Summer, that longed-for season of vacation and, well, freedom, is usually associated with mindless fun. This is the time of the blockbuster, the beach read and the pop charts. And, for whatever reason, there seems to be a soundtrack to summer, more than any other season. With that in mind, we asked a handful of writers what summer music means to them.
There’s something about summer that, for me, permits (fosters?) a delicious indulgence in sentimentality. I’d love to claim that the reason my heart literally flutters in my chest when I hear Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983) has something to do with irony and kitsch and post-35 hipness; but really, it has to do with the way adolescence (a time of great loss and disturbance, which, I believe, pulses beneath our adultness in perpetuity) feeds on music like a puppy on peanut butter.
Speaking of 1983… it’s uncanny – a little spooky – to look back and see the correlation between songs that still make my heart flutter and the end, for many reasons (familial, physiological, intellectual), of pure childhood. If I was an actor trying to muster up emotion – elation, fear, longing, agony – I would wear a concealed earpiece and play (all from 1983), in no particular order: Tyler’s “Eclipse,” Madonna’s “Holiday,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Men at Work’s “Overkill,” Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” the theme from “Flashdance” (Irene Cara), Journey’s “Faithfully,” “We’ve Got Tonight” by Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, Prince’s “1999,” and “Suddenly Last Summer” by The Motels. And the great thing, the key thing, is that all of these can be belted, in or out of tune, while driving – windows down, sun low on the horizon – on a late-July evening when it feels like summer is both forever and slipping away too fast.
Sonya Chung’s debut novel, Long for This World, was published by Scribner.
I recently wrote a novel, The Night Train, about, among other things, music and race in a rural 1963 southern community. While writing, I remembered the word “jam” in what had been one of my all-time favorite songs of the 60s, but I couldn’t find the song anywhere. Finally I found it. “The Jam, Part 1” by Bobby Gregg and His Friends. It’s in a collection called “Cameo Parkway 1957 – 1967.” By listening to the song over the last few months, I was able to kind of analyze why I still love it. After about eight measures the beat switches from an emphasis on every beat to the second beat-fourth beat emphasis that’s a hallmark of rhythm and blues music. That transition in “The Jam, Part 1″ is full of energy and excitement. Then after about thirty seconds of a cool guitar groove (back and forth between the one chord, Bflat, and the five chord, F) comes—blasting over the hill—two saxophones on the bridge with tight harmony. The chord progression is simple: 1, 4 (E flat), 2 (C), 5. The song then goes back and forth between guitar and sax solos with that sax duo bridge holding it all together. The energy and unpredictability of the solos and the jazz-like breaks give the tune a spirit that says, “I’m a summer song, put me in your machine, play me, and I’ll make you feel good.”
Clyde Edgerton’s latest novel, The Night Train, was published Little, Brown in July.
I remember this: my sister, gorgeous at seventeen, slathering herself in baby oil and sunbathing on a towel in our backyard in suburban Montreal, with a radio for company. I’d be in my room reading, suffering the twin indignities of glasses and braces, topped off by a general geekdom that ran more than skin-deep. Both of us—her outside, me inside—would be listening to her radio, specifically to Casey Kasem counting down the American Top 40.
The songs of that era make me cringe now, but they are also ingrained in me, word for word and note for note, because I listened to them so closely back then. George Michael tortured with guilt in “Careless Whisper.” Madonna’s voice soaring sweetly in “Crazy for You.” Paul Young, my particular favorite, wailing, “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you.” The songs were schmaltzy, swoony, over-dramatic; they were the very definition of popular music, which is exactly why I liked them. Nerdy as I was, listening to the songs was as close as I got to mainstream belonging. Later, as I grew older, I’d gravitate to music that was more obscure, to bands that confirmed my status as outsider and my taste as unique. But at that time, the last thing I wanted was obscurity. I craved the music everybody liked, songs that were widely popular and officially ranked, the soundtrack of perfect American summers.
This was 1985, the year of Kasem’s infamous, profanity-laced “Snuggles” rant, when he complained bitterly about having to read a long-distance dedication to a dead dog right after an uptempo song. Of course his outburst wasn’t aired at the time. When I heard it later, as an adult, I remembered those summers of my early adolescence and wondered what I would have made of it. I think I would have laughed, not in shock but relief. To know that Kasem, so mellow and unflappable, could lose it like that— it would have made me feel like every house in America had a weird kid hiding inside it, eavesdropping on the perfection on the radio.
Alix Ohlin is the author of the short story collection Babylon and Other Stories (Knopf) and the novel The Missing Person (Knopf).
