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This week’s pick: “The Other Side of Summer,” released on Mighty Like a Rose (1991)
Gary Stewart: Get out of the water now!
As last weekend’s summer solstice was celebrated with 40th-anniversary screenings of Jaws, we couldn’t let the Song of the Week go by without celebrating another horror that will also keep you away from the most idyllic beaches.
It starts with a bouncy bass riff, a line about sunrise, a carnival-like organ fill, words like “magic” and “season,” and then the chorus kicks in with those perfect ’60s California harmonies. You think you’ve found your good-time song for the next three months. But think again.
Welcome to the summer song from hell. What starts like a celebration of paradise quickly turns into a chronicle of environmental degradation, failed ’60s idealism, modern-day hypocrisy, and everything else you can think of, designed to ruin the sunniest of days.
If you don’t listen closely, you might think you’re in the middle of the best record The Beach Boys never made. But nobody’s having fun here. “The Other Side of Summer” is to the California dream/myth what “Born in the U.S.A.” is to patriotism. And it all goes down so smoothly, wrapped in dense Wall of Sound production touches (rumored to include 14 separate keyboard tracks), masterfully executed vocal arrangements, and sing-along seductions. It’s the same kind of siren song that leads the best of us to crash into the rocks if we’re not paying attention. And that’s also the brilliance of this track—the way it’s consciously at war with itself, in the best sense. The track just keeps getting more lush and shimmery as the words and ideas become more sour, critical and downright despairing.
And while we’re referencing The Beach Boys (and once you hear those choruses, you’ll have to), this is less a close cousin to “California Girls” and “Surfin’ Safari” and more of a sequel to The Beach Boys’ sobering “Don’t Go Near the Water,” their 1971 (yes, they were on it that early) elegy on environmental degradation, brought on by a generation who stayed too long at the wrong party (their own counterculture version of fiddling while Rome burned).
After his encyclical last week, it’s tempting to think that if the pope went surfing, this would be his soundtrack. Given current trends, it needs to be ours as well.
David Gorman: I heard this song before I moved to Los Angeles, but if I had stopped to consider the lyrics beyond the digs at Baby Boomer idealism (I know Lennon is the most sacred of rock’s cows, but I took plenty of glee in hearing Elvis kick the wind out of “Imagine”) I may have reconsidered my move to the Coast. Years later, hearing “The Other Side of Summer” after living in L.A. long enough to call it home, I just can’t think of a song that so surgically and viciously dissects the myths of Hollywood. It’s a brutal, depressed picture postcard that offers up the many attractions of Southern California and destroys their glossy veneers one by one: the “poisonous surf,” the pop star hiding a heroin addiction, the obsession with youth, wildfires, the gated communities that border the most desolate poverty. This is Entourage directed by David Lynch, peeling back that sun-soaked, hedonistic Hollywood fantasy to expose the crushed dreams, talent and ambition left in its wake—“they bury your dreams and dig up the worthless” would make the perfect tagline to Lynch’s funhouse-mirror take on Vince and his crew’s breezy rise to fame and fortune.
There’s bile and rage behind every word of this song, but it’s not a detached, cynical dump on L.A. Where Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” like Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, ribbed the city with enough of a smirk to be bizarrely adopted as an anthem of civic pride (which is the most meta example of the song’s biting satire imaginable), “The Other Side of Summer” leaves no room for ironic celebration. Anyone who has been stopped at a traffic light in the Southland knows the discomfort of that “madman standing by the side of the road,” who’s forcing you to confront the city’s systemic problems of poverty and homelessness as you desperately try to avoid eye contact and the reality beyond your windshield. The imagery in these lyrics is too powerful, too insightful, rooted too much in the realities of the California dream to be dismissed as the same stereotypical bashing Angelinos have endured in books, movies, songs and TV shows for decades.
That this bitter pill is wrapped up in such a delicious ’60s surf song is just fantastic. You can roll down your windows on that perfect L.A. day and blast this screed with glee, humming along to the harmonies that try so desperately to soften the blow.
We just published a piece on Brian Wilson’s epic “Surf’s Up,” which was his attempt to bury the squeaky-clean fun ’n’ sun image of The Beach Boys, but here Costello uses the shimmering sound of their classic hits to demolish the fantasy upon which The Beach Boys were built. The production is big—it’s a delight to hear all the pianos bouncing off each other—but what I love is how the lead vocal is spat out with all the snarl the lyrics demand. Everyone around him is keeping the dream alive, but Elvis ain’t buying it. You’ll never hear the word “yeah” laced with so much negativity, and, really, delivering lines like “goodnight, god bless, and kiss goodbye to the earth” with an ironic smile would cheapen the whole song and rob it of its righteous rage.
Roll ’em down and crank ’em up: The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist is (at times) perfectly suitable for summer: