Hey, summer’s over (although it’s a balmy 73 right now). How do I know? Because we are going to a haunted house tonight, so it must be near Halloween – what, you say it’s a month away? The Halloween season is now as long as Christmas. In fact, once October 1 hits, it’s just holiday-city until the first week of January. Yippee!
So anyway, since summer is over, it is – needless to say – time to post my list of favorite summer songs. I posted the teaser here back in June, but now I can let it rip unabridged:
When the weather finally warms and the pace finally slows, nothing goes better with heat, water, a cold glass, exposed skin, and some time to call your own than Summer Music, a special category of very personal tunes each of us holds near to our heart for the season when the sun is the only clock we really need and nothing is more important than pleasure.
These are some of my favorites:
“Margaritaville” – Jimmy Buffett (1977)
“Margaritaville” represents Buffett at his most appealing and insightful. The song’s story takes place in Mexico — where summer never ends — often a refuge for Americans seeking escape from responsibility. Where would you rather be? Basking in the perpetual summer of a snow white playa sipping margaritas and chuckling at the tourists, or huddled around a short-circuiting space heater in Buffalo?
The song’s Caribbean/mariachi/country melody is cheerful yet reflective, its lilt tempered with an aftertaste of regret. Its power lies in Buffett’s acknowledgment that the life of dissipation must be the shadow against which real life shines, not the screen that real life is shown upon. Clearly, the character’s lifestyle here doesn’t coincide with his values. Rather than living a life of ease, he is living a life of intense internal conflict – a life he can only perpetuate with liberal applications of alcohol. Buffett doesn’t even want to face up to the fact that he is drinking alcohol, which he disguises with mixes and elaborate rituals – rituals that are wearing thin.
Buffett’s character’s acceptance of the possibility that he bears culpability (“Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame/Now I think, Hell, it could be my fault”) for his actions is the great turning point. This reckoning requires such an effort that Buffet needs an instrumental break to contemplate it, where we are again reminded by the music’s languid splendor how pleasant this dissipation can be; and we are reminded why an army of weekend sailors, beach bums and pleasure seekers have retreated into Buffett’s world for over 30 years.
“Surfin’ Safari” (1962), “Kokomo” (1988) – The Beach Boys
The New World was sold as an earthly paradise from the outset, a land of vast natural resources and uncountable acres of bountiful land free for the homesteading. Prior to that, America was the presumed home of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth (instead of Eternal Youth, Ponce de Leon found Florida, future home of the Eternal Old, but that’s another story).
Hopes of eternal youth and earthly paradise persist in America, just below the surface, to this day, and the Beach Boys have tapped into that hope better than anyone. Interestingly, the Beach Boys’ success with these themes has precluded them from ever growing up, lest the nation be forced to do so as well.
“Surfin Safari” was the Beach Boys first national hit, released in the fall of 1962. Mike Love was the tour guide with a broken-nosed twang that millions of flatlanders interpreted as a “California accent.” The very first verse evokes California as a paradise, the kind of place where guys get up early in the morning and are so happy they sing. Beautiful girls accompany them to their “job,” which is surfing. They love this job so much that they do it for free. Also, in the Beach Boys’ version of surfing, the occupation is open to everyone: “Let’s go surfin’ now/Everyone is learning how/Come on a safari with me.”
Even on the Boys’ first hit, symbolism and metaphor superceded reality. Surfing wasn’t a reality for the vast majority of Americans or even Californians: it was a symbol of a magical ever-youthful place. Surfing brought good health through exercise and sea air. It brought popularity through its mastery. It brought success with members of the fair sex, who were driven to hormonal overdrive by surfing-toned bodies revealed amongst the sand, sea and sun.
These were things that anyone would wish for, and anyone could partake of these delights through the music of the Beach Boys and through the attitudes and dress of the beach. No real surfers would have spread the gospel with the evangelical zeal of the Beach Boys. No real surfer would want the competition for precious wave space.
The rest of “Surfin’ Safari” is a travelogue of choice surf locations and techniques — “They’re anglin’ in Laguna,” “They’re kicking out in Doheney too” — a map to paradise and the techniques of eternal youth.
