Full version of my post for Boston Magazine:
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Back in my previous music post on July 28, the heart of the summer, many of the “summer songs” were about the fleetingness of the season here in New England. So here we are with Labor Day weekend upon us and, well, its gone. Here are the songs, in another Spotify playlist (you can get an account for free), that make me most enjoy September and ease the way into autumn.
Earth, Wind, & Fire, September: The definition of a feel-good tune, the brass blast of EW&F just make you want to bounce along in a convertible on a sunny Saturday, “hearts…ringing,” reminding me that September is actually the most beautiful month in New England (“never was a cloudy day”). And yet, there is that melancholy undertow, the metaphor of September as passing youth.
Big Star, September Gurls: One of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. Again, the coupling of a sunny-day power pop backing track, but even more melancholy here than in the EW&F track. Alex Chilton’s yearning is right out there, “I loved you, well, never mind/I’ve been crying all the time.” I always interpreted this song as the inveitable answer to the old pop song “See You in September,” wherein the singer asks his schoolgirl crush at the end of a school year, “will I see you in September or lose you to a summer love?”
Nat King Cole and George Shearing, September Song: For me, the definitive version of this oft-recorded standard (I also include a beautiful reading by Django Reinhardt in my playlist) by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson for a 1938 Broadway production. A sublime song about growing old together: “And the days dwindle down to a precious few/September, November/And these precious days I spend with you.” Shearing and his band provide a typically tasteful backing track, with a touch of strings, for the ever-elegant Nat King Cole’s honeyed vocals.
Rod Stewart, Maggie May: Aside from actually stating that “it’s late September and I really should be back at school,” the chord progression and the mostly acoustic instrumentation offer a folky tinge of that uptempo melancholy in the first two tracks on the list. The jangling mandolin/guitar/bass breakdown at the end of this song as it head’s into the vamp/outro will forever sound like September to my ears.
Steely Dan, My Old School: Until recently, this was one of maybe two Steely Dan songs I liked. But I love this song. Here, Donald Fagan recounts an infamous episode that will forever keep him from reminiscing fondly of his alma mater, Bard College: “California tumbles into the sea/That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.” When Fagan is at his best, his lyrics are at once poignant and cynical, sarcastic and whimsical. The narrator here sounds like Holden Caulfield as a recent college grad: “It was still September and your daddy was quite surprised/To find you with the working girls at the county jail.”
Tony Bennett, The Shadow of Your Smile: There is no direct lyrical reference to September, but I always picture the September shadows falling earlier and in higher contrast in the New England summer light. The music, composed by Johnny Mandel with lyrics from Paul Francis Webster, offers that sort of Zen feel of Tom Jobim’s bossa nova songs. Like Jobim’s, this song contains a simple melody with a lyric that gets at the heart: “Now when I remember spring/All the joy that love can bring/I will be remembering the shadow of your smile.” There are a few singers whom, if you have not yet gone to hear sing, you should make all effort to do so. Tony Bennett is one of my all-time favorites.
Jackson Browne, Doctor, My Eyes: I can’t define what it is about this one, but it is yet another September song. Sometimes it is just a memory of when you first hear a song, the moment it gets lodged in your memory bank.
Neil Diamond, September Morn: The king of schlock and melodrama and this song is no exception. But come on! Does it not ring true? “September mornings still can make me feel that way.” Oh wait, you thought it was over? No! Here is the modulations, strings swelling!
Harry Belafonte, Try to Remember: I used to see a guy in Harvard Square (about 20 years ago) sing quietly and finger pick a nylon string guitar. I had never heard this song, from the show The Fantasticks, presented so unadorned. Then I heard Harry Belafonte’s version and could see that it likely served as a template. As with “Shadow of Your Smile,” a simple melody, but in this case, the lyric is actually intricate: “try to remember to remember when life was so tender/And love was an ember about to billow.” The alliteration and internal rhyme scheme, spiraling off the word “September,” only enhances the sentiment.