Summer in the Noir City

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Summer songs
can come to you on a breeze or an ill wind. The airwaves aren’t safe. The
Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City" first etched its
sweaty, ragged lustiness after a late-night July 14, 1966, news broadcast. Lying
on cool sheets, listening to Detroit’s WKNR (Keener 13) with the lights
out, I focused on the night-light dial, but the routine news broadcast made
me see gruesome images: A bulletin describing Richard Speck’s killing of
eight nursing students in a Chicago dormitory made time stand still. "Summer
in the City," the first song played afterward, might have been chosen by
the DJ to account for hellishness. He chose too well. The Lovin’ Spoonful
probably intended ironic richness, but the song’s sugar tasted bitter.
Since then, the idea of a summer song could never suggest insipid, harmless

I’ll credit
singer-songwriter John Sebastian with the sense to account for what’s both
mundane and hopeful in a summer’s day. But his notion of injecting realism
into pop consciousness was no match for that awful news, or how life’s
complexity could become so terrifying. The Chicago slayings undercut everyone’s
sense of security. It was one of those 60s series of events–like the killing
of Illinois Sen. Charles Percy’s daughter–that butchered one’s
innocence, producing psychic aftershocks that filmmakers as different as Arthur
Penn and Oliver Stone still can’t shake. It wasn’t so simple as political
disillusionment–imagine the horror of political assassination without so
much as the berserk rationale of subterfuge or ideology to explain it. That
late night news broadcast put a burden on "Summer in the City" that
the poor ol’ Lovin’ Spoonful were inadequate to carry. "Summer
in the City" has none of the junky joy that makes Eddie Cochran’s
"Summertime Blues" infectious. That record lifts your spirits; the
artiest parts of "Summer in the City" acknowledged urban depression.

It’s largely
a New York song, and probably appeals to people who want to feel that particular
parochial pride (New York pride is always a bit tarnished). But for me at the
time, New York was a faraway place, foreign, unknowable–like fate. Chicago
was close to Detroit, and was brought even closer by that startling slaughter.
The nearness of death seemed to define every metropolis, and Sebastian’s
New York ballad described a generic nihilism.

in the City"’s sound of jackhammers and car horns wasn’t romantic
or even fantastically "cinematic" like the car and motor sounds in
Roxy Music. All its details suggested fearful urbanism, like the mix of three
Filipino exchange nurses and five American senior nursing students intruded
upon by a psychotic loner. And the tick-tock beat that begins the record also
seemed like fate. A suspended note is dropped into a violent finality like a
gunshot blast. The emphatic opening is repeated twice more. And heard after
that news broadcast, it became an unshakable metronomic death knell.

Whatever "charm"
Sebastian’s street story had was stolen by horrifically real events. Its
particulars faded beneath details like the slaughter’s one survivor being
a woman who hid under her bed while her roommates were murdered. Her life-saving
gesture, mirroring most people’s childhood instinct, thus doomed even the
minutiae of domestic life. As I lay in bed, with the sound of Sebastian’s
hit filling the existential void, pop music itself seemed cursed. Sebastian’s
rasp, sufficiently wry for the Welcome Back Kotter jingle, was always
strangely ambiguous; there’s no warmth or trust in it (the unfortunate
consequence of a non-singer risking musical expression). He’s half-sneering,
which, I suppose, could be enjoyed for expressing a rogue’s daydream, but
instead it fit in with my naive nightmare. I felt: A madman’s serenade
would sound like this.

Probably it
was the connection with the lyric, "People lookin’ half dead,"
confirming the newscast’s terror that inspired panic. "Back of my
neck gettin’ dirty and gritty/Bend down isn’t it a pity" were
heard literally–memorable pronouncements of everyone’s mortality and
shame. Midway through, the chord shift into romance was far from redemptive:
"But at night it’s a different world/Goin’ out and find a girl"
also took on a subliminal dread. It simply was not appealing the way the Drifters’
"Up on the Roof" was romantically appealing. I wasn’t ready yet
to understand that sex-hungry desperation that the line describes. I only
imagined something perversely noirish: A stalking. Eight victimized girls.

Aversion came
primarily from the record’s luckless sound; it had the aura of a spoiled
summer and came to underscore a panic-ridden night. "Summer in the City"
vibrates not with a rollicking beat but shock and the restless uncertainty of
adolescent fear. (When Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe discovered a similar sound
for This Year’s Model, they knew that there was nothing more powerful
in life than irrational fear–and sex.) In pop music’s radio culture,
songs could come through like news–the latter a timely report, the former
a cosmic message. Eternally connected to those 1966 spree killings, "Summer
in the City" ratcheted up the dread in worldly awareness. Thank God that
over the years, Billy Stewart’s scat masterpiece "Summertime,"
Wings’ "My Love," Donna Summer’s "Hot Stuff" (and
a few others) occasionally lifted the summer song curse.