The grizzled cowpoke from Lonesome Dove spoke of the “sunny slopes of long ago”. If you have been reading my stuff long enough, you have probably gotten a whiff of nostalgia from me.
It’s true. Out of the memory-drum of my overstuffed brain tumbles only good memories, for the most part. The pain of loneliness, the shivers of guilt and regret seldom see the light of day. Tragedy, what little there is, I have cravenly jammed in a box, and sealed it shut with masking tape that will one day, no doubt, get brittle and split open.
But not today.
No, in my heart, I am mostly a young boy, or young man, with a lifetime ahead of me, a clean slate of decisions as yet unmade. I am a nine-year-old, with the taupe-colored garden hose building oceans in the sand behind my parents tiny Lake Michigan cottage. Along their shores, I have built interstate highways, complete with on-ramps and off-ramps. By sunset, the roads that I graded, which were only the width of my fourth-grade hand, had dried out, and were destined to be ruined by the evening winds.
And, my mind drifts again, to the boundless summer, and the summer songs. Very few things have as powerful a memory-trace than a certain song. Summer songs, in particular. If you are my age, you fondly remember the tunes crackling from the AM radio in your parents 1972 Buick Le Sabre. They are an umbilical to a time long ago, on the sunny slopes of yesterday. It was the heyday of “Top 40 Radio”.
Have you ever heard that term before? It is the touchstone of an era. WLS in Chicago, for example, was once one of the blowtorches of Top 40. That meant the DJ’s (which, again, for the uninitiated, stood for “Disk Jockey”, and these 20-somethings actually spun vinyl platters without cutting them in rhythmic cadences) would play the same 40 songs –more or less– all day.
Billboard Magazine would proudly display these 40 songs; Which were rising fast (“with a bullet”), which were sinking, which had topped the charts, and for how long. And the flamethrower radio stations would play only the top 40 on Billboard, over and over. Hence the name.
Today, while angling my way through the crowd at the local 4th of July parade, I noticed the lack of boomboxes or radios blaring out the pop tunes. There were plenty of i-pods and MP3’s hanging around, people plugged into their own reality. But there is no shared summer culture anymore, it seems.
And that got me to thinking: Which songs send me reeling to a certain summer, which ones evoke that sultry, hazy lemon-colored sunlight of the high summers of long ago, of July 4th’s long since celebrated. Oh, I know this has nothing to do with politics, but a man’s days are numbered, and, well… Obamacare becomes verily a whisper of smoke in the dance of the years gone by…
If I hear “Good Mornings, Starshine”, by a man with the singular name Oliver, I am transported to a parking lot at a Muskegon Kroger store, circa 1969. I can see the “Top Value Stamps” sign swinging in the evening breeze from the light standards, the night air clogged with moths and bugs. My entire family, my three brothers, mom and dad are there, shopping for supplies to take to the cottage. I even remember we bought a bag of Hershey’s Miniatures, which was a big treat and a splurge for my parents.
Of course, in 1976, Elton John had a gargantuan hit with “Philadelphia Freedom”. When I hear that, I am transported again to a summertime parking-lot scene, this time to a brand-new McDonald’s in Holt, Michigan. The pavement was new, and smelled of fresh asphalt. The song was blaring for the umpteenth time from the radio in my brother’s 1973 Capri. He had acceded to bring me along to the new hot-spot, but the primary reason for the trip to the new burger joint was to escort a cute girl named Linda that he hoped would be a girl-friend of his. Only later (much later) did I learn the song had nothing to do with patriotism, but was about the unrequited love the homosexual Elton had for the Lesbian Billy Jean King, who played tennis for a short-lived women’s tennis league. Her team’s name was the “Philadelphia Freedoms”.
Who can forget the summer of the Bee Gee’s “Jive Talkin'”? I hated the song then, and I still do. But, when I hear it, I think of a magnificent summer morning, standing outside our cottage, while mom was inside making pancakes, and filling the world with fresh tastiness.
The big kahuna of summer songs, for me, is “Dance with Me” by Orleans. I had a crush, the sort of world-ending crush that only a thirteen-year-old can have, on a girl named Karla (with a “k”). Now, of course, Karla never knew of this, how she filled my hormone-washed brain in the summer of 1975, but, when I hear Dance With Me, I am standing in line at the Dairy Twist, and Karla is there with her mother. I probably screwed up my courage to say “Hi”, but probably nothing more. Sitting in my mother’s Granada, eating my cone, that song came on. For as powerful a memory that is to me, it could have happened only last week..
Dance with me-
I want to be your partner, can’t you see
The music is just starting, night is falling,
and I am calling,
Dance with me…
When I hear Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place”, I can only think of my dad stopping to buy gas for his 1970 Mustang when we were coming back from the Pentwater Art Show. We went every year, and Dad would exhibit and sell his watercolors. The gas station was a lonely one along the interstate, with gas pumps that looked like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, perfectly round cylinders, in stainless steal with white illuminated tops. A summer storm was brewing, and we had to stop to put up the convertible top.
Theme from a Summer Place (one of the most popular songs, by the way, of the 1960’s, at least as a reflection of total airplay, and which you almost never hear on the radio anymore) was later rather ruined for me when it was used in the song-tacks of innumerable movies to evoke the late 1950’s, especially Animal House. I really dislike it when they do that to one of my summer songs…
Yep. Those summer songs…
Queen of Hearts, by Juice Newton. Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, by Meatloaf. Ebony Eyes by Bob Welch. Undercover Angel by Alan O’Day. You Were Always on My Mind, by Willie Nelson. Killer Queen, by Queen. Copacabana by Barry Manilow. If you Leave Me Now, by Chicago…
…Rhinestone Cowboy, by Glen Campbell. Sitting in a field by the Junior High, waiting for the fireworks, July 4th, 1976. We had those aluminum folding chairs with the plastic fabric webbing, and it was the bi-centennial…
Oh, the years. All those songs on the sunny slopes of long ago…