Last summer Chicago Public Radio listeners were shocked by the death of WBEZ radio personality Jim Nayder. As host of both The Annoying Music Show and the addiction-focused Magnificent Obsession, Nayder was a complex character.
To millions, he was was the master curator of annoying musical oddities that ventured so far into the land of bad, that they were almost good--almost.
They included Lorne Green singing “As Time Goes By,” Tiny Tim and Bob Dylan singing “I Got You Babe” and Sammy Davis Jr. singing the theme to Hawaii 5-0. Who knew it had words?
Nayder’s 3-minute show appeared on more than 100 public radio stations across the country; and his regular appearances on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon expanded the wacky Annoying Music brand all over the country. The show would eventually spawn CDs, live concerts and more.
But to many early-morning listeners, Nayder was the voice of another very different show, one that focused on wrenching journeys from addiction to recovery.
Using nothing but hand-picked music and first-person narrative, Magnificent Obsession presented tales of desperation and hopelessness that were bearable only because you knew, that by the end the show, the speaker might make it to the other side.
In Chicago, most episodes aired in the predawn hours of the weekend. But longtime Nayder friend and former radio producer Craig Alton says the timing was by design.
“To us in the radio business that might seem like dog time,” Alton said. “But God’s honest truth was that’s exactly when you want to hit that drinking audience people who are loaded sitting up all night, they listen to this, and right when they’re most drunk you hit them with this guy’s story.”
Typical stories would feature confessions like “And it suddenly dawned on me that I was sitting there shooting dope;” or, “I envied people that looked normal to me...and I wanted to feel that sense of peace. I wanted the turbulence to stop but I didn’t want to give up drinking.”
Nayder often scored these long first-person narratives with love songs whose themes of despair applied equally to heartbreak and addiction.
Even in the last few months of his life, Nayder was still delivering weekly shows to WBEZ. But what most people--including close friends--didn’t know, was that Nayder was dying of the very disease his show was meant to help heal.
His daughter Blair Botti tried to explain.
“Many people didn’t know,” Botti said. “And I think his way of being public with it was through Magnificent Obsession. What we always said was that he would have loved to be a guest on his own show if he ever were able to recover; because that would have been the ultimate success.”
Despite enrolling in multiple addiction programs, Nayder never did achieve recovery. And he’d never get tell his story of finally making it to the other side.
But today his wife of three decades, Laurie Nayder, and Botti are working to digitally release the stories Nayder gathered from so many others. It’s an effort, they say, to help all those struggling with the same demons that eventually took the man they loved.
And today we tell his story.
Jim Nayder was born in 1954 on the South Side of Chicago to a large Catholic family. The tall lanky teen played high school hockey for Quigley South. And he spent his summers on his grandfather’s Wisconsin farm where he developed a love of ham radio and wild animals.
In 1974 Jim enrolled in the seminary at Chicago’s Loyola University. But soon after arriving, things changed. The priest-in-training fell in love when he went to a party and met a self-identified, “nice Jewish girl” named Laurie Brown.
“l had some friends that were in the seminary that took classes at Loyola,” Laurie [Brown] Nayder remembered. “They had really good parties and that’s why I hung out with them. Jim came in his junior year to the seminary and he was next door to a really good friend of mine,--Father Wayne, now, but Wayne at the time--and that’s how I met him…” she recalled. “He had a jukebox that played 78s in his room and I thought that was very cool. But I thought he was just a riot, extremely quirky and really funny.”
Jim and Laurie married in 1977 and by 1980 they gave birth to a future Chicago Public School teacher named Blair. For her, Jim’s sense of humor meant things like surprise chocolate sundaes that would magically appear from under her bed during storytime.
“Which, I’m sure my mom was pleased about, because it was right before bed,” she remembered. “But that’s just how he was. He would make up all these crazy bedtime stories with elaborate ways my bunny blanket would save the day and he was just a really funny, great, kind dad.”
That sense of wacky spontaneity would also end up birthing the now legendary Annoying Music Show one Saturday morning in 1996. Laurie Nayder, WBEZ engineer Mike Gilmore and Craig Alton shared their collective memories on how it all started.
