Three Songs Of Summer

Hooray, it’s summer in my section of Planet Earth! Hooray, day after day has been hotter than hell! Hooray, the humidity has been flaunting its energy-sapping powers majestically! Hooray, early last week I was sweating like a frigging pig and well on my way to heat-stroke territory while mowing the lawn under a ridiculously strong, early-evening sun!

Summer . . .   for the last 25 or more years I have placed it in the This Kind Of Sucks category.

When I was a kid and teen and young adult, though, summer was the best. I loved going to the beach, spreading out on the sands for hours atop a blanket and happily slathering Coppertone suntan oil on nearly every exposed inch of my body in the hopes that my pale white-guy skin would achieve at least a smidgeon of brownish tint. Yeah man, roasting under heat rays generously sent to us from 93,000,000 miles away was the way to go. Sunscreen? Fuggedaboutit. It hadn’t been invented yet and probably would have been laughed off the stage even if it had. Too bad that I, like all guys and girls back then, didn’t have Nostradamus-like abilities to gaze into the future and marvel at the many visits to dermatologists’ offices that awaited us.

Anyway, there I was at 10:00 AM, a few days after mowing the lawn, on a journey to my local supermarket. As I pulled out of my driveway I partly rolled down a couple of windows to let some of the suffocating heat escape. It was already 82° Fahrenheit outside and a hell of a lot hotter than that inside the car. Should I turn on the A/C, I wondered? Nah. The supermarket was only seven minutes away. Only a wuss would need cooled air for a trip of such short duration. Me, I’m not a wuss. I’m a man. More or less.

Seven minutes later, with sweat flowing off me faster than a mountain stream, I arrived at my destination. Good thing I’d had good company along the way. By which I mean I heard a great song on the radio, one that hadn’t crossed my path in ages. Summer Breeze it was, but not the 1972 original by Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, who authored the tune together and had a monster hit with it. The Seals & Crofts recording is a-ok, a gentle and calming invocation of warm summer nights. But the station I was listening to, SiriusXM satellite radio’s Soul Town, played the 1973 cover version by The Isley Brothers.

I’ve always preferred the way The Isleys handle the song to Seals & Crofts’ approach. The complexity of the arrangement, the Chinese-sounding entry into the song, those shimmering, impossibly high voices, the gorgeous electric guitar solo that starts shortly after the four-minute mark and keeps on going to song’s end two minutes later . . . I tell you, in the car I was carried away by Summer Breeze’s grace and power. Here it is:

I completed my rounds inside the supermarket in a semi-flash. On my way home I punched Soul Town’s button once again, usually a good idea. I love that channel. The station came on mid-song. And the song — Hot Fun In The Summertime — was one that nobody in his or her right mind ever will complain about. Sly And The Family Stone put it out in 1969, during their glory days. It’s a champ. Dig the pounding piano that never lets up, those exuberant vocals, the piercing trumpet. Hot Fun’s good vibes guided me back to my house.

Wow, two songs about summer had found me during the handful of minutes I’d been in my car. As a massive believer in the gods of the blogosphere, I had no doubt that a mighty message was directed my way. And that the message was this: “Yo, you who is wearing the incredibly sweat-stained Fred Flintstone tee shirt, listen up! It is your duty to fashion a story out of the first three uplifting summer-themed songs that you hear today. Yes, the songs must invoke summer’s good times, despite the fact that you no longer are a fan of the hot season.”

“And remember,” the message continued, “your story must focus on three songs, not merely two. There is something special about groups of three, such as the three strands of hair remaining on the crown of your head.”

Well, back at the ranch I turned on the stereo system and began flipping from one station to another. I did this on and off for several hours. I knew that a great number, such as The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City or Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime soon would be heading my way. When it didn’t arrive I started to fidget and worry. I had been commanded to compose an opus, but there was only so much time I was willing to devote to the enterprise. Finally though, WRDV, the low-wattage radio station located not far from my home, delivered the goods at 3:15 PM. But my heart sank a little, for through the speakers came one of the summery songs I’ve never been thrilled about: Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer, in this instance sung by the great Nat King Cole. Corny lyrics abound. I suppose that in some sense they seem charming, especially if you’ve tied one on and feel compelled to sing along with all your might. The blogging gods obviously are taken with the song, or otherwise they’d not have placed me in position to hear it. Who am I to argue? Okay then, here we go — a one, a two and a three — “Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer . . . ”

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Driving In My Car (A Musical Story)

Music, music, music. Since I was 10 or so years old — back in the days when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel — music has given me kicks, highs and peace of mind way beyond any of my other interests. The hours I’ve spent listening to music, reading about music and thinking and yapping about music are so enormous in number I don’t know how I found the time to hold down a job, let alone get married and maintain that union. Miracles sometimes do happen.

