Lin Brehmer: Farewell to Our Best Friend

“Where is my happy place? Wherever the music is.”

by Marshall Bowden

News of the death of Chicago radio personality Lin Brehmer on Sunday (1/22/2023) deeply saddened me, as it did many Chicagoans and expats who spent years listening to him on WXRT. That phrase–‘radio personality’ is woefully inadequate to describe someone who was always there, through more than thirty years, and who described himself as ‘your best friend in the world.’  And he was. If you were a rock fan who wanted to hear everything, from Elvis straight through to REM and beyond, XRT was your key to the kingdom, and Lin Brehmer had a big hand in that.

Brehmer came around in 1984 as music director, where he screened fifty to sixty albums a week, and he was influential in steering the station to play the new wave, synth pop, and punk that was becoming popular during the decade. That augmented the station’s already established progressive rock album format, creating a new format, now acknowledged as Adult Album Alternative.

By 1991 when Brehmer went on the air as the morning DJ I had joined the workforce, and I was used to waking up to long time XRT morning DJ Terri Hemmert. I looked at the change of morning DJs as an unwelcome interruption of my regular routine, and I eyed this newcomer with suspicion. After all, my relationship with Hemmert and with XRT went back to junior high school, and she’d been the morning DJ throughout my high school years.

But slowly, over time, Lin Brehmer won me over. He was smart, funny, and played great music. He knew a lot about popular music and the history of music and radio in Chicago, but he also knew a lot about humanity. He enjoyed reading and could quote poetry and prose and weave it into his narrative about life in Chicago in a way that few had been able to do since maybe Mike Royko and the glory days of Chicago journalism. Brehmer was there for the glory days of FM rock & roll radio, and those of us who got the chance to maybe catch some of his show a few times a week were lucky to be there.

Through the nineties and beyond, Lin Brehmer was everywhere, and he used to say so on his show. If you went to a rock show that was sponsored by WXRT there was a good chance Lin would turn up to introduce the acts. He was at theater openings, shows from the Riv to Park West to Ravinia, and he was there after the shows, at Chicago Cut, or Shaws or Weiner Circle. He might be found late into the evening hanging out with James McMurtry or Andy Partridge at the venerable Bucket O’ Suds, an extremely no-frills local bar across the street from the old XRT studios on Belmont. 

He was a cheerleader for the city of Chicago, supporting local music, food, charities, and sports. He was a huge Chicago Cubs fan and would broadcast his show live from Murphy’s Pub across the street from the Wrigley Field bleachers every year on opening day, and he was invited to ride a bus in the parade after the team’s World Series win in 2016. 

He was there when Elizabeth and I took the Rhino Records RMAT exam, a music trivia contest held at locations around the country, at Chicago’s Tower Records. He was our proctor, and he gave a little intro and sat there while we took the test, throwing out the occasional one-liner or reminding us how much time was left. It was a supreme moment for this supreme music geek. 

Brehmer knew the music, his music, backwards and forwards. He loved the music of the sixties and seventies, loved the Rolling Stones, but also helped champion the alternative music of the eighties and nineties as well as supporting local acts such as Poi Dog Pondering or alternative groups like the Mekons. Like a good club DJ he had sharp ears for beat matching and similarities between different pieces of music. He cites some examples on a Facebook post, including this from his early days as a late night DJ in New York:

‘In the olden days of radio when I was an overnight DJ in Albany and most of my listeners were on drugs, I would play The Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and near the end of the Bobby Keys/Mick Taylor solo I would synch up the long solo of Loggins and Messina “Angry Eyes” which was exactly the same drumbeat and key as “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” So the song that started as a Stones song would finish as a Loggins and Messina song and bleary-eyed college students at R.P.I. and Union College and especially at State University of New York at Albany would have their reality tested and their reality would fail.’

Lin had the gift of gab, the ability to talk to anyone he came across, and he had a mind that was fully engaged with the world, so it was perfect when he began his blog/podcast series Lin’s Bin. Here he tackled questions from listeners about anything and everything, from the meaning of life and whether things will get better to the joys of weather. He talked about music, but there was more to it than that, an attempt to connect daily life and the art (music) that is all around us. 

In 2021 someone asked him where his happy place was. Hearing his response now, I realize just how much his example has inspired me to do what I do:

“Where is your happy place? For you and me, we know there is a restless kingdom we can enter into anytime and all we have to do is listen, because there are songs we claim as our own. Each song is like a chamber that walls off the world. A single song that means something to us can build a palace inside a car. Where is my happy place? Wherever the music is.”

Amen. Godspeed, Lin.

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