Hard times and summer songs

After the winter we’ve just survived, it says here that the fates have sealed it and we are to be rewarded with a freakily fertile spring followed by a mind-blowing summer here in green and getting greener land. But a great summer needs a great summer song and lo and behold all ye chomping-in-the-paddock swimmers, sailors, cyclists, swingers, teenage kickers, midnight cruisers, lake-runners, bullet-bikers, creek-dippers, rodeo boy-and-girl-watchers, we’ve got one.

Make it two.

Now. As you may have gathered, I take seriously this declaration of a definitive summer song. To be sure, the concept itself is a purely imaginary thing, maybe only my imagination, but I do like to imagine that in these days of sequestered shows and personal playlists a single song can still join at the hip we the loners and show-offs and wallflowers and me and you and the seven deer I saw milling around down on Post Road by the airport yesterday. Furthermore, I declare that with the steady diet of planetary death and despair we avail ourselves to everyday in varying degrees and temperatures, a discussion of summer songs is a good thing.

Growing up as I did pedaling, walking, driving and running around these lakes, creeks and rivers with the radio on, that dream about a single song, sun up to sun down for three moonths, connecting the beaches of Minneapolis to Coney Island, was always alive. In convertibles and minivans, at the ice cream stand and ballpark, on the back porch, in the back seat, in the proverbial hammock with the proverbial cold beverage: One single song to talk about, make out to, space out to.

Which is to say that a summer song must be, in addition to frothy fun, timely. That is, it must acknowledge, though not pander to, the tenor of the times. It must feel simultaneously urgent and timeless in its yowl. Which brings us to this year’s first great summer song, the best I’ve heard in years, The Cars’ “Sad Song.”

It helps that I first heard it on The Current, with the car windows down and the smell of burgers on a grill, hops, grains, gasoline, pot hole tar and dead leaves and the dirty grass silting up out of the air vents as the laser guitar and synthesizer snaked out of the speakers, thousands of speakers, all at once. I loved it the first time I heard it, declaring it to myself as a great blues song for these dumb doomsdays; another yer-not-alone message for the latest mess age.

The sound itself is vintage Cars, as they say, so much so that along with its obvious nods to Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and Gary Numan’s “Cars,” it borrows heavily from their own catalog, most effervescently “Let’s Go.” It’s sonically up-to-radio-date, but still manages to sound sexy-weary, thanks largely to the pursed wisdom of Rick Ocasek, a new wave elder that doesn’t flinch when describing the lay of the land (“Too many heartaches waiting to strike/Too many clowns saying everything’s alright/Too many fires scorching your mind/Too many preachers telling you what to find”) but the music itself — with a entrance-ramp-as-runway break — damn near promises a new day rising around the corner.

Like so many great songs, “Sad Song” pulls the listener into the moment, knowing full well that it won’t be long before you or yours stop keeping on. “Apocalypse Now” read the cover headline of Newsweek a couple weeks ago and still people sat in front of the coffee shop and drank their coffee and made polite talk about the lawns and gardens and the local rock band down the street. “What If The Apocalypse Already Happened?,” asked the cover of City Pages last week and still people obeyed the traffic lights, got up and went to work, were kind to each other.

The Cars play First Avenue next month, and The Damnwells play the 7th St. Entry on Sunday. If “Sad Song” is the sunny blues explosion, then The Damnwells’ “The Great Unknown” is the moonshine of the moment. This is a quiet anthem for star-gazing, rumination, and camping debauchery. Let’s go:

Oh unseen Lord tell me what you want from me
And I’ll see what I can do about it
Oh unseen Lord aren’t your hands awfully full
With Jesus Christ, Hare Krishna, Maimonides
Oh I wish you well
I love you but it’s complicated

I will drive you home
Though we’re both drunk and stoned
Just follow the stars and speeding red cars
Into the great unknown

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.