WFMT and the Musical
Medicine Cabinet

It’s a very exciting time for the upper body here in Chicago. We were able to lift our heads with pride when Barack Obama was elected president, but that was swiftly followed by our most recent corrupt governor being busted, and now everyone walks hunched over like Richard Nixon. Community snow removal habits have great bearing on our necks, specifically regarding whether we break them or not. For the love of all that is good and holy, please shovel your walks. It’s your duty, and many, many up-right-walking people and our flimsy ankles, wrists, and necks, will appreciate it. Also we won’t have to walk in the street, putting our many unlicensed drivers at risk.

With a few exceptions, I like to carry my stress in the old upper body, usually in a spot just behind one eye; but occasionally, as the situation warrants, my apoplexy will exhibit itself in undesirable facial tics that won’t go away no matter how hard I scrub. While oftentimes there is a simple cause-and-effect relationship, sometimes it is best to bypass the problem area and try an auxiliary attack. Since this can easily get New-Agey and wander off into chakras and tiger balls, I offer a sample solution chart to keep you properly grounded in stoic Midwesternism:

Stuffy nose
Bruised shoulder
Hair caught in dryer
Mind racing
Neck muscles migrate to ears
Direct: Apply tissue to nose.
Direct: Apply ice and then heat to shoulder.
Direct: Apply scissors to hair. Unplug dryer first.
Bypass: Apply beer to lips.
Bypass: Apply beer to lips.
Combination Attack! Direct/Bypass: Apply aspirin to lips. Applying it directly to the head will not help.

If you don’t have any beer or another sort of traditional medicinal apparatus, a great way to fix your tortured upper body is to apply music to your ears. It can be any kind of music, so long as you like it, but it is best if it can be applied when you are alone, to avoid miscreants rising up against you with their underdeveloped taste. (Oh, and incidentally, I do not recommend anything from a radio program called “The Annoying Music Show.”)

Fortunately for me, most of my issues occupy at least one portion of the upper body. I really have almost no use for my legs except for tromping and bending, and my bottom does pretty much exactly what it’s supposed to, and that’s about it for the lower body. So outside of an occasional dose of “More Bounce to the Ounce,” my musical medicine cabinet is largely geared toward maladies of the upper body. For problems of the spirit, I choose the aspirin that is ABBA. For problems of the gumption, a little James Brown will go a long way. For problems of the sexy, Led Zeppelin is the overwhelmingly recommended balm. But for problems involving the opening of the eyes in the morning, the safest way to go is classical. If you do this, eight times out of ten, you will avoid waking up furious.

Now I’ve got a new-fangled iPod, loaded up with all the cool songs that will make me popular at parties, but I firmly believe that classical music does not belong on an iPod. Maybe that flies in New York or San Francisco, but not in Chicago. And I’m not going to get a six-CD holder for the bedside table, loading it up and DJ-ing it every night. I would punch myself first. And I’ve heard tell there are soulless pay satellite radio stations that strip all the quirky local news and community values from their airings, such that if there were a zombie attack, you would never know. Unless it was a national zombie attack, and by then it would be far too late, my friend. Far too late.

So that leaves the free radio, whose only limitations are based on the size and location of your clock radio. Mine is adequate. Unfortunately, while Chicago is the third largest city in the country, we have just one paltry classical music station, WFMT. I’ve been in towns a fraction of our size, and there were two or three classical music stations. Hell, driving across Michigan, the home of Ted Nugent, Motown, and ’80s rock that never dies, I’ve picked up five or six classical radio stations. But here in Chicago, there is only one. And it’s so puny that twice a year I have to move the clock radio because the signal up and disappears. It’s a paltry station, alright, but it’s ours, and I try to get behind it.

Sometimes it’s hard. They are forever playing weird things at weird times, like opera music at 7:00 a.m. or, seriously, 15th-century minstrel music like “Whither Roger’s Tites,” or worse yet, Sting’s cover of 15th-century minstrel music. (“Wilt Thou Unkind Thus Reave Me”—Wilt I? I’ll reave the hell out of you if you don’t shut up.) Thus I wake up 2/10ths furious. But every now and again they do something so right I know I’ll never quit them. One morning the alarm went off and WFMT was playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the part with the cannons and the fireworks, at 7:00 a.m., which is the best way to get out of bed ever. EVER. If you’re thinking about blow jobs, try one to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

The morning host of WMFT is named Carl Grapentine; he has some unsavory Michigan associations, but otherwise seems all right. He knows a lot about all kinds of classical music and always plays special music for things like the first day of fall, which I really appreciate, but he is kind of embarrassingly lacking in any other musical knowledge. For example, during the summer pledge drive, they ran out of tickets to classical musical events at Ravinia, which is an outdoor amusement park for music near Chicago. The Ravinia people almost immediately came up with very generous replacement tickets. Unfortunately, not a single WFMT person appreciated what they had, although they remained cheerful and upbeat. I enjoyed very much listening while Carl Grapentine talked about a band called “Will-coe” that was playing at Ravinia. He understood them to be a local band that played rock and/or roll, but seemed perplexed as to what a rock band would be doing at Ravinia. (I know I’m supposed to know my audience, but I don’t, so... Wilco has actually won a couple of Grammys, was nominated for more in 2008, and the face value of the tickets was about double that of any given classical gig. My own experience with Ravinia involves exactly two shows: bluesman Taj Mahal and Tower of Power, described as a “horn-based soul band.” I take my classical indoors like proper folk.)

Another reason I like WFMT is that Carl Grapentine is very prompt. The news comes on exactly at 7:00, then there’s a Bank of America or ComEd commercial, then they do the weather, then they get right back to music until 7:30, when they repeat the process. It’s very comforting to know that soon I will have weather information, which NPR tends to forget about completely, which is kind of annoying in that they’re allegedly pushing public transportation, which means you really, really need to know about the weather. Anyway, during the pledge drive, Carl got forced off his routine and this made him a little fidgety. So he was given to passive-aggressive remarks like, “Well, and that brings us to the 7:00 o’clock news. Of course, it’s actually a little later than that. It’s about 7:03.” And you can just tell he’s going to need extra fiber because of the hullaballoo.

One of my favorite WMFT memories occurred a few weeks ago. It seems that one of the listeners coined the phrase “I heard it through the Grapentine,” which was a hoot and a half. This particular morning, it was revealed that another listener had composed a poem based on that phrase, and everyone at WFMT was quite excited about it. The listener was to read her poem with “I Heard It through the Grapevine” playing in the background. The hosts were all very excited and kept asking, “Is it Marvin Gaye time yet? Is it Marvin Gaye time?” And finally it was! So after confessing that he often got his Motown artists mixed up, which led me to expect Gladys Knight and the Pips, Carl hit a few secret radio station buttons to queue it all up. And sure enough it wasn’t Marvin Gaye, but it wasn’t Gladys either. Nope. It was the Creedence Clearwater Revival version, which is... well, it’s sure not Motown. And nobody seemed to notice. Nope, there they were, all uplifted and laughing, because it was Marvin Gaye time.

My brother once dated a girl who was cheerful and happy immediately upon awakening, ready to greet the new day. “It’s not really something you’d call an attribute,” said my brother. WMFT does not do that. But it also doesn’t make me swing my arms in fury at the attack made on my unconsciousness. It doesn’t immediately start out saying stupid stuff, and it doesn’t blast you with commercials first thing in the morning. What it does do is make me feel, each day, like I will have the weather report and possibly even a smile in the morning. And that is good for my upper body, good for my fellow commuters, and gosh darnit, it’s gotta be good for America. Support your local radio stations!

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