Group Writing: Summer in the City

 

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.

Published in Group Writing
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There are 23 comments.

  1. Gary McVey Contributor

    A great post, GossCat. I was there too, and you really captured the feeling of the times. 

    • #1
    • June 8, 2019, at 12:37 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  2. Mim526 Member

    Gossamer Cat:

    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.

    Hooks you in from the first, ” Hot town, summer in the city….”

    I’m fine with experiencing NYC from afar, and this OP gave a look across decades. Good job, @gossamercat!

    • #2
    • June 8, 2019, at 1:19 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  3. Arahant Member

    I don’t think anyone ever wrote songs about where I grew up. At least, not famous songs.

    • #3
    • June 8, 2019, at 2:50 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. Franco Member

    I think we are about the same age. That was one of my favorite songs back then. Now as a musician I can appreciate it as an extremely well-crafted song, which always…wait for it… end up as hits. The lyrics are simple and evocative. “Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city”, another good line.

    Very nice writing on your part as well. I’ve spent a few summers in NYC in different periods of my life and you capture the atmosphere perfectly! 

    • #4
    • June 8, 2019, at 3:10 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  5. Front Seat Cat Member

    Great story – I could picture all of it and love all the songs you mentioned. It seems every generation has a story like that complete with the music and descriptions – a snapshot of where we are and where we’re going…..uh…where are we going??

    • #5
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:34 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Jon1979 Lincoln

    It’s interesting that “Summer in the City” was an evocative song by Sebastian about the grit of summer life in NYC, done at the last possible moment (1966) where that couldn’t be tied into the city’s decline, being written just prior to the first summer under John Lindsay as mayor, while a decade later, his theme for “Welcome Back, Kotter” which hit the top of the charts was the equivalent of trying to put lipstick on a pig, in that it was a calm, soothing tune about what was by 1975 the hellhole of New York City in general and its public education system in particular (and Sebastian’s lyrics kind of point to the question of what kind of nut would voluntarily go back into that?)

    • #6
    • June 8, 2019, at 6:59 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. The Reticulator Member

    Mim526 (View Comment):
    I’m fine with experiencing NYC from afar, and this OP gave a look across decades. Good job, @gossamercat!

    metoo. I’ve never visited NYC, and don’t like hot places dominated by concrete and asphalt. But that’s a great article. I never knew how the song related specifically to NYC, so now I like it more than ever.

    • #7
    • June 8, 2019, at 7:36 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A great post, GossCat. I was there too, and you really captured the feeling of the times.

    When I sat down to write, I wasn’t quite sure what was going to come out! Thank you @garymcvey, @thereticulator and to all the others for your kind words.

    • #8
    • June 8, 2019, at 8:54 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I don’t think anyone ever wrote songs about where I grew up. At least, not famous songs.

    I got to see Frank Sinatra at the end of his career. And for his encore, he said “What place has more songs written about it than any other?” and then he listed a bunch of cities while we all screamed “No”. And then he got to New York and we all screamed “Yes” while the intro of New York, New York started to play.

    Of course, I have to admit that few songs were written about the suburbs of Long Island. But we claim credit for NYC songs anyway and as far as NYC is concerned, the rest of NY is just a place to sleep or for weekend getaways.

    • #9
    • June 8, 2019, at 8:59 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat Post author

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    It’s interesting that “Summer in the City” was an evocative song by Sebastian about the grit of summer life in NYC, done at the last possible moment (1966) where that couldn’t be tied into the city’s decline, being written just prior to the first summer under John Lindsay as mayor, while a decade later, his theme for “Welcome Back, Kotter” which hit the top of the charts was the equivalent of trying to put lipstick on a pig, in that it was a calm, soothing tune about what was by 1975 the hellhole of New York City in general and its public education system in particular (and Sebastian’s lyrics kind of point to the question of what kind of nut would voluntarily go back into that?)

    That is very true. Although I’ve tied the two together, all of the worst was still in the future at that point. 

    • #10
    • June 8, 2019, at 9:02 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Arahant Member

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):
    Of course, I have to admit that few songs were written about the suburbs of Long Island. But we claim credit for NYC songs anyway and as far as NYC is concerned, the rest of NY is just a place to sleep or for weekend getaways.

