Tuesday, July 03, 2007

“Summer In The City” / The Lovin' Spoonful

It’s a Pavlovian reflex: On that first day every year when I walk outside and get slammed with the season’s first blast of hot, humid air, those ominous first chords of “Summer In the City” kick in in my brain. Talk about essential songs for your summer playlist – they don’t get any more classic than this.

I loved the Lovin' Spoonful anyway. They had so many hits in a row – “Daydream,” “Do You Believe In Magic,” You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Nashville Cats,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” “Younger Girl,” “Darling Be Home Soon” -- it’s astonishing to realize how short their career actually was, basically from mid-1965 to the end of 1967. For the most part, their songs were melodic and cheery, mellow and California-sunny – but then there’s “Summer in the City.” It seems like a total anomaly, hard-hitting and dark, full of urban grime and weariness and simmering rush-hour anger; it’s the one song that proves to me that frontman-songwriter John B. Sebastian really was a New Yorker.

Sebastian tears into that first line with existential despair: “Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty / Been down, isn’t a pity / Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city / All around, people looking half dead / Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a matchhead.” We’ve all been there, though some of us have had to put up with it more than others. (Ahem.) There’s an electric piano pulsing darkly underneath, like the third rail in the subway; you can’t get away from it.

We briefly shift out of minor key for the chorus, as if escaping the heat – “But tonight it’s a different world / Go out and find a girl / Come on, come on and dance all night / Despite the heat it’ll be all right.” But you can’t really escape, can you? The minor key takes over again before the chorus has even reached its end – “And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity / The days can’t be like the nights / In the summer / In the city / In the summer / In the city.” And even the instrumental break in the middle gets overlaid with honking traffic and jackhammers – pretty atmospheric, it always seemed to me.

The second half of the song presents the flip side -- “Cool town, evening in the city / Dressed so fine and a-looking so pretty ‘ -- but the minor key and that brooding arrangement keep it edgy and uncertain. “Cool cat, looking for a kitty / Gonna look in every corner of the city” – that’s full of desperation, that sense of grabbing relief at all costs; I picture the “cool cats” of West Side Story prowling the streets. And I'll bet Sebastian was thinking of Carole King’s “Up On the Roof” in that line “Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop / Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop.” It’s not “gonna meet you on my penthouse terrace” – no, it’s a lot more urban than that. People get knifed on rooftops, don’t they?

I love the drama of this song, the way the relentless drums and keyboards crank up your anxiety. Maybe if the Spoonful had stayed together longer, they'd have explored this darker side more (or more melancholy, like in "Coconut Grove," that would be just fine too). I guess we'll never know where else they might have gone -- but given how short a time the Lovin' Spoonful were around, we should be grateful for as many wonderful tracks as they gave us.

Summer In The City sample


Iñakink said...

What a great band and what a great song. I always think of John Sebastian as the closest thing to an American Ray.

And you forgot to mention he wore glasses! ;)

George said...

Great band with a great sound ... music that has withstood the ravages of time (at least in my mind). Just 4-1/2 years ago we lost Zal Yanovsky ... restauranteur in Kingston, Ontario.

I heard a story once about the origin of their name ... has something to do with sex and a measuring spoon ...

Ron Kane said...

"Coconut Grove" is an amazing song, just great. In fact, that whole album, "Hums of The Lovin' Spoonful", is wonderful.

NickS said...

Have you heard the Joe Jackson cover which is the title track, and opening number on Summer in the City: Live in New York?

It's a great version which is very faithful to the original but adds a little bit more rock and roll energy (and, of course, performed with Joe Jackson's intelligence as a singer).

Holly A Hughes said...

Oooh, oooh, oooh, MUST find that!