If there was one thing that puzzled me while I was growing up in those heady and innocent years of the 70s and 80s, listening as I did to a mixture of home-grown pop and mostly American imports, it was all the references to summer nights. Sometimes winsome, occasionally suggestive, always evocative of young love and new discoveries, there always seemed to be something being referred to that I couldn’t get a handle on. Weren’t summer nights in America like summer nights back in England, long and slow with a sleepy, effulgent sun sinking indolently towards the horizon dusty with haze and warmth, the sky behind it deepening from mid-day azure to cornflower blue as the stars began to peep out one by one? Wasn’t it still light at ten o’clock, never really getting full dark, and the next day dawning, it seemed, almost before the last one had quite faded away?
It wasn’t until I started to visit the States, and, more importantly, spend time in the U.S. over the summer that I began to realize just what all those songs were referring to and how different summer nights are here from back home. For one thing, they happen so much more quickly (that’s a more southerly latitude for you): even since I’ve been here, I’ve been continually surprised by how swiftly full daylight transitions into full night. There isn’t really a sunset as I’m familiar with it, nor much of the twilight time, half-light and magical, that the Victorian Romantic poets set so much stall by. No; the sun sets, as though it’s just another thing to be done.
Yet the longer I spend living in the States, the more I come to understand the special place that summer nights seem to hold in the country’s communal heart and why they have such importance for those many songs of teenage years. There’s almost a protective feeling to night here, a sense of sheltering, a place for dreams to be dreams and memories to be remembered, for first stumbling beginnings of love and those finding it anew. Darkness comes early and goes on and on almost endlessly; the air is warm, and the darkness, the dark-ness, is almost tangible, almost honey-like in its richness, and the white lights which burn along the streets and by doors seem almost to emphasise that darkness, to make the night seem somehow more so.
And this, of course, is in the towns, where, admittedly, I’ve spent most of my time. I did once ride the train from Los Angeles to Chicago (a memorable experience in its own right), and I remember the utter blackness up atop the Sierra Nevada, the stillness so deep and heavy, unpunctuated by any light save that of the train’s own headlight, and above us the Milky Way shining crisp and clear in the high, still desert air.
It’s difficult not to wax lyrical on such a subject, to get carried away by nuance and memory, comparing and contrasting the familiar with the unfamiliar. Surely a night is, well, a night? But we all know there’s more it than that. And finally, living here, I can begin to understand what all those songs of my youth, and so many peoples’ youths, were referring to. Oh, oh, those summer nights …