Being John Landecker might have been a great deal more fun decades ago than it is today, but if you had led the raucous and substance-abusing life that Landecker lived decades ago, you might not be around today. But here is Landecker, looking fit and trim and altogether alive, and saying, “You liked the book? It's all there, isn't it? Some life.”
The book is his remarkably candid new memoir, “Records Truly Is My Middle Name,” and its official publication date comes Thursday, the same day Landecker turns 66.
The book was born when one of Landecker's former radio producers, Rick Kaempfer, who had been after Landecker for years to tell his story, got him to start talking on the record.
Kaempfer had quit the radio business in 2003 to become a full-time writer. He created a number of online sites, including Chicago Radio Spotlight (chicagoradiospotlight.blogspot.com), a series of interviews with local radio folk (myself included). He started a blog. He published two books, 2004's “The Radio Producer's Handbook,” co-written with John Swanson, and a novel, “$everance,” in 2007. But more important, a couple of years ago he started his own publishing house with longtime friend and business partner David Stern. Eckhartz Press, its name combining the first names of the men's fathers, Eckhard and Fritz, respectively, published “Records Truly Is My Middle Name” (eckhartzpress.com).
“It took several years to write and definitely wasn't done in a traditional way,” Landecker writes.
Kaempfer spent many, many hours interviewing Landecker, coaxing stories and anecdotes out of him. He also conducted interviews with 30-some people who had known, worked with or admired Landecker. This group is a who's who of local radio — Kevin Matthews, producer John Gehron, program director Mary June Rose — offering telling memories and assessments.
Former radio personality Don Wade says: “(Landecker) really works at his craft. He may come off like he's goofing off, but trust me, he really works at it. He takes it very seriously.”
Though there will be some readers drawn to the book for the salacious details, four wives and numerous other dalliances — and its ample number of celebrities — some of the most interesting sections of the book deal with Landecker's childhood and his parents.
His father, Werner, was a Jew who grew up and earned a law degree in Nazi Germany before immigrating to the U.S., where he became a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.
His mother, Marjorie Records (hence John's catchy and prescient middle name), was a farm girl from Indiana. It might have appeared an odd match, but it worked for 50 years and in spite of his father's disability.
“My father was blind,” Landecker writes. “He wasn't blind yet when I was born, but I don't have any memory of him being able to see. … When I was a little kid, I asked my father why he wore glasses if he couldn't see anything, and that was the last time he ever wore glasses.”
Landecker now hosts evenings on WLS-FM 94.7. It is the same station, the same shift that he had when he arrived here in 1972 and became a star. This was the big time, Top 40 tunes blasted across the country to millions of listeners, introduced and interrupted by the voices of such folks as Bob Sirott, Larry Lujack and Landecker, who now writes, “I didn't realize how big we were in the 1970s while it was happening.” How big? As one of the station's former general managers, Marty Greenberg, puts it, “We were the New York Yankees and we didn't even know it.”
Stardom and success can breed and fuel self-indulgence, and Landecker was a poster child for it in the early 1980s as he moved to a Canadian radio station and then, unsuccessfully, back to Chicago, a time he refers to as his “descent into darkness.”
“One night I was higher than a kite (on cocaine) an decided I wanted to see what (my new sports) car could do, so I floored it on a Chicago side street, I must have been going 90 miles an hour.”
“One day I showed up for work with a full bottle of vodka. I was drinking openly in the studio, right out of the bottle.”
“One night I bought a fifth of vodka, and the next morning when I pulled the bottle out of the kitchen cabinet, about 99 percent of it (was) gone. I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, anybody who drinks that much is going to kill himself.'”
That might have happened, but on page 201 of the new memoir, after one particularly messy booze-bash, there is this: “I haven't had a drink since.”
He now has good relationships with his two daughters, actress Amy and writer Tracy, even though, he writes, “I put my children in many inappropriate situations. I exposed them to parts of life that are not for kids. … (But) I have an 8-year-old granddaughter who has never seen me drunk, and I love her to death. Whatever parental DNA I've got left will be passed on to her when needed.”
The book is filled with many such honest reflections, terrific photos, some of Landecker's funniest parody songs and snippets of favorite interviews. It's peppered too by a self-effacing tone: “Maybe I'm just a guy writing a book about the times we all lived through.”
His WLS show might not dominate the ratings like it once did, but in so many important ways it doesn't really matter.
You can see Kogan interview Landecker at chicagotribune.com/landecker and listen to them Wednesday at 3 p.m. on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
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