In the late spring of 1978, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was getting ready to open the new bypass, which would take travelers around the north side of my hometown instead of making them crawl through the town itself. Right where Highways 11 and 69 intersected, Crandall Oil was opening a new self-service gas station. I forget exactly how it happened, but I got a job there, with the understanding that it would be for the summer only. I’d be going off to college in the fall.
Although I would be making only the minimum wage—$2.65 an hour back then—it would beat the hell out of driving a tractor on the farm. The boss was a guy who’d been a couple of years ahead of me in high school, so I knew him. I would be sitting in a little air-conditioned building with a glassed-in front, dealing with customers through a slot under the window, like a bank teller. Unlike the gas station I’d worked for the previous summer, this one had no cigarettes, potato chips, or candy bars to sell—just gasoline, motor oil, and windshield-wiper fluid. Apart from collecting money, all I had to do was hose off the driveway and swab the restrooms. Just as the station opened, however, the state announced that the opening of the new highway was going to be delayed a few months. So instead of being right there where everybody was passing by, the station was now tucked away on an exit nobody was going to use. Rather than having hundreds of customers per day, the station would be lucky to get a couple dozen.
There was no turning back, however. The station opened, and I went to work. As it turned out, I worked something like 68 days in a row that summer without a day off. I could do this because the shifts were short—generally 7 to noon, noon to 6, or 6 to 9 at night—and because with few customers, the job was ridiculously easy. Sometimes, particularly on Sundays, I’d have no customers at all.
In essence, I got paid to listen to the radio all summer, and that year, it meant WFRL from neighboring Freeport, Illinois. In an era when towns of 20,000 people could—and often did—have good live-and-local rock stations, WFRL was especially good. Here are five songs that bring back the summer and those stations—both of them.
“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”/Meat Loaf. Since the job didn’t keep me very busy, I had plenty of time to brood over the relationship that had gone wrong over the previous few months. Mr. Loaf’s song didn’t help much: “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you.”
“Use ta Be My Girl”/O’Jays. See above.
“Only the Good Die Young”/Billy Joel. Because the relationship had gone wrong in part over religion—she got saved, and I didn’t. The reality was far more complicated than I understood at the time, but back then, the bitterness I heard in this song soothed my wounds like morphine.
“My Angel Baby”/Toby Beau. Because even after you get your heart broken, the romantic sap continues to rise.
“You”/Rita Coolidge. A girl I knew from high school was dating one of the WFRL jocks, and one day she took me to the station for a tour. I can still see him in the studio talking up the introduction on this record, and pointing straight at her when he gave the title. They would eventually get married. And later, divorced, because as I knew already in the summer of 1978, love is difficult.
The highway eventually opened sometime in the fall, if I’m recalling correctly. The gas station stayed in business for a few years, although it isn’t there anymore. I can never drive by the spot, or hear a song from the summer of 1978, without thinking about it—and everything that went with it.
Recommended Reading: At WNEW.com, a look back at the career of super-shark Allen Klein.