Summer in the Noir City


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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 fun.


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.


"Summer 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.


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