commercials, I spent most days and nights editing my college newspaper. When I did find the time to crash, I did it in my converted garage in Jackson Heights, Queens.
It was in the silence of exhaustion those early mornings that I had the urge to hear Bob Dylan take me down protest road or Rod McKuen poetically saying goodbye to a lost love. And to get that quick fix I would call Pete Fornatale at the only station I listened to then, WNEW-FM. And Pete would actually play some of the sequences I suggested.
Pete Fornatale passed away last Thursday at age 66. I blinked twice when I saw the notice online and immediately fell into a combination of shock, remorse, grief, and celebration -- celebration for a life and talent that added so much to ours just by loving music.
I only met Pete once, when I invited him to speak to students at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus. He was great, and I was star-struck to finally meet him. But when he asked for a ride back to Long Island, four of us packed into my barely running Rambler and drove east, overdosing on tunes on the radio. Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman" had Pete clapping. "Y'know," he said, "the guy's pretty damn good."
When we reached our destination he invited us in and we drank Cokes (I think) in front of his floor-to-ceiling record collection. If the Righteous Brothers ever wanted to know what a rock and roll heaven looked like, this was it.
I moved on after college to a busy newspaper career, then a family. Much later, I went off on my own and started some businesses, but continued to write a column on small business. Several years later, as all freelance gigs do, that one ended. One day, shortly after I was cut, I listened to my voicemail and heard that familiar, one-of-a-kind voice say one word: "Bastards!" It was Pete, calling me to say how much he enjoyed my column and to register his dismay at its demise.
Pete and I called each other a few times after that, but then I lost track of him and vice versa.
Pete Fornatale was my hero. He was passionate about music for sure, but even more passionate about the people who made the music: the lyrical poets of the '60s and '70s who filled our hopes, wishes and frustrations with the bars of rhymes that we'll never experience again.
Thank you, Pete, for celebrating their genius and for bringing them to us through your heart. Rest well, Pete, in rock and roll heaven.
George Giokas, a former editor at Newsday, is the chairman of HealthDay and a journalism adjunct at Stony Brook University.