Ode to Joy

The other week, deep summer, we went to see David Johansen in his persona as Buster Poindexter. For many years now, Johansen, former New York Dolls lead singer and front flounce, has in his cabaret act been one of the great American songbook curators (Jonathan Schwartz wishes), lurking in the brilliant corners of U.S. pop. (Without Johansen I’d never have heard Katie Lee’s late-1950s pop-Freudian homage, Songs of Couch and Consultation, lead song “Shrinker Man.”) At the end of this particular set at City Winery, he called to the stage his wife Mara Hennessey, who announced that she had a particular favorite she’d like David to sing, whereupon she started to intone the line, “that summer feeling, that summer feeling, that summer feeling,” and Johansen took off into the lyrics. It was so haunting! I knew that song! What was it again? When I got home I looked it up and of course: Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling.” Astonishing song.

It’s not 70s Jonathan, Modern Lovers Jonathan, post-Velvet Underground and pre-punk Jonathan, one of the ultimate indie heroes, but his 90s reinvention: the 1992 album I, Jonathan. (There’s a 1983 version of the song but I much prefer the latter, solo one.) I remembered the album first for its indelible opener (to the tune of “Hang On Sloopy”), “Parties in the U.S.A.” (“We need more parties / In the U.S.A.”—hard to argue with that). The whole record is great, but when “That Summer Feeling” rolls around at track 7, the album goes transcendent. The song is about being haunted by the memory and possibility of youthful joy, how elusive and taunting and finally devastating that can be. I realized hearing Johansen and Hennessey that in the act of singing they had summoned that forgotten melancholy feeling—the memory of the song itself—that Richman’s song speaks of.

Richman, in that suburban Boston accent, that fey, open-hearted (but deceptively calculating) voice, sings a song—about memory, affect, the spirit of play, desperation—all the more philosophically rich for seeming so simple lyrically, melodically, and harmonically. “When there’s things to do not because you gotta / When you run for love not because you oughta / When you trust your friends with no reason not ta / The joy I’ve named shall not be tamed / And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.” A feeling so utopian and yet so dialectically overwhelming—haunted by joy?—that you can name it only with the rather vague articulation, “that summer feeling.” This calls to mind, among so many other things, the late great Ellen Willis’s definition of good politics: not altruism, a politics of condescension, not moralism, a politics of scolding, not obligation, a politics of restraint, but rather desire, the desire for collective connection and the freedom to love. And don’t get in our way, for this joy shall not be tamed.

“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 cah gets the cawp down on it / That time is heah, for one more year / And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.” Don’t forget this feeling, sings Richman, because if you do you’re going to “long to reclaim it one day,” and then that summer feeling is “gonna hurt you one day in your life.” Walter Benjamin was one of the great theorists of this idea, with his interest in toys and play and kids’ imaginative freedom one of the wellsprings of his political thought–his interest in wonder and wandering and deviation and the trivial and the aimless, what he called “the interrelated totality of the world of the imagination” that could lead to a remaking of the world instead of merely the instrumental growth into adulthood and “personal betterment.” Richman again: “Well when your friends are in town and they got time for ya / When you and them are hanging round and they don’t ignore ya / When you say what you will and they still adore ya / Is that not appealing, it’s that summer feeling / That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.”

Benjamin took his own life running from Nazis, and who can blame him? They had an army and he didn’t. Let’s hold on to joy and see if we can’t win one more time.