(Why I (Don’t Go Back To)) Rockford

March 5th, 2009 by Phil Leave a reply »

Many of you have heard this story before. Some of you have heard it more than once. But most of you haven’t heard it. And yet it will be very familiar to you.

Memorial Day Weekend, 1995. I was home for the summer. Dan and I were in my car. It wasn’t really “my car” so much as “one of the family cars”, and as such, I can’t even remember which of the two cars it was. As it so happened, both of these cars were Mercury Tracers, but they weren’t remotely the same car. The older one was white and was a clone of some old Mazda model. The newer one was red and a nicer looking vehicle, but I think it got crappier mileage and actually got scrapped sooner. Two more strikes against the Ford Motor Company, regardless.

Now, as I said, Dan and I were in my car. We were driving to Durand. More precisely, we were driving to Lake Summerset, which is a semi-gated subdivision/community to the west of Durand. There was some sort of graduation party or something for some guy from Durand; I can’t even remember the guy’s name. Honestly, I have no idea what I was doing there.

Whichever car this was, I don’t believe it had a tape deck. Maybe it did. If it did, we weren’t using it, because the radio was on. And the radio was tuned to WXRX.

Flash back a few years. About a month after my 16th birthday I had gotten a car: a 1979 Pontiac Phoenix. Dan at some point dubbed it El Coche de Mierda, and for good reason. El Coche de Mierda, being from 1979, had a radio, an AM/FM radio verily, but it of course wasn’t a digital radio, and on top of that, the black preset buttons didn’t work. And the tuner wasn’t that hot either. So I kind of had to choose a single radio station to listen to and stick with it. And what else could I do but choose WXRX? I was 16 freaking years old. I was not going to set the analog tuner radio in my 1979 Pontiac Phoenix to NPR. Nor was I going to set it to anything on the AM dial. Nor was I going to set it to country, or top 40. And I couldn’t get the stations from Madison in very well. So the only two feasible choices I had were WKMQ, the oldies station, or WXRX, the classic/modern rock station. And so for me, as for so many other people I knew, WXRX became the effective radio soundtrack of about three to four years of our lives.

Back to Memorial Day Weekend 1995. The X – because that’s what WXRX called itself, The X – was doing their Memorial Day Countdown, which involved a countdown of the top 500 songs, whatever that meant. In the past we had no idea. But in 1995, they were telling us up front that the top 500 referred to the 500 most requested songs from the previous year. Fair enough.

Now, The X, when they got to their Top 10 every year, there were always certain staples, songs you pretty much just knew were going to be somewhere in there. Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”. Some Led Zeppelin song, though not necessarily the same one. One year I remember Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” in there. And of course, Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” was always somewhere in the Top 10. This was Rockford, after all.

So Dan and I were in the car, listening to the Top 10 of the Top 500 in The X’s Memorial Day Countdown. I don’t remember what else was in the Top 10 that year, though I’m pretty sure “Sweet Emotion” was in there and “Surrender” was in there.

They get to #2. They play “Free Bird”.

Alright, whatever. Sure, people will request “Free Bird”. Hasn’t it been requested at every lame rock show, and even some of the awesome rock shows, that any of us have ever been to? So why wouldn’t people call in and ask the radio station to play it?

But if “Free Bird” was as high as #2, and if a lot of the other predictable songs had just been run through… then what could be #1?

Dan turned to me. He asked me if there was any other Lynyrd Skynyrd song that could possibly be #1. I told him, no, there is no other Lynynrd Skynryd song that could possibly be more requested than “Free Bird”.

Then they get to #1. What could it possibly be?

Of course: the live version of “Free Bird”.

My mother used to think that I had an unwarranted chip on my shoulder against Rockford. I didn’t. I had a very warranted chip on my shoulder against Rockford. It had nothing to do with elitism and had everything to do with the creeping fear that Rockford really was the crappiest possible place one could be. Crappier than Springfield. Crappier than Peoria. Crappier than Danville. Maybe even crappier than… Decatur. (But probably not.)

There was a reason why Money Magazine ranked Rockford as the least desirable city to live more than once in the 1980s. News flash: nobody gives a crap about how excellent your water theme park is when people’s grandmothers are being jumped in open daylight in grocery store parking lots. I guess things have gotten a little better, though; Gran says there are fewer drug houses on her block than there used to be.

For me, though, it’s not the endless list of closed factories, it’s not the incessant civil incompetence, it’s not the crime, and it’s not even Symbol. It’s WXRX’s 1995 Memorial Day Countdown that irrevocably convinced me that I can never move back to Rockford, and ultimately, I must find a way to surreptitiously free the remainder of my family. I’m still working on it.

Oh, just to be clear on one thing: Cheap Trick still f’n rocks.


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