Cover Story: Summer Music, Some Aren't

Summer's here, and the time is right for dropping the windows and raising the volume

Roll up the windows — Marley plus spliffs equals summer fun.

Music can be inspired by the most mundane experiences imaginable, and nothing could be so commonplace as the simple and inexorable changing of seasons. Of all the seasons to inspire and delight, summer must certainly be considered tops among the quartet. What is it about summer that holds such a powerful sway for human beings?

There is probably a very Joseph Campbellesque answer relating to ancient practices and survival and growing seasons. For an answer a little closer to our modern homes, I would venture a guess that it's a holdover from those mythical times when we were chained to a school desk for nine months a year and summer shimmered tantalizingly on the horizon, dripping with sweet freedom and unlimited potential.

To tie these two ideas together, since I began buying my own music as a teen-ager, I have been convinced of the existence of summer music. By that, I do not mean music that is, by its very virtue, summer music. The Beach Boys sang about surfing and sand and the ocean and the sun and bikinis on California girls. You couldn't slip any more summer in there if you dipped it in Hawaiian Tropic tanning butter and pushed hard. (And how ironic is it that Brian Wilson's real allergies and imagined fears kept him from experiencing the season and lifestyle he championed so perfectly?

But I digress ...)

Neither am I referring to songs that are sporting the word "summer" in their titles. That is the cheapest way imaginable to become summer music, even if the mention leads the artist to actually describe the season in some meaningful manner in the context of the song.

No, I'm talking about that music, those songs, the entire albums that, for whatever irrational and inexplicable reasons, define summer for you personally. In my case, Bob Marley is summer music. Many would argue that Marley's music represents the tropical mindset of the sunny Jamaican atmosphere that spawned it, but that's not the point. Imprinting is really the issue here.

I bought Natty Dread on the strength of a Rolling Stone review the year I graduated from high school. It was a cloudless 85 degrees on the day I made my way out of the mall with Mr. Marley's masterpiece safely tucked under my arm. I hopped in my car, removed the plastic, and slipped the tape into the deck (yes, it was an 8-track ... oh, grow up, for the love of God. They existed. It was what we had. It's not like we had to crank them.).

I pulled out of the lot and began driving aimlessly, intent on every note that poured out of my 6-by-9 inch Jensens. It wasn't until I had smoked up about 20 percent of my weekly paycheck and listened to Natty Dread three times that I realized I hadn't rolled down my windows. With no air conditioning, and no discernible ventilation of any kind, I was sweating like Richard Simmons' oldies. And I liked it. And I replicated these very conditions every time I listened to Bob Marley.

Thus was born my peculiar musical quirk: There is some music that I resolutely refuse to listen to at any time of the year other than summer.

Marley is at the top of that list. I never listen to him outside of the late-May-to-Indian-summer-October window. The first time I smell burning leaves (from a lovely Midwest deciduous tree, of course), the Bob Marley tapes, albums and discs get shoved into their spaces until the sun burns high in the sky the following year.

Sly and the Family Stone run a close second. Other than "Hot Fun in the Summertime," there is nothing particularly summery about the band, but there is something about their music that just screams, "Play me at the toppest of volumes in the blinding light of a June afternoon where Frisbees are thrown and picnics are held."

The Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock and Roll, Nazareth's Close Enough for Rock 'n' Roll, specific Grand Funk and Bob Seger albums, Alice Cooper's School's Out, and various and sundry other titles from my formative listening days just never come out until the sun is hot and the world is bright. Strange, I'll admit, but hardly cause to contact Ripley.

Now, oddly enough, every album that I force to adhere to this strict listening policy dates solely to my high school-to-college period. When I was in college, there were plenty of artists I associated with summer (Graham Parker, the Romantics, Devo, Talking Heads) but none of them seemed to lend themselves to the "summer only" edict. I even tried to shoehorn some titles into the summer playlist, but it felt unnatural, and I abandoned the idea of adding to the established list.

And it has been suggested to me on more than one occasion (usually by someone trying to get me to play Marley at a Christmas gathering) that playing summer music in the winter would bring a little warmth into a cold and barren season. Nice try, bucko. You want warmth in the winter? Get a blanket out of the cedar chest. You want to listen to Marley at my place? Call me on Memorial Day. We'll talk then.

While we're on the subject, and since I sensed the question lingering in the air, I do indeed have winter albums as well. Nick Drake's Bryter Later, Jorma Kaukonen's Quah, Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets, George Harrison's Dark Horse and a host of others that sound just perfect when the days are short and the snow begins to accumulate, just as it was when I first experienced those particular albums. Of course, they sound great in the summer with the windows down, too: They bring a little dark reality and somber reflection into an otherwise sunny day.

Hey, you have your rules, and I have mine.

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