Brother Wease

An hour in studio with Rochester’s radio icon

It’s 10:45 on a sunny October morning, and I’ve made my way to the 14th floor of the HSBC Plaza building: the home of 95.1 The Brew and The Wease Show. Standing outside of the producer’s room, I can see through the sound-proof windows into the studio beyond, where Wease talks on-air with a half-dozen other people in the room. The conversation volleys and gestures back and forth between Wease, in the lone seat behind a large semi-circle desk, and the crew stationed on the opposite side of that semi-circle. Everyone’s in headphones, hovering around their own microphones and 32 oz. coffee cups — the fourth hour of the five-hour show rolling on like the fourth hour of the five-hour show has rolled on every weekday for years.

I can’t hear a word that’s being said, and I find myself suddenly anxious about the possibility of being waved in as a hapless participant. I only watch for about twenty seconds before retreating to the kitchenette table to look over my yellow legal pad of notes and questions, scrawled in hopes of unearthing some hidden truth about the man. Considering that his entire life has been fodder for conversation on his radio program (at least locally) since 1985, my hopes are both lofty and unrealistic. Still, I wanted some sort of scoop.

Behind the glass, headphones are coming off, mics are pushed back, and the whole entourage files out to get on with the balance of their respective days. It’s all very pedestrian and unceremonious. The glamour of a radio talk-show, I’m sensing, is really only glamorous on the other end of the speakers.

Understanding Brother Wease (Alan Levin is his birth-name) is a lot like trying to explain to a New York City cab driver the correct way to rope an angry steer. While there’s a shit-ton of steps that have to happen to get the animal from the corral to submission, he’ll inevitably never be able to get past why you’d want to rope the damn thing in the first place.

In Wease’s case, there are a lot of people that simply can’t get past his rough and unapologetic call-a-spade-a-spade persona and opinions (which are exactly the same on- and off-air). Truth is, he’s a fiercely passionate, sharp-witted, and politically outspoken man with an admittedly checkered past, a deep love for music and Rochester, and an extremely popular (and sometimes polarizing) talk radio show. He’s also a cancer survivor, an atheist, an ordained minister, and he plays poker religiously. It’s the old book-by-its-cover axiom. And for those willing to crack the spine, the man has filled a hell of a lot of well-worn pages in his 67 years on the planet.

Taking a seat across the semi-circle desk from him as he pops the top on a brief conservative assholes rant, I quickly decide that this isn’t going to be about his politics (mainly because that’s been done and also because I’m immediately out of my depth in most any political conversation). I’m not exactly sure what it is going to be about yet either —we’re eight minutes into our interview and I still haven’t unleashed the first of my idealistic hand-scrawled questions.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he offers, “who knows what you’re gonna write, but my story is so complex … I mean I can tell you enough about Woodstock that I could fill a page. And that’s one little dinky thing. So it’s tough to figure out what I want to tell you here.”

At this point, I’m fully aware that we’re liable to run headlong into some crazy shit.

“Anyhow, go ahead, bro. What’ve you got?”

You’re born and raised in Rochester, I say. You’ve been here from jump. Started your career here …

“Well, actually I went to Vietnam. Went in the Army, paratrooper, did three trips to Vietnam, then went to Ft. Dix as a drill sergeant. I went AWOL from that to join a band in Philadelphia, went to jail, actually turned myself in after six months of being out, went to jail, got out, tried to be a conscientious objector, and that happened. You know, it’s one of my proudest moves. But in the world we live in today, the conservative world of fucking hateful assholes, they would see it as something really bad.”

He shifts his weight from his left foot, crosses his arms and sits side-saddle on the desk.

“I didn’t feel like training kids to go die in Vietnam. I was in the middle of deep hippie shit and drug shit. I’d been to see some of these trials for conscientious objectors, and you couldn’t pull it off if you were already in and been to basic training, but that’s what made me think of this idea. I’d already been to Vietnam three times; they can’t call me a pussy. That’s what it was all about — if you didn’t go you were a pussy. But you can’t call me a pussy, I already went three times. And I pulled it and it worked. Didn’t get me out of the service, but it got me out of this unit at Ft. Meade in Maryland that was supposed to get mobilized if there was any civil unrest or protesters in Washington and we were supposed to go take care of it. And I wasn’t gonna do that.”

