The weather in Dallas is absolutely gorgeous right now. Today was clear and sunny, with the temperature in the low 80’s, and tonight the sky is filled with stars, and the temperature in the 60’s. I’ve opened all the windows upstairs and the house smells great, with the wonderful scent of fresh air.
Tonight as I drove home, I listened to Bill McGlaughlin’s program, Exploring Music, on WFMT out of Chicago. McGlaughlin’s playing Mahler this week. Last night I listened to Songs of a Wayfarer, and tonight Mahler’s first symphony, Titan. I love Mahler, and I also love WFMT. This was the station I listened to, pretty much nonstop, when I was a sweet young thing living in one room in an apartment hotel on Clark Street in Chicago in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I didn’t have a kitchen or a television, but I had a decent radio, and an AR turntable with a Shure cartridge. This is the place where I learned about music, mostly classical and folk. In those days, and in fact until 1990, there were no recorded ads on WFMT. All advertising copy was read live on the air by WFMT's announcers, who were wonderfully unpredictable. I remember one night when an announcer said, “And in the news tonight…” pause…”There’s nothing actually worth reading here, let’s just go back to the music”. I believe there were actually some problems with the FCC over his taking that liberty, but you get the idea. And the same guys who weren’t above skipping the news weren’t above reading zany ads as if they were The Real Thing. I remember they ran a series of ads for Brute Force Cybernetics, Inc., whose slogan was, if I remember correctly, “We create a need, then fill it”. My favorite Brute Force ad was The Neutral Dog, for people who need therapy but for various reasons don’t want to go to the time, trouble and expense of having it. The Neutral Dog would be placed in your home for a week, at the end of which the dog would be analyzed, and based on his behavior, you’d be diagnosed, e.g., if at the end of the week the dog cringed a lot and jumped at loud noises, you might be diagnosed as aggressive, a bully, etc. And…here’s the coup de grace…after each placement the dog was lobotomized until, well…nevermind. I loved those ads! Great Art of the World ran a close second though. That was a subscription series in which, each week, one could purchase a copy of the best parts of great art, e.g., the Mona Lisa’s smile; the fingers touching on The Creation, etc. These could be assembled in a sort of mosaic on your wall. They had to stop running that ad, because people were trying to subscribe.
And as if that weren’t enough…on Saturday nights there was The Midnight Special, described by WFMT as a “weekly aberration of folk music and farce, show tunes and satire, odds and ends, madness and escape”. The Midnight Special (which has never begun at midnight) was started in 1953 by Mike Nichols, who named it after Leadbelly’s song of the same name, about a mythical train that ran past Sugarland Prison in Texas. In the 60’s and 70’s, it was hosted by Ray Nordstrand and Norm Pellegrini, two wonderfully zany, intellectual, off the wall announcers.
My addiction to WFMT was well known among my friends, and I once spent an afternoon with a young man who’d memorized an entire day’s programs in the hope of impressing me. He didn’t announce that he’d done this; he took a more subtle approach; as we tooled around in his Austin Healey, the radio turned to WFMT, he’d say, “I really like this piece, I wonder what they’ll play next? Hmmmmmm…not Bach, not Bruckner…maybe a little Satie? There’s something about this music…the best next thing they could play, really, would be Gymnopedie Trois …” And to my amazement, in a couple of minutes the next announced piece was…voila! Gymnopedie Trois! Of course, after only a little of this, I’d figured out what he’d done. He didn’t score any points; I wrote him off as a hopeless nerd, albeit with a great memory. Ah, callow youth (me, not him).
When we moved from Chicago to Dallas in 1983, one of the hardest things to leave behind was WFMT. There was absolutely nothing like it any place else. These days, I guess I could listen again, all the time, if I subscribed to satellite radio. I haven’t done it yet though. I just don’t think it would be the same, and not just because I’m no longer tooling around in an Austin Healey with a guy who so wants to impress me that he spends time memorizing program guides…although that might be nice…