Cover Story: Hot Issue: Summer Wheeze

One man's quest to conquer his irrational fear of suddenly (and inexplicably) "hip" '70s Soft Rock


"Soft Rock on the radio/ Everything comes 'round again"

— Hotel Lights, "A.M. Slow Golden Hit"

Summer-friendly Soft Rock (aka "Mellow Gold") from the 1970s creeps me out. Hugely.

To me, the guitar lead in Seals & Crofts' Soft Rock anthem "Summer Breeze" is the single most terrifying sound ever recorded. I sweat. My stomach aches. I fall over things to turn the station.

I have no idea why I feel this way, so I set out on a mission recently. I was going to confront my demons and discover why I find this music absolutely bone- and spine-chilling.

I figured I'd have no trouble finding an "A.M. radio '70s hits" CD in a bargain bin for $2.99 almost anywhere. Walgreens?

Nope. CVS? No. Target? Nothing even close.

My plans were being foiled. How could I face my fears without having a little one-on-one time with this golden shower of hits?

Frustrated, I desperately hit Best Buy. I loathe the place, primarily because I am forced to say "Hi" to some hyper-friendly guy in a blue vest every time I walk through their front doors.

Best Buy has a ton of crap compilations, but none fit my criteria — must be '70s-era, must have the words "Soft Rock" in the title and must contain one song by the band America, because my editor wanted a summer tie-in and America plays Riverbend on June 26.

The compilations at the big blue box store had covers that looked like Soft Rock collections — lots of gauzy, Barbara Walters Special soft-lens designs with two lovers' hands entwined.

Imagery like sunsets with bird silhouettes streaking across or sunrises with silhouetted couples hugging on foamy beaches in the foreground takes me right back to my childhood. Sitting on the couch. After school. Watching The Brady Bunch. Those "A.M. Gold" commercials that ran ad nauseam back then were my introduction to Soft Rock.

Over a montage of the aforementioned soft-focus stills, the names of the songs would scroll and every fifth artist would have a snippet of their song played. I saw one particular commercial so often, I could sing along with it: "Summer breeze/ Makes me feel fine/ Blowing through the jasmine in my mind ... Well, I keep on thinkin 'bout you/ Sister golden hair surprise/ And I just can't live without you/ Can't you see it in my eyes? ..."

You get the picture. I could even do the medley on command, without any TV backing. And save a few exceptions, it's my full base of knowledge when it comes to what I define as "Soft Rock."

That's another reason I need to find a Soft Rock CD for research — I know only about 12 seconds of about 15 Soft Rock songs.

After Best Buy let me down, I gave up my search. Soft Rock wasn't worth the fuss.

I kept thinking about it, though. Part of my phobia might be triggered by my philosophical opposition to Soft Rock. I mean, the name alone is achingly wimpy. It's like the phrase "flaccid penis." Yech.

Also, my blood runs thick with a love for real Rock & Roll, music with spirit, rebelliousness, creativity. Soft Rock is the exact opposite. It's boring by its very nature.

"E-Z" listening music is wallpaper music. You don't notice it because it's neither ugly nor pretty. It's just there.

I've thought about whether my fear could be the result of childhood trauma. But my only clear memories even remotely connected to the music (besides those commercials) are of riding in the tiny "cubby hole" of our family VW Bug, headed to Atlanta to visit relatives, watching the sky skid by while listening to "Rhinestone Cowboy," which every radio station seemed to play every 10 minutes. (I consider "Cowboy" an honorary Soft Rock classic.)

The only other vivid memory of that trip is seeing a car pulled over, its hood up and flames shooting out of the engine 60 feet into the air. Creepy memory, for sure, but it wasn't all that traumatic.

After I'd thrown in the towel, I was browsing the music bins at a local bookseller and found an A.M. Goldmine of "various artists" collections. Alas, I had to loosen my criteria. I selected the two-CD Soft Rock Gold, partly for its inclusion of "Summer Breeze" and an Ambrosia song (and overlooking the infuriating inclusion of songs by Extreme and Joan Osborne). But mostly I got it for the cover, which featured a collage of promo shots from a motley cluster of bands.

There they were, in their prime — Cat Stevens, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Rod Stewart. And then there were some shaggy-haired guys with moustaches. I haven't a clue as to who they are.

That was another Soft Rock turn-off — the total lack of presence or personality. Most of these lesser-known acts could go on the road together on a Soft Rock package tour (Snoozapalooza?) and, as long as the moustache ratio was ridiculously high, they could just be "a bunch of dudes."

I'd love to say I excitedly ran home and ripped open the CD, pointed the speakers at my face and let the Soft Rock become one with me. I'd love to give you an answer, perhaps to help others overcome this terrifying disorder. But my experiment ran into some problems.

When I was finally feeling strong enough and popped the disc in while doing dishes, I went directly to Track 4, "Summer Breeze." It wasn't until that moment I realized I'd never heard the entire song. About two minutes in, with the twinge in my stomach growing to full ache, I realized I shall never hear it again.

Like the "Stanford Prison Experiment," I had to pull the plug on the whole endeavor for safety reasons. I just couldn't listen any more. And there were too many objects within reach that were perfect for gouging out my eardrums. Once I had the melon-baller in hand, I knew it was time to stop.

I won't say there isn't a single Soft Rock anthem that doesn't tug at my charred heart-strings. "Baby Come Back" gets me. And I will also confess a fondness for some current bands that claim Soft Rock influence.

Beyond all reason, Soft Rock is suddenly "cool." (I would say "cool again," but was it ever really?) Modern artists like Midlake, Ben Kweller and Nada Surf are often breathtaking with their delicate, emotional portraits that nod (without a wink) to the Mellow Gold of yesteryear. So clearly my disdain isn't entirely based on the presentation or songwriting that defines the era.

Ultimately, I blame my Soft Rock phobia on having my crucial developmental years occur during an era when people thought "leisure suits" were dyn-o-mite. I really think my fear is not of '70s Soft Rock but of the '70s themselves — which explains my hospitalization for an unknown illness after watching an I Love the '70s marathon on VH1.

The '70s were creepy in general — the fashion, the facial hair, the political folly. Hmmmm. Think I'll look back on the '00s the same way?

I wonder if I should save this essay and bring it out in 2037, replacing the words "Soft Rock" with "Crunk" or "Emo." Will it still be applicable and accurate?

I have to imagine there's a 7-year-old out there right now who will one day cower at the strains of Lil Jon and flinch with every Screamo roar. I feel for ya, kid.

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