I realize that my questions are going to be useless in directing the course of conversation. As if reading the thinly veiled “holy shit” look on my face, he adds, “See? I don’t even know how all that came out.”

We march on.

So, Rochester when you were a kid to Rochester now.

“Holy shit, bro.”

He smiles and shakes his head.

“Rochester is a great, great city. I’m a city guy. You know, how there’s country people and city people, I love cities. I would love to live downtown here. At the Sagamore. That would be my dream location. And I know people livin’ in there. You know, livin’ at the Sagamore is the closest you can get to livin’ in the city. You can walk out the front door and go to the Eastman Theater, the Little Theater, go to the restaurants on East Ave. That’s cool.”

As a country guy who spends a decent amount of time in the city, I get exactly what he’s saying and I mentally tick off my own list of east-end favorites, including an intimate place where Oh! Sweet Nothing occasionally finds it’s way through the speakers and I had my first Farmers Daughter. Yea, it is cool. I shake off the daydream and Wease rolls on.

“This city has so much to really be proud of — from the Jazz Festival, all the festivals, to parties in the park. It’s a great city and it has evolved since I was a child. When I was a child there was nothing. Grew up on Park Avenue so long ago that, as a 12-year-old, we used to take the bus downtown to the movie theaters — the Paramount, Lowes, RKO Palace — they were all downtown. All the theaters were downtown because there were no suburbs — that’s how old I am. Now, life is completely different. But this city has a ton of shit to offer. And I often fight with people from Buffalo for instance who actually think that Buffalo is better. You know, they’ve got pro hockey and football but they can kiss my ass after that. We have a city full of music and entertainment and dynamite high- and medium-end restaurants. Their two best restaurants actually come from Rochester!”

I shift gears and make a quick left. You are extremely candid on the air and I know there’s painful little that you haven’t shared about your life. Tell me something that people might not know about you.

“Bro, I talk five hours a day and I semi-invented ...”

With one hand up and the other on his hip, he pauses from what I’m certain was going to be a decades-honed instinctual response of my-whole-life-is-public knowledge and I see his face relax.

“Well, actually — here. I’m proud of this.”

Wease-Morning Show Boot Camp

He places a tall cut-glass award in front of me. Top 25 Most Influential Radio Personalities of the Last 25 Years is etched on the front, along with his name. It’s an award he received (along with Howard Stern, Ryan Seacrest, Imus, Rush Limbaugh, and Tom Joyner, among others) at the annual Talentmaster’s Morning Show Boot Camp, held this past August in Chicago.

“They don’t even put this shit in the paper. But if that was one of the guys from WHAM that got that ... I’m also the first guy from Rochester in the New York Broadcasters hall of fame. The next year, Don Alhardt went in. Don Alhardt was all over the joint! I was in the year before. You can look that shit up.

“But you know, this thing,” he says as he places his hand on the award, “I’m proud of this. People don’t know this kind of shit, they just don’t know this kind of shit.”

In spite of the gruff bluster, I could sense humility and a little disappointment.

“When you talk this long on the radio, on a talk show … I’m not talented enough to do a real radio show, I just talk. The best advice I was given is just the lame advice to be yourself. I’ve practiced it my whole life and I’ve got a lot of crap for it. I have a colorful life, and when I leave here now (he’s headed to Tony D’s) whatever happens is gonna be on the radio because that’s where I get the radio. The only thing is that I’m not boring, so I can talk you know, some people might not have anything to talk about. Basically what I’m trying to say is that there’s no secrets. Not that I can think of. I mean I could say I love my wife, but that’s no secret.”

And it isn’t. He and Doreen — his third wife — have two kids together and just recently celebrated 16 years of marriage.