    Yeah, I could similarly claim Chicago, but I don’t. Now, there are songs that mention my hometown (Steve Goodman’s “The Lincoln Park Pirates,” for instance), but it’s not the same as being about it in general.

    • #11
    • June 8, 2019, at 9:12 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Buckpasser Member

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    It’s interesting that “Summer in the City” was an evocative song by Sebastian about the grit of summer life in NYC, done at the last possible moment (1966) where that couldn’t be tied into the city’s decline, being written just prior to the first summer under John Lindsay as mayor, while a decade later, his theme for “Welcome Back, Kotter” which hit the top of the charts was the equivalent of trying to put lipstick on a pig, in that it was a calm, soothing tune about what was by 1975 the hellhole of New York City in general and its public education system in particular (and Sebastian’s lyrics kind of point to the question of what kind of nut would voluntarily go back into that?)

     

    In 1972 Terry Cashman and Tommy West recorded “American City Suite” which captured the idealistic NYC that lasted until around Sebastian’s time. It conveyed the sadness that some native New Yorkers had at seeing the almost destruction of a beautiful city.

    • #12
    • June 8, 2019, at 10:11 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Hoyacon Member

    Let’s not forget the Brill Building (1619 Broadway), a stop/pilgrimage I always make when in NYC. It was the center of the music industry before the war, but I mostly associate it with the great pop songwriters of their day (50’s-60’s) from New York–many from Brooklyn and mostly Jewish. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Doc Pomus, Neil Sedaka. Their songs weren’t always necessarily about New York (well . . . On Broadway, Up On the Roof), but, for me, they are particularly evocative of a time and place in New York.

    • #13
    • June 8, 2019, at 11:16 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  14. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Buckpasser (View Comment):

     

    In 1972 Terry Cashman and Tommy West recorded “American City Suite” which captured the idealistic NYC that lasted until around Sebastian’s time. It conveyed the sadness that some native New Yorkers had at seeing the almost destruction of a beautiful city.

    New York’s downturn really started in the late 1950s, and is sort of like the current situation under the current mayor, in that while you can see signs of the rot, it didn’t become undeniable for almost a decade. My aunt and uncle were a year gone from Parkchester in the Bronx when John Lindsay was elected, because taking the No. 6 train through the South Bronx to Manhattan already was an unnerving proposition during off-hours.

    (In a related musical vein from later on, it was interesting to see the reaction to Paul Simon’s co-authored play “The Capeman”, which opened 21 years ago as the city was in its Giuliani recovery. It seemed to wax nostalgic for the type of edgy, excitement of a homicidal gang member that occurred during Simon’s youth in the late 1950s, but in hindsight was a sign of the rot setting in that exploded in the mid-60s, just as Sebastian’s song was released. Simon’s musical was not greeted warmly by a city just digging out from three decades in purgatory; now with enough people having forgotten or never having lived what turned New York into a hellhole for all but the very rich and privileged in the first place, it likely would get a far warmer reception from the “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” crowd.)

    • #14
    • June 8, 2019, at 12:10 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. Basil Fawlty Member

    Anyone have a Hotel Dixie story? I don’t.

    • #15
    • June 8, 2019, at 2:36 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat Post author

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Let’s not forget the Brill Building (1619 Broadway), a stop/pilgrimage I always make when in NYC. It was the center of the music industry before the war, but I mostly associate it with the great pop songwriters of their day (50’s-60’s) from New York–many from Brooklyn and mostly Jewish. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Doc Pomus, Neil Sedaka. Their songs weren’t always necessarily about New York (well . . . On Broadway, Up On the Roof), but, for me, they are particularly evocative of a time and place in New York.

    Agreed. The singer-songwriters that came out of that period in NY are every bit a part of the city and I think it comes through in their music. I used to walk by the Brill building oblivious to its history, but now I think there’s a plaque. In the Last Waltz, the Band also mention how they pay homage to it when they are in NY. I believe that was why Robbie Robertson invited Neil Diamond to play in their last concert, a move that was blasted by some, even his own band members.

    • #16
    • June 8, 2019, at 2:43 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  17. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat Post author

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Anyone have a Hotel Dixie story? I don’t.

    Had to look that one up. Jeez! I’m glad I don’t. 

