For some people, summer is less of a season and more of a state of mind. The season ends today, but it’s highly likely that you’ll be thinking about summer well into fall, no matter how much pumpkin spice is thrown into your eyes and face. There’s a decades-long industry dedicated solely to pumping out the sounds of summer, and musicians from Thin Lizzy to A Tribe Called Quest to the Beach Boys (who literally have a compilation called “Sounds of Summer“) have all thrown various hats in the ring over time. But for my money, there’s only one song that encapsulates every feeling of the summer state of mind, and it’s Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling.”
To the outside world, Richman is that funny weird guy that doubled as the Greek chorus of “There’s Something About Mary.” To a certain subset of music fans, Richman is the creative force behind an impeccably strong four decade (and running) songbook. Beginning with The Modern Lovers (who released their own song of the summer contender “Roadrunner“) in 1972, Richman has lived a very singular musical life since then, content to play with just a drummer and not stick to a certain setlist every night.
Still, “That Summer Feeling” might end up being his crowning achievement. Built on variations of two chords and running six minutes in length, “That Summer Feeling” gently builds throughout with slight drums and ethereal background vocals repeating the title over and over. Lyrically is where the song really shines, as Richman runs down a litany of innocuous summer events that, though they are probably specific to him, are somehow instantly relatable:
“When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it
When the teenage car gets the cop down on it”
However, as with life, the song is not all sunshine and roses. One of Richman’s strengths as a songwriter is his ability to slip in lines that counter what he just said. Take this verse, for example, where he imagines back to a simpler time riding around in boats and cars in Massachusetts:
“When the Oldsmobile has got the top down on it
When the catamaran has got the drop down on it
When the flat of the land has got the crop down on it
Some things look good before and some things never were
But that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life”
Over time, memories fade and all that you’re left with is the feeling, but even that is hard to trust. Research has shown that memories themselves are malleable, and that each time you remember something, you’re remembering the last time you remembered it until it eventually becomes distorted and forgotten. And hey, that’s depressing! But when you add these fleeting moments of your life together, that’s when you get that certain “feeling.” Richman sums it up nicely by the song’s end:
“When the playground that just was all dirt comes hauntin
And that little girl that called you a flirt
Memory comes tauntin
You pick these things apart they’re not that appealin
You put them together and you’ll get a certain feeling
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life”
This is not a summer song about cruising around with your bros to find chicks, or surfing, or taking your dad’s car out for a spin, or soaking up the sun. It’s about enjoying your time in the sun while you have it. It’s about accepting that nostalgia can be a trap if you treasure your past for the sake of your future. Most of all, it’s sentimental without being saccharine, which is one of the hardest things to do in music.
Summer’s gone for now but it will be back real soon, don’t you worry.