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The New York City of my youth was a fading star. We grew up on my parents’ stories of New York in the ’40s and ’50s; its heyday many would say. The glamour of Manhattan, the Waldorf and the Plaza, the bustling of its industries, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees, Broadway hits coming one after the other. But all that started to unravel in the ’60s and by the time I was fully conscious in the early ’70s, NYC was on the brink of bankruptcy, the Dodgers long gone, and my parents pretty much abandoned going into the City, as we called it on Long Island, for anything but the Christmas Show at Radio City. But the City was still a major destination for school field trips and the sight of the NY skyline still reminded us that NY was the center of the world. From far away, you couldn’t see the City fraying at the edges.
My best friend in high school loved the theater, and starting around 1975, we would regularly take the train to Manhattan and walk up from Penn Station to Times Square to buy half price tickets for Broadway shows. Sometimes we’d even buy tickets for the Saturday matinee and then an evening show. Twenty dollars went far in those days. I was under strict orders not to wander far from Midtown, even though Midtown by that point was peep shows and massage parlors, interspersed with restaurants, camera discount stores, and theaters. Once I told my mother I had walked through Central Park and remarked how pretty it was. She told me not to ever set foot in Central Park again. I never told her that sometimes we took the subway.
But through the grime, NYC was still a magical place. When you passed over the bridge or through the tunnel from Long Island to Manhattan, you crossed into a completely different world with a feeling like no other. The sheer scale of the place, the volume of people, the increased pace, the stores, the hawkers, the street artists. When you tilted your head, you just kept looking up and up and up. The constant noise. The sound I most associate with NYC is the honking of horns. You rarely hear horns honking in the suburbs. But in NYC, it’s the soundtrack, the background music of the city.
Which brings me to my title. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” while driving. The iconic bridge, with its jackhammer and honking horns, put me back in NYC in 1975 on a typical NY summer’s day. Summer in NYC also has a special feel: The heat radiates off the sidewalks and the streets, making the canyons of NYC shimmer in the sun. The smells are amplified. I think there are even more horns. Walking around, you are sweaty and slimy of course, but you also feel something else. You feel gritty, like you’re coated in the same black soot that covers the buildings from the exhaust of thousands of cars and buses.
“Hot town, summer in the city. Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty”
As I was listening to the song, I started to think about how much the lyrics and the music so perfectly capture the feel and sounds of NYC in the summer. It’s an edgy song, describing the misery of the relentless heat when you are trapped in concrete in the days before air conditioning, “hotter than a match head”, a far cry from languorous and lazy summer days depicted in other classics like Gershwin’s “Summertime” or even Mungo Jerry’s. I had never questioned that the song was about NYC. But when this month’s topic was introduced, I thought that it would be the perfect time to find out for sure.
Of course it was! John Sebastian and his family grew up in New York City. The song was actually first conceived by his younger brother Mark when he was around 15. It expressed his teenage longing to get away: “Our family’s apartment was at 29 Washington Square West, the 15th floor, and my bedroom looked out over the Hudson. I wanted to run away, go down by the docks, dreaming of whatever this romance thing was, having a band of my own.” (NY Times).
“But the night it’s a different world, go out and find a girl. Come on, come on and dance all night. Despite the heat, it will be alright”.
Apparently, John liked the transition evoked between the hot town by day and the cooler nights of the chorus. His brother had imagined it as a ballad, but John heightened the tension by creating the edgy piano solo and the rough vocal “Hot town”. They added the street sounds by recording on 48th street (Applebome, 2006), the first rock song to do so, even hiring an old-time radio sound effects guy to get the feel just right, according to one site.
His brother Mark remembers: “That summer I was in the Loire with my mom dragging me around to chateaus. I wanted to be in New York and hear “Summer in the City” playing from the window. My mom rented a radio and I heard “I Want You” from Dylan, then started to hear my song. I was in shock. What I’d written was more of a mellow ballad, and John took it to this whole other place that was aggressive and exciting and fun.” (NY Times).
The music smooths out for the chorus and the vocals change, perfectly capturing the relief brought on by nightfall. Even if the temperature is still high, the sun no longer drills into your brain and it’s time to relax and enjoy yourself. Even if you didn’t dance, people would go out on the porch or stoop to catch the evening breeze.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the artistry of rock and roll. I’ve always loved it as music-actually the first rock song I ever heard was Summer in the City playing on a jukebox when I was about 7. But now I notice how well many of the songs are crafted, the texturing and layering of sound, and the thought and care that went into making the best of them. Did you know it took over 100 hours of recording time to produce the 5:12 minutes of “The Boxer”? George Halee produced it and Summer and the City as well. In NYC of course!
The NYC of Summer in the City is long gone. NYC came roaring back in the ’90s and cleaned up its act (or at least the peep shows). Many of us, though, surprisingly feel nostalgia for the gritty decay of 1970’s NYC. But we still have that musical gem from 1966 that will take us back there for 2:39. Which is probably just the right amount of time.