It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a climate where I dreaded summer. When friends and family back East swelter in the brutal heat and humidity, I breathe a sigh of relief that I escaped to the temperate Bay Area. My body is just not made for that oppressive sauna called summertime in Massachusetts. I wilt, I feel like I’m drowning in heavy air. Believe me, I am a happy, happy girl to live in the Bay Area, where you dress for night baseball in San Francisco in the same gear you’d wear for skiing in Vermont.
But even from a safe distance, swathed in Bay Area fog, I still get slammed right back into July in Boston whenever I hear certain songs from the summers of my youth. I’m sure I’m not alone in being utterly transported into a sense memory by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”. For me, it’s sitting on the front steps of my parents’ house in Chelsea, with my transistor radio tuned to the Top 40 station WMEX, nervously watching late afternoon thunderstorm clouds roll in. I was torn between loving summer for the obvious reasons (no school, the ice cream man, new sandals) and hating it for the heat waves that would inevitably end in thunder and lightning or worse. I was obsessed with tornados, and not in a kick-ass stormchaser way. I was scared out of my mind by them. Not that we had many (any) where I grew up. But I read the newspapers before I was old enough to assess risk rationally, so every story about towns flattened by killer tornadoes in the Midwest or South was fuel for my feverish little imagination. I don’t know why I was compelled to sit on the porch waiting for disaster to strike; maybe I thought that as long as I was monitoring the situation, I could control it.
When I hear “Summer in the City,” I’m 9 years old again on that porch on a summer afternoon in 1966, waiting for a heat wave to break. The sky is ominous, the air is heavy enough to muffle sound, there’s a smell of ozone in the air. The storm is coming, and the Lovin’ Spoonful are blasting out of my tinny little radio, complaining about the heat, painting word pictures about necks gritty from sweat (just like mine!), people walking around “half-dead” on streets that are “hotter than a match-head” (just like my dad trudging home from work!). The Lovin’ Spoonful understood.
I don’t know how the Lovin’ Spoonful and producer Paul Leka managed to pack the essence of East Coast urban summer into a 2:41 single, but it’s all there, the driving urgency of the verses, sung by John Sebastian as if he’s suffocating against the heat, the relief of the choruses, when the temperature drops at night and everyone can breathe again. The production is slightly fuzzed out and distorted, so that the signature guitar and piano riffs — short ticks of sound, like dripping sweat — and the car horn and jackhammer sound effects all seem to be coming to you through air muffled by humidity. “Summer in the City” has been overused on movie and TV soundtracks. But it still has the power to take me by surprise and send me into an out-of-body experience.
That summer of 1966 was an astonishingly fertile one for bands capturing summer lightning in a bottle. Besides “Summer in the City,” there was “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, the Paul Simon-penned “Red Rubber Ball” by Cyrkle (“the morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball”), “See You in September” by the Happenings (dorky, but fitting), “Barefootin’,” by Robert Parker, “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, Billy Stewart’s wild, joyous version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, and another song that trances me back to the front porch to this day, “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks. And then there’s “Bus Stop” by the Hollies, with it’s story of a romance kindled under an umbrella during a summer downpour. I sheltered on the porch as the rain came down, put the transistor up to my ear and dreamed.
What song conjures summer for you?
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012