When you’re sheltering in place, you begin to roll through the past. . . .
In 1982 I moved from Detroit to Rockford, Illinois, to take a job at what now might be considered a start-up, although in its case, it was an organization that was about developing ideas, not software. The move itself seemed like a good idea at the time. More or less.
For those who are not familiar with Rockford, it is “at the top in Illinois,” as the slogan had it, essentially in the middle of the state and about 20 miles south of the border with Wisconsin. It is also about 90 miles northwest of Chicago.
At that point in time the city was in flux, as it had been a town that had a lot of companies involved in making manufacturing equipment and accessories and the like, and that business was on a serious decline. The U.S. had entered a recession in July 1981 that is clawed its way out of by November 1982, and all of that clawing left a lot of companies, big and small, not unscathed. Some terminally.
Rockford is the home of Cheap Trick. And on occasion, when my wife, dog and I strolled along the Rock River in what was then the lovely Sinnissippi Park (it may still be lovely, but it has been a long time), we’d seen Rick Nielsen and his family enjoying the surroundings. What’s more, during the Christmas season in ’82 Robin Zander performed an evening of madrigals at the Coronado Performing Arts Center, and brought out his high school music teacher, as it was something of a tribute to her. Oh, and before the evening was complete, the other three members of the band came out and played as hard as they would have had they still been in high school. (Remember: this was post-Budokan. They were playing to the home town with a fervor that would have made Japanese girls faint.)
“Rockford? Rockford! How can you lose with a name like Rockford?”
—Warren Zevon, Rockford MetroCentre, February 4, 1983
Although there were some memorable concerts (e.g., King Crimson at Alpine Valley) during my time there, what continues to musically resonate is hearing on the Northern Illinois University radio station the opening chords of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” There was a brightness and freshness that cut through the funk that sometimes comes when you move to a place that you think is going to be all sunshine and roses and turns out to be, at times, partly cloudy and dandelions gone to seed.
And “We are young but getting old before our time” nailed it.
“Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street”
Joe Jackson became somewhat known in 1979 with the release of Look Sharp!, which features “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”, a song that undoubtedly more guys than girls will admit identify with.
“There’s a lady that I used to know / She’s married now or engaged or something so I am told”
Yes, there is a certain denial that exists: no one really wants to admit that they really know that she—or he, were we to change the pronouns throughout—is married or engaged.
That song is supplemented on the album with “Fools in Love”:
“I say fools in love are zeros/I should know because this fool’s in love again.”
An acknowledgement of the folly that is what life is sometimes only all about.
Also in 1979 Jackson released I’m the Man, which includes “Different for Girls,” which precisely puts some boys in their place:
“No, not love,” she said
“Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?
“You’re all the same.”
Because we don’t know that. And we are all the same.
Between those two albums and 1982’s Night and Day Jackson released Beat Crazy, mainly forgettable, and Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, which includes covers of 1940s songs, which possibly was the genesis for Night and Day, which is a nod to Cole Porter’s tune of that title, written in 1932. (And while on the subject of Porter, he also wrote “Begin the Beguine,” which Pete Townshend has covered.)
Jumpin’ Jive is to what had become expected from Jackson what Trans was to Neil Young (which came out in 1982).
While “Steppin’ Out” has become something of a signature for Jackson, there is another cut on Night and Day that is more moving, one that he uses as a closing tune for many of his concerts that I’ve attended since then, a moving walk off for the members of his band: “Slow Song.”
And I get tired of DJ’s
Why’s it always what he plays
I’m gonna push right through
I’m gonna tell him to, tell him to
Play us, play us a slow song
There are few musicians of the last many years who have had such a precise sensibility—or perhaps that’s heart—for rendering the not complete outsider, but those who are on the edge of what is deemed to be the center.
It has nearly been 40 years since my time in Rockford. I lasted a couple of years, then moved back to Detroit.
But in all of this time I still remember hearing the opening of “Steppin’ Out” on the shitty radio in my shitty Datsun 310.
Some music can do that.