Summer has officially arrived! The summer solstice was June 21, the longest day of the year, the calendar beginning of summer. With summer comes summer music – I wrote about some of my favorites for MSNBC.com:
- Summer’s here and the time is right – for music
From ‘Margaritaville’ to ‘Kokomo’, a list of cool songs for season
Summer’s here and the time is right for taking a big fat break, and boy do we deserve it. 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….
….”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.”….
….Demonstrating that the Beach Boys’ summer truly is endless, 26 years after “Surfin’ Safari,” in 1988, they had a No. 1 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…..
….”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….
….”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…..
….”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”…
….”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 ….
….”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…..
….”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….
….”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”….
….”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 …
….”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” …
….”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….
….”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….
….”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 ….
Please click over for the continued discussion of each song. What are your favorite summer songs?