“He used to do the breaks for WBEZ on the weekends...” Laurie started
“As I remember it, there was a band that was delayed. The producer asked me if I needed more time. I asked her to tell Jim Nayder, who was in another room, if he could kill 3 minutes,” Gilmore added.
“We had nothing to put on, so he grabs a record and the only thing next to him was Slim Whitman. He puts it on,” Alton added.
Laurie remembered Slim Whitman singing “It’s a Small World,” too. “And oh my goodness! Anyway, he put it on and said ‘that was the Annoying Music Show,” Laurie recalled.
“The people answering the phone said the people calling want to know what’s on The Annoying Music Show next week and that’s when Jim told us that he’d played Slim Whitman’s ‘It’s a Small World,’” Gilmore added.
Alton said it was the largest response the radio station received for anything. “And we all agreed that whatever it was it was big and it really got people’s response going,” Alton remarked.
Laurie said she thought it lit a fire under him--and the rest, was history.
The show was quickly, picked up all over the country and drove sales on at least four Annoying Music CDs, including a Christmas CD,The Annoying Music Show Presents Songs for People and You Can’t Handle This Annoying Music Show. But, as Nayder explained to Simon, the featured music couldn’t just be bad music...it had to be seriously wrong.
“He took a particular delight in finding music that people really recorded earnestly,” Simon said. “I mean they really wanted to put themselves across; and on the other hand there was something elemental about it that just misfired and didn’t serve the best purposes. And that’s where the humor was.”
While much of the music came from scouring garage sales and wary friends’ record collections, eventually Laurie says the public started to help.
“People would say ‘Oh, I have something’ and they’d send him things,” she recalled. “I know he was always upset that he gave Scott Simon his Leonard Nimoy album and I don’t think he ever got it back. So he had to find a new one to play.”
For nearly two decades--even as he took on other jobs--Nayder would spend his week’s producing two different shows--collecting stacks of quirky songs for one and stacks of heartbreaking recovery tales for another.
And while Jim accepted, and even enjoyed the wild popularity of The Annoying Music Show, he told This American Life in 1998, his heart belonged to Magnificent Obsession.
“The experience of Magnificent Obsession in a week, to me, is much more moving on a bunch of levels,” he said. “Someone will make contact with me to be on the show. And, in the course of a couple of hours, they told me their deepest, darkest, funniest, most-uplifting experience. And I've never met this person before.”
As Laurie and Blair listen to the old episodes of Magnificent Obsession in preparation for launching them as a podcast later this year, they says it’s some of Jim’s musical choices that touch them most. He used a lot of Leonard Cohen and Lucy Kaplansky but also Aerosmith and Madonna.
“I think the first song he used on the show was Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb,’” Blair recalled.
“Also, he would take a lot of songs that you would think were love songs and if you in the right place in your head you realize the love was the love of your addiction,” Laurie said. “And the song was even more powerful than a love song.”
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, whose has engaged in a very public struggle with alcoholism himself, was featured as one of the few fully-named guests on Magnificent Obsession. Most remained anonymous or only offered their first names.
That taping session Steinberg did with Jim was his first and last encounter with the radio host. Still, he says the news of Jim’s death last year shook him.
“It gave me a chill,” Steinberg said, “because I’m writing another recovery book and I am very attuned to the idea that here Jim was trying to help by sharing these stories while the thing was coming back. And that’s the insidious part of addiction. I call it the beast in the basement. Some days it’s very quiet and some days you can just hear that door crack as it’s throwing itself against it.”
Although Steinberg never heard a predawn airing of the episode others clearly had. He said he heard from friends and readers every time it aired.
“Someone must be listening at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday, or whenever it played, because I would hear from people that it would move them every time,” Steinberg said.
Although he was very private about it, Nayder also heard from many listeners who had been helped and moved by the program, according to his friend Craig Alton.
"There were many cases where people would call him a year later and say you know if it wasn’t for that show I wouldn’t have cleaned myself up,” Alton said.
