Soundtracks of Summers Past

Patrick Walsh-Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Sufficient time has elapsed for me to put this past summer in perspective and, as I look back, I see that it has become an era. Along with moments, an integral part of what transforms a season into an era is music. At its height, the music merges with the moments, like a soundtrack.

It’s a common experience, I know, and one which I’ve been privileged to savor many times.

Back in 1976 (one of the greatest of all American summers) I had a friend a few grades ahead of me. Adrian’s older brother, Kevin, had a serious record collection, giving us access to every Led Zeppelin album yet made. So Adrian got his brother to record for me a cassette tape with a whole side of Led Zeppelin. Sonic treasure. So precious to me was that tape that I still remember the order of the songs: “Communication Breakdown,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Rock ’n Roll,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Black Dog,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and–so deeply–part of a new song called “Tea for One” (alas, the tape ran out !)

On my family’s summer weekend road-trips up to Woodstock, New York, I sat on the sprawling sofa of a backseat in our Chrysler 300 and played that tape over and over on a little single-speaker Panasonic deck, much to the chagrin of my Caruso/Lanza/Sinatra-loving dad. (In keeping with the soundtrack phenomenon, my mom gets quite nostalgic when she hears any of those classic Zeppelin cuts.)

In the summer of 1984 my family and I went home to Ireland. It was my first time on an airplane, my first trip outside America, and the first time I met much of my mom’s family, including her four brothers. I enjoyed getting to know my uncles, but, due to a number of shared interests and sensibilities, I particularly bonded with my mom’s oldest brother, Patrick. Of course, one of those shared interests was music.

Patrick had a little yellow Renault Le Car and since its tape deck was the only way we could play music we used to sit in the car at night under those spectacularly starry skies that only a rural setting can bestow and listen to three canonical recordings, often straight through: Neil Young’s Harvest, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and the self-titled debut of Dire Straits.

From years of avid listening to WPLJ, New York’s bygone premiere Rock station, I knew all three albums, especially Rumours as almost every song had made the charts. But I only knew “Heart of Gold” on Harvest and “Sultans of Swing” and “Down to the Waterline” on Dire Straits. Neil’s “Old Man” became the signature song of that summer’s soundtrack, while Knopfler’s savage “In the Gallery” gave me a deeper appreciation of both his six-string and storytelling mastery.

And now I will always fondly associate the Summer of 2019 with Traffic’s 1971 masterpiece, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

Over Memorial Day weekend, my friend and I enjoyed some great “listens”. Every song he spun sounded so fresh to me (perhaps because I was the guest and, for a change, someone else was the DJ.) But the track that blew my socks off was one I knew and enjoyed and yet, seemingly, had never truly heard: “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.”

Poised on the threshold of summer and gazing out on green’s sunlit ascendancy, I listened in relaxed amazement. I’ve always loved the song’s deliberate, utterly confident pace (which reminds me of “All Blues” on Kind of Blue by Miles Davis), but now its rich textures and layered instrumentation ravished my ears. The song fades in, eerily, like it had always been playing somewhere, a secret, irresistible river. With its hypnotic rhythm and weave of congas, saxophone, piano, and Hammond organ, the song suspends time; when it releases you, nearly twelve minutes have elapsed.

Most of all, I heard every word Steve Winwood was singing. And those lyrics, penned by Traffic drummer and visionary songwriter Jim Capaldi, hit me like a revelation. I heard the oracle and it said:

      If you see something that looks like a star
      And it’s shooting up out of the ground
      And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
      And you just can’t escape from the sound –
      Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you:
      We were children once, playing with toys.
      And the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound
      Of the low spark of high-heeled boys.

      The percentage you’re paying is too high-priced
      While you’re living beyond all your means
      And the man in the suit has just bought a new car
      From the profit he’s made on your dreams.
      But today you just read that the man was shot dead
      By a gun that didn’t make any noise,
      But it wasn’t the bullet that laid him to rest,
      Was the low spark of high-heeled boys.

      If you had just a minute to breathe
      And they granted you one final wish
      Would you ask for something like another chance?
      Or something similar as this?
      Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
      As sure as your sorrows are joys.
      And the thing that disturbs you is only the sound
      Of the low spark of high-heeled boys.

      If I gave you everything that I owned
      And asked for nothing in return
      Would you do the same for me as I would for you?
      Or take me for a ride
      And strip me of everything including my pride?
      But spirit is something that no one destroys.
      And the sound that I’m hearing is only the sound
      Of the low spark of high-heeled boys.

One song of such ample excellence would justify owning the record. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys was an album of which I had only known a third; of its six wonderfully varied cuts, I knew the title track and “Rock & Roll Stew” from the time I started listening to FM Rock radio in 1979. Back in those days, both songs received regular airplay.

I quickly tracked down a pristine copy of the LP (with its unique 3-D cube sleeve, the idea of Jim Capaldi.) Part of what made this past summer so enjoyable–what elevated it into an era–was the pleasure of discovering those other four songs: “Hidden Treasure” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” which bookend the title track on Side 1, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Rainmaker,” which follow “Rock & Roll Stew” on Side 2. I dropped the needle on either or both sides practically every day until fall had finished winnowing summer’s hard-wrought green.

There have been other soundtracks of summers past. In 2014, I developed a morning ritual: if the sun shone clear I would place John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the turntable to let that opening gong crash and saxophone herald the new day.

And during the summer of 2018 I went back to Boston’s first two albums–yet again, since they’re perennial era-informing treasures. Driving in my ’67 Mustang through glorious late-afternoon light, shades on, windows down, I’d queue "Hitch a Ride” three or four times in a row because I just wanted to dwell inside its exquisite mood and message. Truly, there were times when that song playing over the smooth purr of my well-tuned inline-6 became nothing short of a benediction.

These are the alchemical moments when music merges and transmutes. With gratitude and newfound nostalgia, I add Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys to my collection of soundtracks of summers past.

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Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2020 Patrick Walsh
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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