No season is so intimately connected with song as summer is. We all have our favorite summer songs, and some summers can be instantly conjured up by certain tunes. My father, for example, could never listen to "Monday Monday" by the Mamas and the Papas without waxing nostalgic about an epically great summer day spent canoeing the river with his buddies. In that spirit, I'd like to offer a playlist of summer songs that resonate with me.
Wilco, "Heavy Metal Drummer"
Buried in every summer, especially as we age, are the memories of all the other summers that came before. No song divines that nostalgia better than this one, describing past summers spent on the river landing listening to heavy metal bands. The song's narrator obviously thinks that music's passe now, but in that knowledge he sighs that "I miss the innocence I've known." Goddammit, I miss it too. This song always brings me back to barbecues in grad school where we'd grill meat, drink beers, and end the night around a fire strumming guitars in sing-alongs. Many of us were total Wilco freaks at the time, and at some point "Heavy Metal Drummer" would get played. I was innocent back then, loving my studies despite my poverty, spending my days wrapped up in history and my nights with the best gang of people I've ever had the pleasure to know. I wasn't thinking about the job market yet, and knew little of the travails and hardships it would bring me. I was living in the moment and loving life, and even if my innocence then was stupid and ignorant, I would give anything to have one of those nights back.
Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
There is no moment of collective, almost orgasmic pleasure short of a sports championship that can match the last day of school. Back in Nebraska, it always came right before Memorial Day, right at the point that the Plains winter frost had melted, but before the punishing blasts of July and August heat. It was almost too much to experience the yearly moment of liberation at the exact time that the weather got the closest to perfect it would ever get in such a place. This old Alice Cooper chestnut expresses the violent, insane joy of that day better than anything else.
The Cars, "Magic"
I probably associate this song with summer more than any other, and not just because the season is referenced in the lyrics. Back before radio stations were programmed by computers, Top 40 stations often had hits that weren't new that they kept spinning with relatively high frequency for years afterward. The pop station in my hometown played this tune pretty consistently up until the early 1990s. While it represents the Cars' woeful transition from New Wave rockers to conventional pop act, it does provide the kind of blissful sugar high that you can only get from a pop song.
Rolling Stones, "Happy"
During my adolescent and college years, summer meant grueling summer jobs. I detasseled corn for five summers in junior high and high school, then moved on the factory work in college. My first factory job summer was between high school and college working swing shift at a stifling hot rubber parts factory. When I tore outta that parking lot at 10PM covered in carbon black and three pounds of sweat lighter, I'd drop side two of Exile on Main Street in the tape deck and CRANK IT. It starts with this tune, a rare Keith Richards vocal and an absolute barn burner about not wanting to "work for the boss every night and day." It felt good.
Allman Brothers, "Midnight Rider"
With summer comes road trips, and I've had a few memorable ones. During the summers I lived in Texas, I used to make the drive to Atlanta to visit my good friend Brian I, and in some cases went on to New Jersey from there. Once I hit Georgia, I always liked to honor that state's greatest rock band with this song, which I could also use to pretend that I was an outlaw on the run.
Sam Cooke, "Summertime"
One my favorite things to do in the summer is to go to my in-laws' house, which is next to the woods. They have a hammock set up under the tall trees, and when I lay in the shade on bright, sunny day and a soft breeze rustling the leaves, I can hear this song playing in my head. I'm fond of telling people that anyone who doesn't like Sam Cooke has something wrong with them, his voice alone is a kind of Platonic, absolute good. Nothing, and I mean nothing, evokes a little chillaxing in the hot months like this song.
Prince, "When Doves Cry"
The summer of 1984 comes back to me whenever I hear this song. I liked it at the time, even though Prince's androgyny and sex obsession scared the hell out of me. While it was a pop song, "When Doves Cried" seemed so ADULT, with all of his talk about resembling his parents' worst traits. It was the kind of soul-baring thing rarely heard on pop radio, and I loved it.
Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone"
This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Whenever I hear it, I can only think of the summer of 1986, and more specifically, my family's trips to a local recreation area called Mormon Island, in honor of the travelers on the Mormon trail who passed through there along the Platte River in the 1840s. Since this was Nebraska, the lake and beach there were man-made, and the water had a stagnant, unnatural quality to it. I hated going there because I thought the water was disgustingly dirty. (In fact, it is now closed to swimmers!) So was the beach; one year my friends and I made a sand castle studded thickly with cigarette butts we found in the sand. Back in '86 I was too young to stay at home alone and let the rest of my family go (which I did later), so I remember lots of afternoons at the beach with this song blasting out of a boom box on the radio. Top Gun came out in the midst of my obsession with military aviation, so I sat in the blazing hot sand imagining myself piloting an F-14 Tomcat against the dreaded Soviets. Little did I know that my escape from rural Nebraska would involve teaching history rather than shooting down MiGs.