But, you know, I’m nowhere near the music freak that I used to be. Haven’t been for the last 10 or more years. I still go to clubs and auditoriums to catch concerts, but only one fourth as often as in my youthful prime. And at home, where once I played albums and CDs to death, listening to them and radio stations with the laserlike intensity of a neurosurgeon, I now half-listen more often than not, usually not reaching even that degree of concentration.

Yup, it took nearly forever to happen, but my obsession with music, drawing inspiration from my hairline, has been receding fast. Hell, keeping up that relentless pace began to seem nutty. “There’s more to life than music,” I must have said to myself at some point. “You need to find new hobbies, pal, like giving nifty new names each week to your pet hamsters and gerbils. Or organizing the garments in your closets and drawers alphabetically by brand name.”

Yet, despite my slackened involvement chez moi and at music venues, there’s still one place where I really love to listen to tunes, lapping them up greedily, paying attention to the lyrics of those with lyrics, and grooving like a hippie in training: In my car, almost needless to say. Maybe it has something to do with the sound waves bouncing around gleefully in a small, enclosed space. Or the distraction that songs provide from the stop-and-go misery that 90% of my driving entails. Whatever, good songs in my car raise my spirits rocket-quick.

And here’s another part of the reason why: My car is equipped with SiriusXM satellite radio, which I adore. So many channels, so many musical genres. When I climb in the car I can barely wait to start tapping the radio’s touchscreen buttons. And very often my destination is channel number 30, The Loft, where anything goes, though the concentration is on singer-songwriter and rock music veins.

It’s not as though I smile and clap at everything The Loft plays, however. Hardly. Lots of times I’m not impressed, and so begin racing madly from one channel to another in search of a tune or artist that I can relate to. But often there are occasions when The Loft, or another spot on the Sirius dial, seems to be reading my mind and my inner needs, sending out songs that caress me just right.

img_1348img_1354That’s what happened on Wednesday morning of last week when out I headed on what would prove to be a slow, slow journey. As seemingly always, I got caught by the red of the first traffic light I reached when attempting to exit my neighborhood, unable to make my desired right turn because of the non-turning hunk of junk in front of me. At last the light flipped colors. I made the right and then crawled 200 feet to where all traffic was stopped due to the gates being down at the local railroad tracks. It figured. Choo choo, motherf***er! But what did I care? For I was listening to The Loft, and by the time I reached my destination, a supermarket half a mile from my house, I’d heard two songs, back to back, that sent me aloft: Elliott Smith’s I Figured You Out and Late by Ben Folds. And half an hour later, on my way back home from the store, The Loft played another fine tune, Kyle Morton’s Survivalist Fantasy. I’d hit the trifecta!

What I liked about the three songs, beyond the way they made me go all mushy inside, is that I’d never heard them before. I’m always on the prowl for new goods. I Figured You Out, which Smith wrote years ago for Mary Lou Lord, who recorded it for one of her albums, is a knowing look at a broken relationship sung from the female’s perspective. Smith, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, never included I Figured You Out on any of his own albums. What I heard on The Loft is Smith’s original demo of the song. It was unearthed and released recently. The relaxed pace, Smith’s typically hushed voice, and more than anything the chiming melody really got to me. It’s one of those songs that can get stuck in your head. Very sadly there probably isn’t much more unreleased Smith material in the vaults. The poor guy left us in 2000, likely a suicide. The coroner, though, wasn’t fully able to confirm the cause of death.

Ben Folds, like Elliott Smith a singer-songwriter, never has been one of my favorites. His voice strikes me as vanilla, and his piano playing, loaded with loud, broad chords, seems scripted. Who knows, then, why I took to Late. I liked the melody, that’s for sure, and Folds’ loud, broad piano chords rubbed me the right way for a change. And I dug the lyrics, which flowed like the sentences of a good short story. Two days later, doing a few smidgeons of research for this article, I found out that Folds and Smith had been buddies and that Late is Folds’ tribute to his friend. Leave it to The Loft’s crack curators to know about the Smith/Folds friendship and to follow an obscure Smith tune with an homage.

Batting third in the lineup is Kyle Morton. He’s one of the multitudes of musicians who entered the marketplace within the past 20 years about whom I know next to nothing. But a few days ago I learned a few things. Morton’s main claim to fame is as lead singer of the indie tock band Typhoon, and Survivalist Fantasy comes from his brand new, and first, solo album What Will Destroy You. Also, he has suffered from Lyme disease since childhood. His physical woes have colored many of the songs he writes with a dark tint. But, like just about every other songwriter, he can’t ignore love. Survivalist Fantasy is a quietly lilting and beckoning track about love in the ruins.

Parking in front of my house I hauled the grocery bags out of the car. An obvious point had been made. Namely, this is a great time to be alive when it comes to music. Most of the worthy stuff from the past is available to hear, and the avalanches of good, new material are unending. Praise the musical gods,  whose prime mission is to oversee the soothing of the savage human soul.

 

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