A few weeks ago I counted down my top five most memorable summers, and I said then that the one summer I will remember after I've forgotten all the others is the summer of 1976. I hope everyone has at least one summer in their lives that affects them that way--one that remains vividly alive in memory and is easily brought back by a song or a place or maybe just the angle of the light at a particular time of day. The summer of 1976 is so vivid for me that sometimes I feel as though the doorway that could take me back there must be terribly close by, if only I had the wit to find it.
Why that summer is The One, I can't quite say. It was the first one after I got my driver's license, and that newfound degree of freedom is unforgettable for anyone. But on the other hand, my summer job was working on the family farm. That spring, my local radio station had enticed me with the promise that they might hire me for the summer. Ultimately they didn't, for reasons that weren't revealed to me until years later, so I ended up back on the farm--and I hated it. It was one of the last summers I played organized softball (if not the very last). I made up in enthusiasm what I lacked in talent, and the whole week seemed to build toward those Friday night games. But on the other hand, I wasn't dating anybody that summer--despite being glib as hell with everyone else, the thought of trying to arrange a date with a girl reduced me to tongue-tied celibacy.
It doesn't add up. The summer of 1976 shouldn't have been any more golden than any other summer had been. But there was clearly something different going on that year. I like to think I knew it while it was happening, but maybe that part was just melodrama. After all, there's no one more melodramatic than a 16-year-old, and I was, at that age, more self-dramatizing than most.
In the end, I think it was probably the music--although you might not think so at first. After all, by 1976, the lightweight ethos of the 1970s was at high tide--every week the charts contained several good reasons why the coming punk rock explosion of 1977 would be necessary. Disco was beginning to percolate, getting ready to conquer the world. But the Beatles and the Beach Boys both scored top-10 hits that summer, and a note-for-note remake by Todd Rundgren of "Good Vibrations" got some airplay, too, so the Sixties weren't at all distant. Soul music, breathing its last, got a few licks in before the darkness fell. And some of the all-time classic one-hit wonders enjoyed their season of glory.
So here's the thing: I have assembled a list of the Top 40 records of that summer--not by chart position, but in rough rank order of the degree to which they bring the summer back. Starting tomorrow, and for the next three Fridays, I'll count down that list here. Tomorrow you'll get numbers 40 through 31--then it'll be ten a week until the last Friday in July, the height of summer, when we'll reach the top and when, if we're lucky, we'll finally find that doorway.