June 2008 Issue
Anthems of the season linger as we recall Ohio’s magical months.
On a summer night in the landlocked town of Blue Ash, 10 miles or so northeast of Cincinnati — hundreds of miles from even the hint of an ocean — we sang of towering waves and golden surfers.
Surf City, here we come ...
From the open-air Blue Ash stage, I looked out at the sea of faces in the audience. There is something magical about a summer night in Ohio, something that people who grew up in Florida or California or coastal Carolina will never be lucky enough to fully understand. In those faces, I could see that magic.
Maybe it has to do with the power of yearning — of wanting something you know you will have to wait for. For someone who grows up in Miami or San Diego, this season means little more than a shrug. The sun high in the sky? The air gentle in its warmth? That’s what life always feels like for people in those places.
But Ohio Februarys, Ohio Novembers, serve their teasing purpose with almost sadistic efficiency. The sting —the physical hurt — of those dark and cold and wind-whipped nights near the beginning and end of each calendar year make summer, when it finally arrives, that much more delicious. Ohio in winter makes you long for the very idea of summer — makes you dream of it.
Two of the men on the stage with me in Blue Ash — Jan and Dean, the southern California rock-music legends who grew up and first prospered near the Pacific Ocean — sang on this night to their Ohio audience.
Surf City, here we come ...
I looked once more at the faces in front of us on a gorgeous summer evening in my home state and thought about the wonders of coming full circle.
On the cusp of summer 45 years ago, late in the spring of 1963, I backed my father’s Thunderbird out of Dave Frasch’s driveway on Roosevelt Avenue in Bexley, in central Ohio.
We were on our way to play in a junior tennis tournament on the campus of The Ohio State University. We had each just turned 16; my dad had allowed me to borrow his Thunderbird that day.
The dashboard radio was tuned to WCOL, central Ohio’s leading rock station at the time. And it was at that moment, backing out of Dave’s parents’ driveway, that I heard, for the first time, “Surf City.”
Two girls for every boy ...
It felt like the official start of the season. Every summer there is one song that defines the good times that lie ahead, the song that, years later, will remind you of what those times tasted like. That summer (you knew it 20 seconds into the first verse), the song was going to be “Surf City.”
None of us, among my friends, had ever surfed; none of us, as far as I still know, ever would. But Ohio, then as now, seemed, in our hearts, to be the world capital of summertime. Because it is hard to believe that any people, anywhere, can possibly love summer more than it’s loved in Ohio.
It bakes into you. There are no sea breezes — the gusts off Lake Erie or the Ohio River (or even Buckeye Lake or Alum Creek) can be pleasant enough, but there is a fundamentally torrid sense to Ohio in summer that goes straight to your core. If that kind of heat were to be with you year-round, you might grow to resent it. But because the summer months in Ohio are so fleeting, you learn to prize each broiling day.
The ice cream in your soda begins to melt before you can even carry the wax-paper cup all the way across the blacktop to your car from the place-your-order window (during those long-gone summers, our ice cream stand of choice was a white shack called the Eskimo Queen); the air-conditioning inside your favorite cheeseburger place (ours was the Toddle House) beckons to you like a wagging finger late on scorching nights, wordlessly sending the signal to you and your best buddies: Come on in. Cool off. You can sweat again in the morning.
Summer in Ohio is a gift, precisely because you already know, the moment it arrives, that it will be gone soon enough. They don’t count the days until summer in Los Angeles, or in Palm Beach; they don’t wait impatiently for it or worry that before long it will abandon them.
Summer is music. Count up in your head how many summer songs mean something special to you — and then try (and quickly fail) to do the same for autumn and winter and spring. It’s no coincidence that the most indelible songs about a season are summer songs. Who wants to remember October or March?
And when, against all odds in the middle of my life, I was given the chance for 15 years beginning in the early 1990s to spend my summers singing summer songs — to sing backup with Jan and Dean, the very men whose voices, in that driveway in central Ohio in 1963 had so joyously, from the car radio, proclaimed the commencement of summer — it was almost too much to process.
What I wouldn’t have guessed at the outset was that, even though I have lived elsewhere for many years, the tours would give back to me the pleasures of Ohio summers. For whatever reason, we spent more summer nights on tour in Ohio than in just about any other state. And the sensations, the specific feelings I have been able to savor once again ...
Backstage in a meadow in New Richmond, with the swollen-almost-to-overflowing Ohio River just a few steps away, we ate fresh-off-the-grill ribs and drank cold beer from the can, and the tactile feeling in that sweltering air — the raw heat from the meat on its bones, the competing chill of the aluminum as it touched our mouths — was a souvenir from a thousand vanished cookouts, now present-tense once again.
In the infield of a minor-league ballpark on Mound Street in Columbus — the same ballpark where my father took me, as a little boy, to my first baseball game — we sang on a stage that had been erected in front of second base and I looked into the seats where I once had sat, and I instantly recalled how it had not seemed minor-league at all, back then. The New York Yankees might not have played in our town, or the Boston Red Sox — but on summer evenings the Columbus Jets did (and before them, the Columbus Red Birds, and after them, the Columbus Clippers), and that ballpark was the very embodiment of summer. Major league, in all the ways that counted.
An indoor pavilion in Warren, a grandstand in Lima, a rickety stage in Preble County — on my summer returns to Ohio, we played on the same bills with some of the singers and bands who had helped to define my early summers to me: Lesley Gore and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon and the Kingsmen and the Drifters. The billboards said that they (and Jan and Dean) were the stars of the shows.
Not for me, though.
The famous singers weren’t from here. I am.
And for me the star has been Ohio in summer. The headliner, now and always.
And now it begins again — another Ohio summer, just being born.
The song of the summer of 2008? We likely don’t know just yet what it will be. By early September, we will have heard it so many times that it will seem like an old friend — maybe one that is beginning to overstay its welcome.
And the song’s greatest impact will not come from being blasted out of car-radio speakers, but from being piped into individual ears from tiny music-playing machines smaller than the packs of cigarettes that were once ritually tucked into the rolled-up sleeves of summer T-shirts — music-playing machines, in some cases, smaller even than the matchbooks that were once slipped into the cellophane covers of those packs of cigarettes.
But what will really matter is not the location where the song of this summer is recorded. What will really matter is not the mechanics of the devices that will play the song to its listeners.
What will matter, as ever, is the lives for which the song will provide the summer-long soundtrack. It’s like a stage play whose script is written each morning on the fly, starting each June. Don’t even try to guess, today, how this summer’s stage play will turn out. Guessing about something that important seldom works.
But know this: Some year, far in the future, you will look back upon the summer days that right now have not yet happened ... and if you are blessed, they will warm you anew.
About the Writer New York Times bestselling author, award-winning columnist and TV and radio commentator Bob Greene grew up in Bexley. His new book, When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Search of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams, tells the story of his unlikely part-time job singing backup with rock legends Jan and Dean over the course of 15 summers.