The most popular summer songs tend to be about cars and sunshine and sweet romances, all things designed to makes us feel nostalgic and joyful when we hear them booming out of a stereo system. Yet Jonathan Richman has always looked at taken-for-granted subjects in a slightly askew manner, singing rhymes that sound like they were conjured up by Dr. Seuss’ morose cousin in so wobbly a manner that it feels like he somehow might spin right out of the recording.
So it’s no surprise that his 1983 song “That Summer Feeling” ends up revealing more about the hottest season, and our sometimes over-romanticized perception of it, than so many of the summer radio classics that we know and love. The song was featured on the Jonathan Sings! album, where Richman maintained the minimalist, oddball style he cultivated with his influential band The Modern Lovers yet matured after a fashion. As legendary rock critic Robert Christgau said about the album, “It couldn’t have happened if he hadn’t finally grown up, but it wouldn’t have been half as striking if he’d relinquished his kiddie lyricism in the bargain.”
Christgau called “That Summer Feeling,” an “admonitory campfire anthem,” and that description really nails a song that hits all the summer clichés but presents them in the shadows. For example, Richman sets an idyllic and rowdy seasonal scene with the following verse: “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.” Yet he quickly undercuts it all with the bittersweet refrain: “That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.”
Richman contrasts the fun times of the present with how things will change in the future: “And if you wait until you’re older/A sad resentment will smolder one day.” As the song progresses, he seems to suggest that maybe the pleasures of those magical months are more illusory than we’d like to admit: “And you boys long for some little girl that you dated/Do you long for her or for the way you were?”
“You pick these things apart they’re not that appealin’,” he sings. “You put them together and you’ll get a certain feeling.” It is a rare song that can make you long for the summer days of youth and still cast doubt on how special they really were in the first place. Then again, Jonathan Richman is a rare songwriter. So if you’re worn out already by the relentless glorification of this season, find an air conditioned-room far from the beach and play “That Summer Feeling” for a wistful, wonderful take on the next three months.