Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

[related_posts post_id_1=”595820″ /]

Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

[related_posts post_id_1=”599561″ /]

I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

What Is the Most Nostalgic Song of All Time?

My father died three years ago. He was a good man, a good father. He rocked a Jim Croce mustache and a white man ’fro. He rode a motorcycle and worked as a mechanic; he taught us about engines and cars and horse racing (and forgiveness and love of family and a good joke). I grieved him as children do. But ever since he died, this odd thing has been happening in which a song will come on that reminds me of him — perhaps it’s even a song I don’t ever remember hearing — and I’m suddenly overwhelmed by such an intense wave of nostalgia, I literally have to stand still and catch myself. Like I can’t breathe.

It started with “Celtic New Year” by Van Morrison. I don’t even remember my father playing that song. But it was his music, you know? I was standing in the kitchen when I heard those acoustic guitar chords and that raspy voice and suddenly I saw my dad in his red leather café motorcycle jacket, eating a popsicle on a bench at Knott’s Berry Farm while I ate a snow cone next to him. I could feel the sun on my cheek, the taste of the blueberry ice, the sound of his easy laugh as crow’s feet gathered around his weathered face.

Like I said, I had to steady myself. I sat on the cold tile floor and listened to it again and again and again. It hit me all at once: They’re all gone. It wasn’t just the moment at Knott’s or that smile of his. It was like I could suddenly feel the presence of all the people I’ve lost — my grandmother putting cream cheese on a bagel as she told an off-color joke. My grandfather looking up from his stack of articles from The Progressive with glasses on his nose. My uncles howling with laughter as they tell their stories about Mexico.

The author and his father on a beach
The author and his father (with that Jim Croce mustache)

This feeling never happened to me when I was younger. I suspect it was because I’d never really lost anything so big.

It was as if a lost continent — like Atlantis — had suddenly revealed itself, and I could see such monuments that were built to ideas were now buried under a thousand feet of water. They lived, they laughed, they pursued life, and they’re all gone now.

I don’t know what it is about songs that can make you feel the weight of people or their loss or the fact of your own. But they do.

The next time it happened was “The Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. It was another song I don’t remember ever hearing until it came on one day and there were these great old voices singing about building dams and haunting spaceships. Again, I had to stop what I was doing and play the song twenty times. I just had to sit in it, to think about these lives, to understand their monuments. My father with his brown Porsche 924 that he restored. His cowboy boots. My maternal grandfather with his thin mustache, reading the paper in a chair while we played on the rug.

Who were the dam-builders Waylon Jennings is singing about? Where did they all go? What about the women at the shore, the children waving as the boats fell into the water?

[related_posts post_id_1=”594360″ /]

After the twentieth listen I could finally put the feeling down. But not until then. Not until I’d walked around that room in my head, flashed some light in every darkened corner to see the memories that lay about like sunken treasure.

I had this vision of an entire generation staring down at their phones. Millions and millions in separate rooms talking through wires on social media, like inmates knocking on a prison wall, trying to communicate from their individual cells. As one of them, I posted it to my Twitter account, curious if any other people locked in their cells felt this way about nostalgic songs.

It was like banging out Morse code on a wall: knock, rappity, knock knock.

A simple question, posed at eight o’clock on a Saturday night: What is the most nostalgic song of all time? I suggested “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. (Not the studio version, mind you. But the live version recorded at Warner Bros. Studios in 1997 where Stevie Nicks introduces the song by saying, “This one’s for you, daddy.”) I let the communiqué reverberate through the prison walls and waited.

I got more than 5,000 comments back.

It started with the Beatles (“Let It Be” and “Yesterday”), then moved into James Taylor and even Journey. There was an entire discussion about “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, a sidebar about Jackson Browne (“The Pretender” might just be the correct answer to the original question). Jim Croce himself made an appearance with “Time in a Bottle.” (This prompted a tributary conversation about dads who looked like Jim Croce.)

Many answers were tied to a specific person, or event: “I’m gonna go with ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ mostly because of my mom who passed away four and a half years ago who instilled in me my love of Motown and also because her name was Gladys.”

“ ‘Same Old Lang Syne,’ Dan Fogelberg. They play it every year at Christmas and it punches me in the gut every time I hear it.”

Next we got on to the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York,” that great call-and-response duet with Kirsty MacColl:

I could’ve been someone. Well, so could anyone.
You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.

I kept ’em with me, babe. I put them with my own.
Can’t make it all alone. I built my dreams around you.

By the time we got onto “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, it was a raging discussion — people posting lyrics and memories and suggestions for new songs, new genres. (What about modern classics like “California Stars” by Billy Bragg and Wilco, or “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem? What about hip-hop?) Most Eagles songs were shouted down (thankfully) though the political undertones of “The End of the Innocence” by Don Henley were treated with a respectful reverence. Someone even made a Spotify playlist inspired by the thread. So many people talked about the relief they felt to simply sit like teenagers in a room, listening to music and talking about what the songs meant to them — the connection, to the past, to the lost Atlantises, the buried treasures in our minds, to each other.

And it was around this time it occurred to me we’ve all lost something: that there is a dread infecting the country, maybe the whole world, a sense that the future might not be as good as the past. And this fight, this dread, this nagging fear about the future has become such a familiar burden, we don’t even think about it. Except when we dive down into memory where it does not exist, and momentarily the weight is lifted. Where we commune with our lost cities and ghosts and sense their presence. Not just the people. But the laughter, the clothes, the hairstyles, the ideas, the sound of their voices filling the room.

I became a father a year and a half ago. We started our son’s musical education with lullabies and children’s tunes. We’ve begun playing modern music for him. His current favorite song is “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. (I mark this as a personal victory.) He bobs his big noggin and slaps his hands on the comforter of the bed while we dance with him. These are the moments when I feel OK about the future again. When I remember that there are new cities to build, a new lifetime of memories still to come, and the music, for whatever mysterious reason, will always be a pathway back to this moment — for me, maybe for him — laughing and safe and hopeful and free.

It’s all there in the songs.