The Steamy Muse

Certain songs just sound like summer, even if the lyrics don’t explicitly mention sand and sun. The radiant splang of guitars on Cheap Trick‘s ”Southern Girls“ and Aerosmith’s ”Uncle Salty“ and the molten, bubbling keyboards of Santana evoke summer as much as the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. At my L.A. high school, the real surfers disdained the stiff rhythms and nerdy lyrics of the Beach Boys in favor of music that actually matched the exhilaration of riding the waves, like the heavy kick-drum crunge of Led Zeppelin, or the sinuous buoyancy of Bob Marley. Perhaps that‘s why the punk rockers who surf usually play surf music with so much more sizzle and energy, like Agent Orange on ”Pipeline.“ (On the other hand, the most apocalyptic version of ”Pipeline“ ever recorded was by Johnny Thunders, who rarely went out in the sun, much less caught a wave.)

From the optimistic anticipation of the Undertones’ ”Here Comes the Summer“ to the mournful resignation of the Doors‘ ”Summer’s Almost Gone,“ summer songs inspire deeper emotions and trigger more intense associations with specific places than music from other seasons. Winter melodies don‘t translate well the rest of the year, and unfunky Christmas carols, with their enforced cheeriness and sterile harmonies, melt under the wicked afternoon glare of August. Yet summer songs feel good anytime.

What is a summer song? It can be about some literal aspect of summer, like Alice Cooper’s ”School‘s Out,“ George Gershwin’s ”Summertime“ and Martha & the Vandellas‘ ”Dancing in the Streets.“ Or it can be a more indirect metaphor, like the way slide and pedal-steel guitars conjure deserts and heat mirages. Or perhaps a random tune that was playing when you had your first summer kiss. I asked a scattered assortment of musicians, fans, experts and dilettantes what thoughts were triggered by their favorite summer songs.

For many, music they heard when they were young had the most lasting resonance. Writer Gwynne Garfinkle says, ”When I think of the intersection of summer and music, I immediately think of ’Every Summer Day‘ by the Last, from their 1979 debut album, L.A. Explosion. ’Baby do you wanna take a ride with meDown to the sand and the waves and the surf and the sea,‘ Joe Nolte sings, in what at first seems an innocent pastiche of early Beach Boys or Jan & Dean. By its conclusion, however, the song is filled with an elegiac sadness, a premonition of loss: ’And nothing‘s ever gonna change my worldAnd I’m never gonna lose that girl.‘“

It is the promise of days without order, the thrill of it, that summer songs fix in memory. Urinals singer-bassist John Talley-Jones writes, ”I associate the stuff I was listening to in high school with summer, because that’s when summer meant something -- three months of relative freedom. This was in Texas, where summer is insistent and brutal, blindingly bright, with a humidity that pushes down on you, exerts its own pressure. The song that I first think of is Mott the Hoople‘s ’Golden Age of Rock and Roll,‘ which wrapped up a lot of hope with a certain wistfulness, appropriate because I graduated when it came out. As a matter of fact, I think I got the album The Hoople as a graduation gift from a friend. ’Golden Age‘ became the anthem of that moment, and hearing it now recaptures an adolescent sense of mystery, sexual curiosity, and a kind of exuberant melancholy . . . a a suggestive power I associate with those singular summer months.“

Such songs possess an almost Pavlovian connection to summer, says writer Fran Miller. ”To this day, whenever I hear ’A Case of You‘ from Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, all I can remember is sitting in the back bedroom of my mother‘s house . . . and this clear, clean, beautiful voice that filtered every bit of light in the room and surrounded me with the most glorious music, and I wondered if I couldwould ever feel such a passion for anyone. If I close my eyes now, I can hear that song and smell the faint scent of star jasmine that grew all around my mother’s house.“

The most cheesy and presumably ephemeral bubble-gum hits take on a talismanic magic over the decades, perhaps because their silly lyrics and insidiously catchy hooks remind us of the unselfconscious possibilities of youth, escape from school and work, and of how oppressive humidity gives us all permission to wear hardly any clothes and to dance outdoors. Ricky Rat, of Detroit‘s glam-rock band the Trash Brats, says, ”What really bring back great summer (and childhood) memories for me are all things K-Tel and ’70s AM pop radio! Even now, a sappy ‘70s pop classic like ’Chevy Van,‘ ’Saturday Night‘ or ’Wildfire,‘ and even a tragic tune like ’Seasons in the Sun‘ or ’Last Game of the Season (A Blind Man in the Bleachers),‘ time-trips me back to those great summer days of the mid-’70s. The music helped give us our own individual soundtrack for our lives -- long before MTV started stripping away our imaginations. And a great pop, sing-along, catchy melody is always gonna take me to where I want and need to go.“ Sex With Lurch guitarist Bernard Yin also thinks that the worst songs are sometimes the most unforgettable. ”‘I hate that song! I hate that song!’ Well, get your shit together, because five years from now you might be teary-eyed thinking about that song at 2 a.m. when it‘s blaring in some Denny’s. I still wrestle in fitful sleep with the Hollies‘ ’The Air That I Breathe‘ and see feathered-haired nymphs climbing up the stairs into the school bus.“


The song remains the same as the time and place you first heard it. Music isn’t just in the background, it drives the action. Singer-songwriter Jeremy Toback recalls ”summer dusk shows at the John Anson Ford Theater, where somehow Jane‘s Addiction and X melted into the warm evenings like Barber’s Adagio for Strings.“ And It‘s O.K.’s Ellen Rooney‘s life was changed when Snakefinger played at the old Music Machine in West L.A. ”I was out of my body and out of time, dancing and sweating, and I and everyone there got the equivalent of a tent-revival baptism. I can’t listen to ‘Picnic in the Jungle’ without feeling the cool night air on my drenched hair as I walked to my car feeling like I had just returned from another planet.“ It‘s hard to imagine how even the most melancholic autumn-leaves-type song (Rod Stewart’s ”Maggie May“) or blithe spring ditty (”Springtime for Hitler,“ ”The Sound of Music“) can ever match the pagan, physical catharsis of summer music.