    I read a book by Patty Smith about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe. Just Kids. My friend sent it to me because it takes place in the 70’s and it captures the feel of the city in those days particularly well. They lived at the Hotel Chelsea, an artistic mecca with an illustrious and sometimes infamous history, but it sounded really seedy and drug infested during that period. But not as bad as Hotel Dixie.

    • #17
    • June 8, 2019, at 2:50 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  18. Hoyacon Member

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Anyone have a Hotel Dixie story? I don’t.

    Had to look that one up. Jeez! I’m glad I don’t.

    I read a book by Patty Smith about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe. Just Kids. My friend sent it to me because it takes place in the 70’s and it captures the feel of the city in those days particularly well. They lived at the Hotel Chelsea, an artistic mecca with an illustrious and sometimes infamous history, but it sounded really seedy and drug infested during that period. But not as bad as Hotel Dixie.

    I stayed at the Dixie and lived to tell. Loved the “lobby,” which was essentially a hang-out for local “entrepreneurs” (none of whom were actually staying there). In fact, it was the night I went to see Purlie, with Melba Moore, Cleavon Little, and Sherman Hemsley–still the best Broadway show I’ve ever seen. I bought a white turtleneck in an Army-Navy store on 42nd St. because I was afraid of being underdressed in a t-shirt at the show. A real fashionista.

    As far as Patty Smith goes, you couldn’t get much more seedy and drug-infested than “music meccas” Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, homes of such “luminaries” as the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Television, and the New York Dolls. Unless we’re talking about Warhol’s factory.

    • #18
    • June 8, 2019, at 4:23 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. Basil Fawlty Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    I stayed at the Dixie and lived to tell. Loved the “lobby,” which was essentially a hang-out for local “entrepreneurs” (none of whom were actually staying there). In fact, it was the night I went to see Purlie, with Melba Moore, Cleavon Little, and Sherman Hemsley–still the best Broadway show I’ve ever seen. I bought a white turtleneck in an Army-Navy store on 42nd St. because I was afraid of being underdressed in a t-shirt at the show. A real fashionista.

    Any hotel where you could walk between 42nd and 43rd without going outside was good. But you still had to get back to the Port Authority in one piece to get out of the nasty city.

    • #19
    • June 8, 2019, at 4:36 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. JoelB Member

    @mim526 John Sebastian looks like he’s cracking up trying to fake the music for the video.

    • #20
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:00 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. Hoyacon Member

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    I stayed at the Dixie and lived to tell. Loved the “lobby,” which was essentially a hang-out for local “entrepreneurs” (none of whom were actually staying there). In fact, it was the night I went to see Purlie, with Melba Moore, Cleavon Little, and Sherman Hemsley–still the best Broadway show I’ve ever seen. I bought a white turtleneck in an Army-Navy store on 42nd St. because I was afraid of being underdressed in a t-shirt at the show. A real fashionista.

    Any hotel where you could walk between 42nd and 43rd without going outside was good. But you still had to get back to the Port Authority in one piece to get out of the nasty city.

    First Virginia, then Holabird, and now this. We appear to have some common elements about which you should be concerned. Or maybe I should be.

    • #21
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:04 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. Basil Fawlty Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    I stayed at the Dixie and lived to tell. Loved the “lobby,” which was essentially a hang-out for local “entrepreneurs” (none of whom were actually staying there). In fact, it was the night I went to see Purlie, with Melba Moore, Cleavon Little, and Sherman Hemsley–still the best Broadway show I’ve ever seen. I bought a white turtleneck in an Army-Navy store on 42nd St. because I was afraid of being underdressed in a t-shirt at the show. A real fashionista.

    Any hotel where you could walk between 42nd and 43rd without going outside was good. But you still had to get back to the Port Authority in one piece to get out of the nasty city.

    First Virginia, then Holabird, and now this. We appear to have some common elements about which you should be concerned. Or maybe I should be.

    We both should be.

    • #22
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:09 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    A wonderful post about memories and music. The low point for New York City was chronicling by Lou Reed’s New York.

    What’s next for this month of Hot Stuff!? Disco Duck? you will write about hot jazz, or “Le Jazz Hot!”

    This is an entry in June’s theme series: Hot Stuff!” We have a lot of open days as the summer season starts. Please stop by and sign up to share your own angle on the topic, however loosely construed.

    • #23
    • June 8, 2019, at 7:25 PM PDT
    • 1 like