Friday, June 10, 2005

Top 5: Life's Been Good to Me So Far

When I was listing my Top 5 Most Memorable Summers a couple of weeks ago, the summer of 1978 got no love at all, but it probably should have received at least an honorable mention. That was the summer after I graduated from high school, which was a most interesting experience for the half-assed teenage philosopher I was by that time. Graduation was the first profoundly life-altering milestone I could see coming before it arrived, and so I examined and re-examined and re-re-examined my every thought and feeling about it, until it was like an orange peel picked absolutely clean. At the time, I was astounded by the fact that Paul McCartney's "With a Little Luck" topped the Hot 100 that week--it seemed like more than coincidence then (and still does now, truth to tell).

I had my first paying DJ job that summer, spinning tunes one night a week for the 13-and-under set at the local roller rink. It was kind of frustrating--my customary audience of pre-teen girls really didn't want to hear the kind of music I liked ("Use Ta Be My Girl" by the O'Jays springs to mind), while the owner of the place kept recommending obscure singles from the 1960s that even I didn't know. I soon began to consider the whole thing as a chore rather than an opportunity. One week the total attendance for the night was four people. It got so bad that I would simply track a disco album and go off to play pinball in the game room.

Disappointing though that job was, it wasn't my primary job of the summer. To avoid having to work on the family farm, I had taken a job as a cashier at a gas station out by the new highway. I had gas-station experience already (a few months as a pump jockey at a station run by a friend's father), but I wouldn't have to use much of it at this place. It was a self-service station--a relatively new concept in Wisconsin in 1978--so all I had to do was sit inside and collect the money. This station didn't sell anything but gasoline--no cans of oil, no bags of chips, no packs of smokes--so apart from collecting money, all I had to do was keep the windshield washer things full, swab the bathrooms, and remember to lock the door when I left.

There was one other distinguishing characteristic about the place. It had been built by the new highway in anticipation of the new highway actually being open by the summer of 1978, which it was not. As a result, we had practically no customer traffic at all, because the only people who came anywhere close to us had missed several detour signs and were hopelessly lost. As a result, I spent the summer in an air-conditioned booth listening to the radio and reading, without being bothered much at all. Because I had lucked into the least strenuous paying job of all time (and because the house I grew up in wasn't air-conditioned), I worked every single day all summer--something like 67 days in a row from June to August. The shifts were short and we closed at 9:00, which left plenty of time to hang out with friends in the evenings.

If I wasn't listening to my beloved Cubs stumbling through another game, the radio was generally on WFRL from Freeport, Illinois, then in its glory days. I knew that I would be going off to study radio and TV at college in the fall, and I learned a lot from WFRL's jocks that summer: Chris O'Brian, Neal Ross, Harv Blain, Jeff Janssen, and Jim Douglas. (Chris and Jim are still soldiering on in the Freeport area, all these years later.) And here are the Top 5 songs they were playing that bring back the summer of 1978.

"Life's Been Good"/Joe Walsh.
Probably the Number One song of the summer, at least at WFRL, and much beloved by my friends and me. Now I think it's one of those rare tunes that's probably better in its 45RPM edit than in its full-length album version. (Chart peak: #12, August 12)

"Baker Street"/Gerry Rafferty.
Another of those "what the hell is this?" moments the first time I heard it. An absolute miracle of a record--hard to believe mortal, fallible humanity could create something so fine. (Chart peak: #2, for six consecutive weeks behind Andy Gibb's "Shadow Dancing," fer chrissakes, beginning June 24)

"Every Kinda People"/Robert Palmer.
Excellent white-boy R&B that made me a huge fan. I went back and bought most of his albums over the next couple of years, and preferred the earlier stuff to his later, more rock-oriented material. Double Fun, the album from whence this came, is still the best one. (Chart peak: #16, June 24)

"Only the Good Die Young"/Billy Joel. Let's just say the subject matter hit fairly close to home, and we'll leave it at that. (Chart peak: #24, July 8)

"The Groove Line"/Heatwave. The title of their first hit, "Boogie Nights," instantly pigeonholed them as a disco group. I beg to differ. Even though "The Groove Line" works just fine on the dance floor, it's a rock record. Really. (Chart peak: #7, July 15)

The gas station is long gone now (but the highway is finished). The roller rink is still owned by the same guy who owned it then, as far as I know. WFRL still exists, only on the AM band, playing a nostalgia format the last I heard. And I'm still playing those tunes and others from the summer of 1978, on my stereo and in my head.


At 7:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the summer of '78 and I occasionaly listened to WFRL. What I loved about that station was the creative contests (like calling up phone booths and people had to answer with a phrase to win) and how they played the long versions of the hits at night, like "Life's Been Good" and "Love is like Oxygen" by Sweet.
What's with these "Jack" stations, anyway?...hell, WE were playing a large variety of music 25 years ago
before any of these "brilliant" programmers were even born!

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the same guy is still running that roller rink, ask him what some of those impossibly obscure 1960's records were...might have been far superior to what the 13-year-old roller-disco crowd wanted to hear...


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