In the Summer, in the City, the Heat Changes a Tune

Published: August 6, 2006

Woodstock, N.Y.

HOT town. Summer in the city.

True 40 years back when John Sebastian, then with the famous-long-ago Lovin’ Spoonful, wrote those words and his group recorded one of those songs that takes on a life far beyond what anyone imagined. True now when Mr. Sebastian, 62, lives a nice life of playing what he wants when he wants and hanging out in his Woodstock house full of Craftsman tools, Solid Gold Dog Food and musical instruments from guitars to a prized souped-up washboard.

Still, as a bit of musico-sociology, consider the history of one of those songs that seems forever out there this time of year, at least for those of a certain aging demographic. Once “Summer in the City” was just a gritty bit of summer rock. Now it’s hard to listen and not wonder whether Mr. Sebastian unwittingly helped write the first Pre-Global Warming, Global Warming anthem.

There is, of course, a long litany of familiar summer songs that could run from Gershwin (“Summertime”) to Sly and the Family Stone (“Hot Fun in the Summertime”) to the 70’s group Mungo Jerry (“In the Summertime”) to the Beach Boys (take your pick).

But “Summer in the City,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart on Aug. 13, 1966, replacing the equally legendary “Wild Thing” (and to be replaced after three weeks by Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”) was and is different.

Instead of a languorous ode to summer’s charms, “Summer in the City” was dark, schizzy, urban and both ominous and celebratory. The living is not easy. There’s no beach or waves or catfish jumping, just “All around, people looking half dead walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.” Perhaps that sounds familiar.

Mixed in are jangly sounds of traffic (taken from 48th Street in Manhattan), a pneumatic drill and a snare drum pumped up by the echo in an eight-floor stairwell that was meant to sound like someone whacking on the world’s biggest garbage can. A surfing safari it ain’t.

“Summer in the City,” it turns out, began not with John Sebastian but with his brother Mark, seven years his junior, who was a 15-year-old prep school kid and who wrote what he thought of as a laconic urban summer song, something for someone like Sam Cooke, from the family apartment overlooking Washington Square Park. The song was more plaint than celebration but what remains from it was the chorus — the song’s upbeat appreciation of summer nights. (“Come-on come-on and dance all night. Despite the heat it’ll be alright.”)

John Sebastian, working on an old Wurlitzer pianette for the keyboard sounds, wanted to take that and build in contrast and tension. “I was going for the scary, minor chord, hit-the-road-Jack chord sequence that doesn’t warn you of what’s coming in the chorus.” The band’s bassist, Steve Boone, had noodled around with a staccato bridge, to which was added the traffic and drill sounds, and all three got writing credits for the song.

Back then, of course, no one thought the song was about much more than what John Sebastian thought of as a perverse New York pleasure, the two weeks at the end of August when, as he put it, “The heat was more than you could bear, everyone was walking around practically nude and you’re at your most Floridian for two weeks.”

Now most people have air-conditioning in a way they didn’t then, so, as long as the lights stay on, summer can be less perverse. But now weather is no longer just weather, it’s a grand riddle — just a few hot days or a harbinger of global doom?

So what was just a song about the heat in the city then, now takes on a darker, richer hue. What to make of the torrid days and sweltering night of this summer in the city? Who knows?

These days John Sebastian spends most of his summer in the country, not the city in a house full of music memorabilia like pictures of his late father, a renowned classical harmonica virtuoso; the blues mandolinist Yank Rachell; him playing with Bob Dylan or one showing two sets of dangling feet, his and Dolly Parton’s. It’s not summer in the city, but he says he can deal with that when he has to.

Mark Sebastian, who still lives in the city and writes songs, works as a film producer, says he suffers through the city heat even more than he did when he wrote his part of the song.

“I’m a tortured soul during the summer,” he said. “When I was out this week, I was in misery. I absolutely hate it.”

One thing that’s not in doubt is that it’s a good thing the song was released 40 years ago, when you could get it played on the radio. Released today, no matter what the temperature, it would almost certainly disappear like an ice cube in a teapot.

“The industry has been in the corporate noose for so long, it doesn’t even have a leg jiggle left,” said John Sebastian, who is more interested in long-dead bluesmen or Japanese jug bands than popular music. “There’s no one left saying, ‘Wait, we want to make … art.’ ”

Leave a Reply