Every holiday deserves a great playlist. I'm working on my 4th of July mix as we speak. When I show up at a cookout, I like my iPod to be bursting at the seams with patriotism, Americana and songs about summer love that aren't from Grease.
Obviously, my mix has to have old-standbys like Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane," Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" and Jimi's weaponization of the "Star Spangled Banner." For smiles, I've got James Brown's "Livin' In America" and for straight-up laughs, Neil Diamond's "Coming To America." For truly evocative and soul-stirring statesmanship, there is nothing to compare to Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful." And I kind of want to put the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" on there, but all my friends have kids now.
Outside of the standards mentioned above, I find it useful to pepper my mix with some explicit recognition of the 4th of July itself. What I mean is, in addition to being Independence Day, the birthday of America, an occasion to reflect on our patriotism or our protest, the 4th of July is, well, the 4th of July. It's an occasion more closely connected to hot dogs and hamburgers than to Revolution. We still blow stuff up, but mostly for fun. And as we get older, those evocative memories of summer seem to revolve around the colors and qualities that make the 4th so vivid.
So with both the birthday of America and the greatest of summer holidays upon us, these are my favorite tunes that explicitly mention the 4th of July. Have a great holiday!
Lake of Fire/The Meat Puppets (1984)
More famously covered by Nirvana on their posthumously released Unplugged album a decade hence, this is the version that they wanted you to go and listen to. The Kirkwood brothers, who form the core of the Puppets, would appear in support of Cobain there. But here, in its originally intended form, you can hear the country-fried punk that was the Meat Puppets' specialty. According to the band's'prophecy, if I'm understanding correctly, all the bad folks who are damned to an eternity in the Lake of Fire will rise again on 4th of July. Soooo... yeah, look out for that....
Good/Better Than Ezra (1995)
Better Than Ezra; darlings of the New Orleans alt-rock scene (yes, that's a thing) but one-hit wonders to the rest of us. It is the one hit that concerns us. Falling somewhere between Weezer and Third Eye Blind on the alternative coolness spectrum (and maybe closer to 3EB, as they are affectionately known to nobody), the band struck mainstream gold once with "Good." A slight confection on the surface, the hook does get its barbs into you. It appears that the narrator has come home to find his house empty, deserted by a former lover. Pining for her, he suggests "maybe I'll call or write you a letter. Now maybe we'll see on the 4th of July." Admittedly, the tune has aged about as well as your AOL account. But the plunky bassline, spiky riff and candy-coated dejection are perfect for a barbecue.
Grateful Dead/Jack Straw (1972)
Nothing brings out the smelly hippie in me like the Grateful Dead. This is sitting-in-the-grass-swatting-flies-and-drinking-straight-from-the-bottle music.
"Leavin' Texas, fourth day of July,
Sun so hot, the clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky.
Catch the Detroit Lightnin' out of Sante Fe,
The great northern out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea."
This is what the Grateful Dead did better than anybody; casting bandits and gamblers against the backdrop of a wild, unsettled America. Maybe it's because I saw Back to the Future III at an impressionable age, but I wish I knew what it felt like to be at a rowdy Independence Day celebration in the Old West, when independence still felt new. Clearly, the Grateful Dead had the same wish.
Saturday in the Park/Chicago (1972)
Chicago's stream-of-consciousness amble through a park on a beautiful day (he thinks it was the 4th of July) makes me wish I had bellbottoms and Ron Burgundy's mustache. This one is about the afternoon, the lazy anticipation of an evening's celebration, set in the midst of a bustling Central Park. Even if the song takes you to a time when Watergate was the word on everybody's mind, you can't help but feel a little optimistic about the day ahead. Excusing the fact that Chicago did not have the decency to give their albums proper names (They released Chicago XXXII in 2008), they nail the bounce-in-your-step carelessness of the season with no shortage of their trademark horns.
Born on the Bayou/Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
I have a romantic attachment to New Orleans in the summertime, which is completely irrational because it's balls hot and smells like hell down there. Creedence captures all that sweat, that acrid aroma, the crackling late-night bonfire and the squall of chirping bugs in a performance that is the template for swamp rock. John Fogerty choogles, "I can still remember the 4th of July, running through the backwoods bare." But there's not much to the words here. This tune is all atmosphere, the late part of the summer celebration, when things get a little fuzzy, a little distorted... a little weird.
Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park) /Bruce Springsteen (1973)
Every time you hear "Born in the USA" this holiday, consider it an opportunity missed. The antiwar tune, famously misappropriated by Ronald Reagan, was never designed to invoke firefly-and-funnel-cake-memories of summer's past. That's what "Sandy" is for. Newly anathematized by sharing its parenthetical name with last year's similarly Jersey Shore-themed Superstorm, the non-parenthetical part of the title says it all. Even if the 4th of July doesn't stir patriotism in the cockles of your heart, it probably does take you back to those idyllic midsummer's eves of fleeting love, binge drinking and carnival rides. Sandy is about that 4th of July, the one where you swiped a bottle from your dad's liquor cabinet, hid under the boardwalk with your friends and passed out before the fireworks even started. Bruce captures the freedom from consequence that marked your childhood summers and the heartache that comes with adulthood, with the realization that summer is just like every other time of year, only hotter. "For me this boardwalk scene's through. You oughta quit this scene too."