CHICAGO — About 15 years ago, Jason Narducy went to see a solo Bob Mould show at the Old Town School of Folk Music — a normally subdued, seated venue.
But Narducy remembered one man four rows in front of him, throwing his fists in the air in celebration throughout the entire performance.
When the show ended and the lights came on, he realized it was Lin Brehmer.
“So many people have stories like that, of him just jamming out,” said Narducy, a longtime musician who plays with Mould. “He’d even post videos of himself in the studio — he’d put on a song and just be dancing around the studio. It was infectious. The music has its own power. But then when you see somebody who’s done it for 38 years, doing stuff like that, it’s just inspiring.”
Brehmer, the longtime WXRT radio host and disc jockey, died Sunday at 68 from prostate cancer.
Tributes poured in throughout the day, as the Chicago music community and beyond remembered, mourned and celebrated a man who had been one of its most defining voices and foremost champions for the better part of three decades.
In interviews with Block Club, Chicago musicians and critics described a radio host who was a gifted on-air disc jockey and storyteller, able to artfully mix Rock and Roll tunes with personal humor, heart and sarcasm while serving as an indefatigable advocate for the city’s music scene and a bulwark against the corporatization of the F.M. airwaves.
But they also described a father, friend and neighbor who was equally effervescent off-air, bringing the same passion and joie de vivre to Cubs fandom, Dylan Thomas poetry and, of course, live music — lighting up every room he was in, be it a solo radio studio or a crowded music hall.
“There was no difference between the person and the persona,” musician and friend Jon Langford said. “He often had to get up at four in the morning, and he wasn’t shy of staying out real late. He had a lust for life. And he was always funny as hell.”
Brehmer moved to Chicago in the 1980s after growing up in New York and attending Colgate University. He took over as WXRT’s music director in 1984 and started on-air in 1991, hosting the popular radio station’s morning show.
Former Tribune music critic Greg Kot said that Brehmer, along with disc jockey Terri Hemmert and program director Norm Winer, helped define XRT as a one-of-a-kind station in an era when F.M. radio was king for music tastemaking.
“Especially when he was program director, back when radio really mattered … XRT, by far of all the commercial radio stations, was doing a better job than anybody in Chicago,” Kot said. “His energy and his curiosity about music was boundless. And that was felt also by the artists that he championed and got to know over the years.”
Brehmer loved the Rolling Stones, Kot said, and had a particular fondness for the timeless music of the sixties and seventies. But he said the host’s tastes were always adapting, and while there were often frustrating rules about what he had to play on XRT (think: Coldplay), he always found a way to inject his own voice and flavor into broadcasts — having profound implications for the city’s music scene.
“He kept his ears open,” Kot said. “And he kept growing over the years in terms of the kind of music he would listen to and champion. So whether it was The Talking Heads, or The Pretenders, he was a big part of getting bands like that noticed in Chicago. And now it’s like, everybody knows them. But back then, no other commercial station was playing those kinds of bands.”
Brehmer’s subtle acts of defiance on commercial radio included talking to musicians about their new work, even if he couldn’t play them, and the famous “Lin’s Bin” segment, in which he would respond to questions from listeners, or himself, in the form of a poetic, short audio essay that functioned like a verbal memoir.
“He wasn’t just playing music. There was a person that was behind there, and that was a beautiful thing,” Kot said. “And he was not a guy who was doing algorithms and figuring out what to play. He was a guy who championed artists because he genuinely loved them. And that was the way he was with human beings.”
Over the years, Brehmer became a star and a well-known member of the Chicago music scene in his own right, holding a primetime host slot for thirty years on a major-market station. But the local celebrity didn’t change him, friends said, and he maintained a rigorous work ethic that never got in the way of his generosity of spirit.
“He was like a top class comedy writer,” Langford said. “He was naturally witty … he could do it off the cuff. But I just thought that the work he put in was tremendous. He was putting in a full, 10-hour day sometimes to do that show.”
The influence on XRT was profound. Although Brehmer’s Morning Show with Mary Dixon never received the highest rankings, their relaxed yet witty chemistry on-air helped it become a beloved, inextricable part of the city’s fabric for three decades during a time when it was rare for hosts not to turn over annually, musicians and critics said.
“They just felt part of the community. They were involved in the community. And they were shaking things up,” Langford said. “They were not corporate sellouts. They were people who were in the system, but fully engaged in trying to promote good music. And making things interesting.”
Brehmer’s influence on bands and artists nationwide was also clear on Sunday, as Wilco, Jason Isbell, The Head & The Heart and more paid tribute to him on social media.
For Chicago musicians, he was a tireless champion and a joyous, constant presence both on-air and at live shows, they said, using every opportunity to help where he could — in part because he, too, loved the scene.
“He would talk about us in between the songs. That’s just so rare,” Narducy said. “Some people play the part, and then other people walk the walk. He was at so many concerts, and not just at the concerts, but rocking out. And not trying to get backstage, or trying to play the game. Just in the audience, just completely rocking out.”
Brehmer was a huge Cubs fan, friends said, and enjoyed games at Wrigley Field, where it wasn’t uncommon to run into him in and around the stadium. For 20 years, he hosted an annual remote broadcast on the Chicago Cubs opening day, and emceed countless fundraisers, galas and events for the team and its charities. The Cubs honored Brehmer on Sunday, emblazoning his name on the world-famous marquee.
He was also involved in ALS advocacy, and hosted events for the Les Turner ALS Foundation for nearly 30 years.
Brehmer lived on the Northwest Side and is survived by his wife Sara and adult son Wilson, friends said.
Kot, who coached youth basketball, said that he bonded with Brehmer over the host’s experience coaching little league. Although Kot said he would often gripe with Brehmer about XRT’s music selection, he said Brehmer always took the criticism with grace.
How could he not? This was the man who signed off to listeners as their “best friend in the whole world.”
“He was just an affable guy. Relentlessly positive,” Kot said. “If you talked to Lin, your day was going to be better. He clearly lived every moment as if it was going to be his last. And he was going to enjoy the hell out of it.”
His radio station, 93.1 XRT, is doing a tribute for Brehmer starting at 10 a.m. Monday.
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