In retrospect, friends also wonder how much Jim used the shows as a way to preserve his own sobriety--almost forcing himself to attend weekly meetings as part of his job.
“I’ve thought about that a lot in the year that’s gone by,” Simon said .”I do think that he thought he might be able to find something that would help him by doing the show. And, by the way, all of us can. You don’t have to be fighting a particular substance abuse problem to find something in that show that’s filled with wisdom and insight and helps you live a better life.
"But I think he also thought it was a way of giving something to others whose struggle he understood in a personal and important way--giving something to them even if he couldn’t always accept those lessons himself. And I think he wound up accomplishing something very important with that.”
Simon, like most friends, learned of Jim’s alcoholism very late. And even his closest friend, Alton, said he discovered Jim’s problem only after a decade of friendship.
It was Christmas Day. Jim had been taking medication designed to stop alcohol use. But he drank anyway and ended up the hospital.
“He wasn’t an ugly drunk,” Alton said. “He was a happy guy but he drank in a different way than I have seen anybody drink. He would go 10 years without taking a drink and then down a small bottle of vodka in a single gulp. His goal was to drink and pass out; drink and pass out.”
This struggle would go on for decades Laurie said.
“But he maintained a life for years and years with the struggle,” she said. “He was still Jim. He was still able to function pretty much fully. His show went on. His life went on. And until the very end he was the nicest man in the world. He was a nice man with a horrible, horrible problem.”
In his final months Jim and Laurie divorced and he ceased contact with almost everyone he knew. Laurie, Blair, Simon and Alton shared the accounts.
“I left; and that’s hard because I had to leave,” Laurie said. “And then when he died, well, I wasn’t with him--so I feel guilty.”
“There were indications I got in that final year that he was on and off the wagon,” Simon said. “There were times when you’d talk to him and he seemed upbeat even chipper and then there would be times when he would text you in the middle of the night and you knew something was wrong.
“He made it to Blair’s wedding which was huge,” Laurie said. “He was fine at the wedding and you got the father-daughter dance, and then I think that was kind of the peak, but that was it.”
“It certainly was beyond him to surrender,” Alton said. “I think he really was just sucked into it. I came out of the apartment one day and I sat in my car and I just cried because you knew it was the end. You knew, this was the last time I’d ever see Jim. I thought I should’ve taken a picture with him because maybe this was the last time I’d see Jim. And, in fact, it was the last time I’d ever see or hear from him again.”
“He would text a lot to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’” Laurie said.
“He got to meet Freddy, his grandson, twice--and that was great,” Blair remembered. “But he just struggled so much for years and, as you put it, he was like a 95-year-old man in a 59-year-old body.”
But family and friends say that Jim would like to be remembered differently.
“I think he’d like to be remembered as a loving husband and father,” Blair said.
“I’m sure it would be in a funny way,” Alton said. “He’d probably want people to put records on his gravestone. He’d want photos of him and kids coloring all over them and making a coloring book of Jim Nayder’s life--good and bad all included. Just something bizarre and eccentric. He would want people to hold hands around his grave and sing 'kumbaya.' Just something really off-the-wall. He would love it.”
“I hope he knew we thought of him as a good man,” Laurie said. “I don’t think he maybe thought that sometimes. But I’ve always thought of him as a good man.”
“He gave so much more into this world than those of us who loved him,” Simon said. “And I think of that that love and humor...He makes me laugh every week, even today, and he’s been gone a year. I think that is going to happen for the rest of my life. I think our children are going to grow up laughing at what he did; and that puts a lot of laughter into this world.”
You can still hear Jim on archived shows of Weekend Edition and Laurie and Blair hope to have select episodes of Magnificent Obsession available in podcast by the end of the year.
“It may not have been the more popular of the two shows but it was definitely the show he was most proud of, and obviously it hit close to home,” Blair says. “But I think he would have been really happy that even in his death, if he was able to help people with their life now he could still do that.”
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of WBEZ’s Chewing the Fat podcast. Follow her on Twitter @monicaeng