Demonstrating that the Beach Boys’ summer truly IS endless, 26 years after “Surfin’ Safari,” in 1988, they had a number one single with “Kokomo,” which explicitly revived the notion that paradise is a place that can be reached on earth. By that time, Brian Wilson had lost his ability to write toward that paradise — he had lost his willingness to explore a myth in which he no longer believed — so “Kokomo” was written by the unlikely tetrad of Mike Love, Terry Melcher (producer of the Turtles, and Doris Day’s son), John Phillips (Mamas and the Papas) and Scott McKenzie (“San Francisco”). And yet this oddity, written for the numbskull movie “Cocktail,” evoked the essence of “The Beach Boys” much more successfully than did the first Brian Wilson solo album, also released in ’88.
First, “Kokomo” had Mike Love on lead vocals; second, it had Carl Wilson coming in with his sweet falsetto, “Ooh I wanna take you down to Kokomo/We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow/That’s where we wanna go/Way down in Kokomo.” Third, it had a nonsensical but great-sounding chorus — “Aruba, Jamaica/Ooh, I wanna take you/To Bermuda, Bahama/Come on pretty momma” — which is chronically adolescent but endlessly appealing, just like the Beach Boys.
There is also conceptual brilliance at work in “Kokomo”: it transplants the notion of earthly paradise from the now-crowded, busy, expensive Southern California to the Caribbean, a repository of many of the same original pleasures as Southern California and a place to pick up new and enticing rhythms.
“Under the Boardwalk” – The Drifters (1964)
“Under the Boardwalk” is one of the great productions of all time, wherein Bert Berns balanced a bewildering array of Latin-esque percussion — including castanets, a ratchet and a triangle — strings, a loping bass line and Johnny Moore’s career-topping vocal.
Besides the amazing arrangement, Berns was also able to capture an emotional moment. Lead singer Rudy Lewis had been found dead of a drug overdose in his hotel room the night before, and it was too late to cancel the session. There wasn’t even time to transpose the song into a more suitable key for Moore, but Berns was able to channel Moore’s emotion from shock and grief into blissful relief, perfectly coinciding with the theme of the song: escaping exposure to the punishing heat of the summer sun, to the shaded subterranean cool under the boardwalk.
“Brown Eyed Girl” – Van Morrison (1967)
Berns also produced the sublime “Brown-Eyed Girl,” wherein Morrison’s perpetual cloudy countenance was replaced with a sunny grin. You can literally hear Van the Man smile as he breezes through honeyed memories of a summer love gone by. After a great bass and guitar intro, Morrison’s wistful reflection has real meat: we can see and feel the scenes of verdant hollows, misty mornings, waterfalls, and the greenest of grass behind the stadium. The little touches are everything: a comforting organ enters for the second verse, hand claps bolster the third, and the bridge turns the bass and guitar intro inside out to neatly convey the passage of time. Most important, Van has never again sounded so at home in his skin.
“Hot Fun in the Summertime” – Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
Sly and his multifarious Family Stone embodied the promise and ultimate collapse of the ’60s dream of peace, love and understanding transcending all social and cultural barriers. Their potent musical stew blended funk, soul, doo wop, and rock, and when Sly cried out “I Want To Take You Higher” at the end of the band’s set at Woodstock in the summer of ’69, many feel the festival – and an era – reached its zenith. At that very moment, Sly’s wistful, sultry ode to an earlier, more innocent time, “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” was steaming up the charts. Then the moment was gone.
“Summer In the City” – Lovin’ Spoonful (1966)
Producer Erik Jacobsen and singer/songwriter jug-band veteran John Sebastian had a vision: combine the rootsy feel and melodic sense of folk music with the drive of rock ’n’ roll – the realization of that vision was the Lovin’ Spoonful. Bob Dylan and the Byrds beat the Spoonful to the folk rock punch by a few months and have received most of the accolades for developing the style, but the Spoonful had more hits than either between ‘65 and ‘67 (seven Top 10’s) and is sadly overlooked in rock history. Tough, gritty “Summer In the City” abruptly answered any questions regarding the Spoonful’s ability to rock, perfectly evoking the sweat, close air, and raging hormones of an urban July.
“Girl From Ipanema” – Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto (1964)
Nothing speaks of the luxurious indolence of summer better than the gently swaying, tropical magic of Brazil’s bossa nova. Created in the early-’60s by the brilliant composer Antonio Carlos Jobim — the “George Gershwin of Brazil” — and singer-guitarist Joao Gilberto, who blended Brazilian samba and American cool jazz.