To folks living in colder latitudes, California itself symbolizes summer, as Irish writer Anthony Daly rhapsodizes about Roy Ayers‘ ”Everybody Loves the Sunshine“: ”Apart from it being a tasty lovers’ song, it reminds me of California, when me and my friend Peter and two girlfriends did the Route 1 drive via Big Sur. a Now you‘ve got to remember that we Irish folks aren’t exactly blessed with sun-kissed skies nor shorelines. So when it came on the tape, as we buzzed around the curves of that mountain road and the sun beat down on our asses, well, I cried and so did Peter. The girls, however, laughed at us two saps.“

Silver Lake‘s Betsy Palmer (Satan’s Cheerleaders, Sacred Miracle Cave) grew up California dreamin‘ from a distance. ”The summer I was 16, I hung out with this girl named Lisa. She drove a red convertible and smoked cigarettes. We used to cruise down the blocklong, one-way, one-light Main Street of our little upstate New York dairy-farming town. We’d be blasting Nikki & the Corvettes‘ ’Summertime Fun,‘ pretending we were cool, doing the handclaps, singing along, wishing we were the cartoon girls on the cover, in the red Corvette, going down Hollywood Boulevard. We did have the striped shirts, tight jeans and crimped hair, at least.“

Tammy Faye Starlite of NYC’s satirical country band the Angels of Mercy says, ”Summer to me is pink tube tops and short-short Levi‘s cutoffs (no coats!), roller skating at twilight, hoping all onlookers catch a flash of nethermost fur.“

While summer is often associated with the escapism of songs like Seals & Crofts’ ”Summer Breeze,“ it‘s also the time for sounds of protest and revolution. Songwriter Rickie Lee Jones says, ”The definitive summers were beaches and surf shirts and bare feet and going out and not having to tell anybody. In Phoenix in 1968, the song was ’Keep On Running‘ by the Spencer Davis Group. But the definitive summer song must be ’Hot Fun in the Summertime‘ by the almighty Sly & the Family Stone. In Kansas City, Missouri, in August 1970, ’Ohio‘ by Neil Young was on the jukebox at some redneck barbecue, and I played it in defiance of all the people around me, or so I felt. I am always there again when I hear it. Summer is about defiance, in a way, something in the air.“

Felicia Dominguez, editor of Loca fanzine, writes, ”Being an American-born Mexican, I guess it’s in the blood to want to make compilation tapes for cruising. The best one I ever made for hot summer nights in the car was inspired by and taped during the L.A. riots in ‘92. As the city burned and a curfew was imposed, I worked on a two-hour tape, with selections from N.W.A, Public Enemy, James Brown, Sly Stone, the Staple Singers, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Isaac Hayes, finishing it off with Ice T’s ultimate ‘fuck you’ to the LAPD, ‘Cop Killer.’ It was the perfect soundtrack for that summer, one of the most tragic times in the city I can remember.“


Tony Reflex, lead singer with L.A. punk band the Adz, points out that touring during summer isn‘t always a beach. ”Summer is Texas: noisy mosquitoes feeding on your neck and hands while you swelter in a cum-stained TV-free hotel room in Corpus Christi after playing a gig in a dive that reeks of pissbeervomitfuck, and where the patrons promise they can ’get you whatever you need,‘ and do. Summer is Salt Lake City: desolate, hot and flat forever, with lots of dry white stuff on the ground outside of town and the rousing cry of the locals, ’This place is fucked, but I live here anyway.‘“

Other hot-weather horror stories: The Muffs’ Kim Shattuck recounts how summer heat once caused drummer Roy McDonald to pass out onstage midset at CBGB (”I looked back to see two legs sticking up from the drums“), while filmmaker--Dead Fairy singer Lisa Ferguson‘s infatuation with an unnamed band ended when she once saw the musicians in the unforgiving heat of a daylight show at the Sunset Junction.

And what’s the hottest spot in this hot city?

According to Backbiter guitar hero Jonathan Hall, ”The stage at Al‘s Bar has to be the most humid place in L.A. Anyone who needs to know what it’s like to be in Texas during a heat wave should do a 40-minute set at Al‘s in August.“

Southern Restoration Society singer Chris Sims sarcastically summarizes summer’s ambiguous appeal with a typically unsentimental, surreal poem: ”And there is Shelly, fully developed breasts, perfect perky nipples driving everyone insane, scratching her face to ribbons after smoking PCP supplied by Tito (the artist). Balls hang out of polyester shorts lewdly. Protein drinks. A bong bubbles in the forest but no one hears it. Pom-poms and Circumstance. Here comes the bull! A ball-less dwarf with scoliosis. Ronnie James Dio squirms into the American Zeitgeist. Dogs lift their legs and pee. Then the bell rings.“

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