“It took me a long time to finally understand what it means to mature as a man in your marriage, to embrace that, have your kids and be joyous with a family.”

I turn to inspirations and influences. I know he is all about music — I grew up associating pretty much all classic rock with Wease and WCMF (the call-letters of his former morning show home) —but how’d he get from the military to the airwaves, and talk-radio at that.

“I got into radio by accident. I was a concert promoter before that. I did love talk radio as a young guy in Philly. There was a guy named Joel Spivak that did a talk radio show in Philly in the late ’60s early ’70s and I couldn’t believe it because I was always crazy about music. Crazy about music. To this day promote music. But yet I found myself listening to talk radio and just loving it. Never thought I’d be in it, seriously that happened by accident a decade and change later. By accident. I have people that I love … you know, like Sam Kinison had a lot to do with my career, you know, Bobby [comedian Bobby Slayton], that’s here now, he’s been a friend for 20, 25 years.”

Again, he pauses and I’m hoping he’s not done.

“My daddy, he’s dead, My daddy — he’s probably my biggest inspiration because he was wacky. Very wacky. I probably wouldn’t be me without him. I guess that would be it.”

What was his name?

“ ‘Hi.’ H-y-m-a-n, believe it or not. We called him Hymal (he pronounces it with the strong H, like in Chanukah, or the Scottish loch), and he was quite the colorful character. I was kidnapped once as a kid and the guy who kidnapped me wrote a book about it. It’s not published. Local guy, I don’t wanna even tell you his name, but he tried to get me to help him publish it. Kidnapped me to try to get to my dad because he had done numbers of illegal things. Which might be what lead to my moral stance. Which some people might not see as the greatest.”

I consider trying to finesse an invite to ride along to Tony D’s with him and blow off the rest of my workday. This cat’s got some serious history to dig into. A quick run-through of the afternoon’s full calendar in my head — and knowing that it could very well turn into a trip that ends in the cold gray light of dawn (as an old bluegrass tune once moaned) — I let the thought go and we move on down the yellow legal pad list.

What about music? I ask about his favorites.

Pointing to the wall behind me, he’s quick to answer.

“Well, my favorite is sitting up there in that picture. That’s Susan Tedeschi. Susan and Derek [musician Derek Trucks], who I introduced and am very proud of it. I like real music.”

He walks to a shelf behind him, grabs several overstuffed CD wallets, and flips through them. He names names and then refers over and over to signed pictures of musicians that cover almost every square inch of wall space around him.

“I’ve got compilations of stuff. See, music today is over for me. Shit that me and Billy love [on-air cohort Billy D’Ettorre] you just don’t hear much anymore. I mean Old Crowe Medicine Show, Eva Cassidy, I got turned onto her by Mick Fleetwood, she died before anybody ever heard of her, absolutely gorgeous singer, I love Adele, Joey Bonamassa, phenomenal guitar player who used to come up here when he was 13, Delbert McClinton, Elvis Costello, Shooter Jennings, Kentucky Headhunters, Roger Clyne, of course Bruce Springsteen, Janice Joplin, and Van Morrison — Van Morrison I have to say is the greatest of all time. These are people I love.”

Of course, he’s got a significantly different opinion about DJs and pop singers. But back to Janice Joplin for a second. I had to know his opinion on the best band or performance from the original Woodstock.

“This is gonna be really bad, but personally, maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, playing for the first time in front of people. I actually think the music sucked for most of it. There was a lot of good drugs. Janis was terrible, she was stoned. Santana did acid because he thought he was gonna go on later, but had to go on early. That Jimi Hendrix thing that’s been so iconicized, [sic] that Star Spangled Banner, is fucking brutal. So many of the bands were bad. And stoned. Unbelievable event, but the music, not good. People over time have made it to be better than it was.”

Of course I’m one of those people. Of course, I’ve also never been known for having the best taste in music. And I’ve also exhausted all but one last question:

The worst poker hand you’ve ever won with.

“Seven deuce, baby. Seven deuce, off suit.”

Nothing like playing the cards you’re dealt.