The movement was introduced to America and popularized throughout the world by American sax great Stan Getz, who had a huge hit with Jobim’s “Desafinado” in ’62. Recording a follow up in NYC in ’63 with Gilberto and Jobim, Getz and producer Creed Taylor figured a little English on the album couldn’t hurt and Gilberto sang none. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, spoke and sang a little English and was literally just hanging around the studio, so she was planted in front of a microphone and the rest is history.
Astrud’s insinuating, accented, girlish vocal helped make “Girl From Ipanema” a monster hit, and her an international star. Has anyone ever said “aahh” more seductively?
“Summertime Blues” – Eddie Cochran (1958)
“Summertime Blues” sounds like it was recorded yesterday and rocks like there is no tomorrow; its rhythm built, like a boa constrictor, of tensed, shiny muscle.
Eddie Cochran was all energy and motion and arrogance:
“Well I’m a-gonna raise fuss
I’m agonna raise a holler.
About a working all summer just to
Try to earn a dollar”
The outrage is feigned. The voice jumps out of the grooves (as we used to say of vinyl records) – the guitar jumps and pumps like adolescent hormones. He’s working all summer, not all year. The work is optional. He needs money to fund fun, not food, shelter or clothing. Cochran is mimicking working adult complaints. Eddie knows that he will be back in school in the fall. He’s just playing at being an adult for the summer.
Teenagers have to bitch. It’s a way to let off steam, and Eddie’s got so much steam that it’s fogging the windows. The boy’s just gotta rock ‘n’ roll.
“Sometimes I wonder, what I’m a gonna do
For there ain’t no cure
For the Summertime Blues.”
He knows exactly what he’s “a gonna” do: he’s going to sing this song. He’s going to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the cure for the “Summertime Blues”: a song as great as this.
“Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1975)
The greatest song about driving ever recorded – insanely delirious energy squeezed into the front seat as Springsteen and “Wendy” speed in search of “that place [they] really want to go” where they’ll “walk in the sun,” because tramps like them, baby, they were born to run.
“I Can See Clearly Now” – Johnny Nash (1972)
Interesting that one of the greatest reggae — and one of the most effervescently optimistic — songs ever recorded was written, sung and produced by a soul singer from Texas, Johnny Nash, who caught the reggae bug and began recording in Jamaica in the late-’60s. It didn’t hurt that he was backed by the Wailers or that his smooth tenor is ideal for declaring “I can see clearly now.” It’s “gonna be a bright (bright) sun-shiny day” indeed.
“Three Little Birds” – Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977)
The sunniest song by the royalty of reggae, with loping beat, island breezy melody and utterly infectious imagery: “Rise up this morning/Smiled with the rising sun/Three little birds pitch by my doorstep” – the three birds being both a literal image, and representative of Marley’s female backup singers, the I-Threes, who trade lines with him throughout the song.
“No Shirt No Shoes (No Problems)” – Kenny Chesney (2002)
Jimmy Buffett isn’t the only country-leaning American singer with an affinity for the Mexican Caribbean. Chesney’s rich voice and spirit lift this classic get away tune:
“Want a towel on a chair in the sand by the sea
want to look through my shades and see you there with me
Want to soak up life for a while
In laid back mode
No boss, no clock, no stress, no dress code”
It’s the “Margaritaville” scenario without the internal conflict because the stay isn’t open-ended.
“California Sun” – The Dictators (1975)
This version of “California Sun” by NYC proto-punks the Dictators, is an explosive, jungle-drumming, speaker-switching, guitar-ripping take on the Riviera’s surf classic. The band’s occasional goofiness is (mostly) set aside here as they spy the California ideal from 3,000 miles away.
“Quiet Village” – Martin Denny (1959)
Before there was the semi-satirical post-modern notion of “lounge” music, whereby urbane twenty- and thirty-somethings might both revel in, and quietly chuckle at, their own sophistication, there was Martin Denny, who repaired to the islands of Hawaii in the mid-’50s and incorporated natural sounds of the South Pacific into his islander cocktail jazz personally creating the phenomena known as “exotica.” “Quiet Village” is a bird-calling, monkey-squawking, frog-croaking, tiki-flavored slice of classic exotica.