Comes the middle of August, when the days are noticeably shorter and the light is longer and yellower, I yearn for the beach. With the water at its warmest and the crowds beginning to thin there’s no better place to be.
Maybe next year I’ll kick summer off with music. This year, I was set to thinking by a Mark Spitz post on Salon. Spitz has a late summer ritual built around a song. I get the sense that for him it’s a guilty pleasure, something he takes out and wonders anew at every August.
Why bury treasure? For me the wonder of music is that under the best circumstances–the right singer, song and arrangement–I’m taken back to a moment. I hope others have had this experience, not nostalgia, not memory but emotional time travel back to the perfect circumstance you and you alone will always associate with that one song.
It’s powerful stuff.
So here’s a handful of songs that always drag me back to those last few weeks before the autumnal equinox and plop me firmly on a pile of sand at the edge of the Atlantic. No matter what the calendar says
What Does it Take (to Win Your Love)–Jr. Walker and the All Stars 1969
Not an obvious front man, Junior Walker, born Autry DeWalt Mixon, Jr., was one of Motown’s dependable hit makers. Never a master vocalist, it was Walker’s tenor sax that anchored the band’s sound. (Rock fans, listen to Foreigner‘s Urgent to hear him tear it up). The start of the sax break in this gem from my childhood always tears at the edges of my heart.
Stolen Moments–Oliver Nelson Septet 1961
While the reigning belief is that things have never been more diverse and all-embracing a quick look at the pop charts from 50–even 40–years ago will demonstrate the opposite. Here’s a jazz standard with a haunting theme that I first heard as a child and reconnected with when I discovered WBGO. The longing is palpable.
Thankful for What You Got–William DeVaughn 1974
This 1974 slow groove always sets me to just lazing about. The story goes that De Vaughn wrote the song and scraped together the funds to record it from family and friends. Recorded in Philadelphia, it was heard by one of the Gamble & Huff mafia, polished up and became a monster hit with a message I think we all ought to take a moment to remember.
Ball and Chain–XTC 1982
The bands of our youth always mean the most to us. I discovered XTC when their brilliant double album, English Settlement, was released. Just buy it, there isn’t a bad track on the album and when you do, look for this song. There’s a recurring synthesized horn bit, a descending melancholy figure that takes me right back to my car roaring up I-95 in Connecticut on my way to one last September afternoon at the beach.
Promises, Promises–Naked Eyes, Tony Mansfield 12″ Mix 1983
My friend, the medievalist Andrew Tomko, who will agree this song should be on some list, says the extended mix is the required version. So here it is, with a long slow build to a moody masterpiece driven by disco-y guitar. EDM is never going to equal music made with real instruments. I hear this song, and I see the seagulls hovering in the late afternoon light over West End 2.
Cruel Summer-Bananarama 1983/1984
Released in the UK in 1983, it wasn’t until the following summer that the girls stormed the US charts. Because of their Fun Boy Three association these ladies still had some credibility. Absent that, this song would still earn them a place on the list. Another late-August-watching-the summer-slip-away gem that requires the extended version to prolong the excruciatingly beautiful sense of loss.
See you when I get back from the beach.
Don Henley–The Boys of Summer 1984
I couldn’t not include the song, driven by Mike Campbell’s understated yet perfect guitar bits, that set this all off. It was actually released well into the fall of 1984 and I distinctly remember being on the Throg’s Neck Bridge, approaching the Bronx and being stunned by that incredibly visual lyric Spitz notes as well: “Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” I’ve always been older than my years and so this approaching-midlife mood-setter appealed to me even at 22. It still does.