Summer was launched, it was a Sunday morning in mid-May, seventy degrees, and Tim Culver (now a prominent Canadian psychiatrist) and I were on a truck-tire inner-tube floating down the Elbow Park river listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall when a beer-drinking pair on a neighboring tube reported the fantastic lie that a volcano had erupted in the United States. The United States, we knew well enough, did not have volcanoes, any more than Canada did, and stoned as we were and thirteen years old we were annoyed by the irresponsible early morning drunkenness of these teenagers on the river. Then in the strangest turn of events, just as “Run Like Hell” came on the boom box, a friend of ours, Sean de Boer, a well known reprobate and all around juvenile delinquent, appeared at a bend of the river with several other metalheads and began shouting: “America’s exploding! Seattle has been wiped out by lava!” and other nonsense of this kind–Tim and I discreetly hid our hash pipe so that they wouldn’t try swimming into the river to ask for a toke–with, and this is the strange part, Molotov cocktails in their hands, which they had been hurling onto the stones of the riverbank but now that a real target presented itself decided to playfully toss at us. We paddled like hell. It is very difficult to paddle a tractor-tire sized tube. I wished Tim’s parents had less money so we weren’t riding in such luxury (only the coolest kids have these giant inner tubes for floating down the river). We hid inside the tube while the bottles splashed into the river–I remember seeing one flying overhead, it’s tail aflame, like a piece of magma shooting from this fictional American eruption–and tried to keep our hash dry and the boombox out of the water. The Wall blasted in the tiny circular rubber amphitheater. We were terrified and then began to laugh, and succeeded in lighting the pipe, and choked on the harsh Mexican red. The Wall has stayed that way for me: the cold water of the mountain river, the onset of summer–which in Calgary, Alberta, takes ten months to arrive and last for ten weeks–, the molotov cocktails, Tim Culver, Sean de Boer, drunken teenagers, beer bottles, and the explosion of Mount St. Helens.
Clancy Martin’s latest novel, How to Sell, was published by FSG.
Come summer, I like to crack a coldie, recline in a lawn chair, and set the old iTunes on shuffle. My musical tastes are dizzyingly eclectic, so today, that sounds likes this: The Saints, 70s punk from downunder–brass-balled, tight, and deliciously irreverent. Less angsty than the Pistols, and more dynamic than the Ramones. Chris Bailey makes the chubby singer hall of fame. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the kings of western swing–Mexican trumpets and steel guitars, punctuated by Bob’s signature, almost comic, wailing, lest anyone forget whose band this is. Curtis Mayfield, funk pioneer, civil rights activist, and musical prodigy—Mayfield played seven or eight different instruments before a falling light standard paralyzed him from the neck down. Neko Case, haunting, totally unique, and quintessentially northwest songwriter, who is the frequent object of male obsession, present company not excluded. Crack another coldie. Here comes Toots and the Maytals–if the Wailers are the Beatles of reggae, then the Maytals are the Stones, longer lasting, and a little bit sexier. Count Basie. Nobody swings like Basie. Nobody. ‘Nuff said. If The Call of the Wild was a song, that song would be “Fur,” by Portland’s Blitzen Trapper. Next up is Hayes Carll, country music with a little more twitch than twang. Often compared to Steve Earle, though I’m not sure I’d go that far. Betty Wright– four octave range, and more vocal sass than you can shake a stick at. Also makes the beer go down faster. And finally, Michael McDonald—holy crap, what’s this doing on my iTunes! What takes up more musical space, that husky voice of his, or those big meaty Hammond notes? Ech! How is it this guy poops Grammys, anyway? Time to take it off shuffle, and fire up the barbecue.
Jonathan Evison’s latest novel, West of Here, was published by Algonquin.
I’ve been listening to a bunch of songs this summer. I can’t write to music, but I find that it helps for chores. I have a little mix going for checking my email, or cleaning the kitchen, or mopping the floor because the cat now goes “outside the box” (he would have flourished in corporate America a few years ago). I’ve been listening to some Bill Callahan, particularly his new song “Drover,” and some classics like The Fall’s “My New House” and Devo’s “Gates of Steel.” I’ve also been hooked by the talons of Conversion Party’s release “Birds of Paradise Lost.” One of the players is a former student, a very fine writer, though I didn’t know he was Milton fan. Finally, to cool off by getting the chills, is a song from the late great Gil-Scott Heron called “Me and the Devil.” It’s about a doomed friendship, I guess. It’s truly scary and moving. It’s from a recent album on which he covered a Bill Callahan song. So, it all comes back around. And so will autumn. But the cat must go.
Sam Lipsyte’s latest novel, The Ask, was published by FSG.
This better part of this summer was spent driving across his big ol’ country, from Philadelphia to L.A. and back again, so music was essential to my sanity. I pre-loaded my iPhone with the usual suspects… but while in L.A., I also downloaded three new albums that kept me company during crazy snarls on the 405:
Join Us, They Might Be Giants: I’ve been a worshipper at the altar of the Johns (Messrs. Linnell and Flansburgh) for over two decades now, and this new one is easily my favorite since 2001’s Mink Car. It’s just as brilliant and bizarre as their earliest albums, and just try to stay stressed-out in deadlocked traffic when you’re listening to lyrics like, “Felines and dames, in flames, will hardly serve your aims.” Favorite track: a toss-up between the soaring “Canajoharie” and the gleefully vengeful “When Will You Die.”
Laura, Diego Garcia: A dear friend turned me on to this swoontastic collection of Latin-tinged ballads (yep, we’re talking strings and Spanish guitars, folks) that would ordinarily get me kicked right out of the Hardboiled Club for Men… except that the emotions in these songs run raw and deep enough to reduce the toughest of bastards to bitter, boozy tears. Favorite track: the achingly honest “Nothing to Hide.”
Passive Me Aggressive You, The Naked and Famous: I was driving down Ventura Boulevard when a KROC DJ was gushing about a song called “Young Blood,” how he blasted it relentlessly on his way to work. Then he played it, and BAM, a few minutes later I was pulling off to the side of the road to download the damned thing… and later, the rest of this Auckland indie rock band’s debut. Favorite track: the infectious “Young Blood,” obviously, but also the peppy and feverish “Punching in a Dream.”
Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games came out in June 2011. He has two forthcoming books: Hell & Gone (October 2011) and Point & Shoot (March 2012).