When "The Boys of Summer" by Don Henley first came out, about a hundred and fifty years ago, because I am old, people, I didn't really like it. Perhaps it was because I was a teenager at the time and didn't want to think about the melancholy idea of losing love or the regret you can feel at the end of summer (both actually and metaphorically). Perhaps it was because I was a proto-goth and "The Boys of Summer" wasn't melancholy enough for me. Perhaps it was because the song was on the radio ALL THE DAMN TIME, so much so that I had learned all the words, even though I didn't like the song.*
Now, though, I sort of love the song.
Don Henley is, simply put, a phenomenal song writer, and "The Boys of Summer" is a perfect example of that. Of course, he's famous for a bunch of songs he wrote or co-wrote for The Eagles,** but the thing that's fantastic about "The Boys of Summer" is that it doesn't sound anything like an Eagles song. The Eagles sound like the 70s to me, and always have, but "The Boys of Summer" sounds like the 80s. It's something about the synthesizer, I think, and the sparing use of the guitar.
Musically, the song is fairly simple. The verses have the synthesizer and the sparing guitar, the chorus has the key change and slightly more guitar. The music creates a sense of moving forward, moving away, but lyrics are all about looking back, and it's this juxtaposition that takes the song from a hooky pop song (the kind that Don Henley could write in his sleep) into real pop greatness.
And they lyrics, oh the lyrics! Henley has always been a pretty good lyricist, able to paint a picture with words ("Hotel California" anyone?), but "The Boys of Summer" is a fully realized picture of both the place and the narrator of the song. It starts with the narrator driving at the end of summer, described like this:
empty lake, empty streets,
the sun goes down alone
If you've ever been in a beach town at the end of the summer, you know what this means. It's the perfect description of the strange deserted feeling that happens at the end of the season, even though there are still people there. And there are still people there, we know, because the next lines are:
I'm driving by your house
although I know you're not home
And then we are launched into the chorus by the key change, and the description of the girl.*** And here's the tricky part, right? Because on one level, the song is about this guy in love with this girl who has left him for the eponymous boys of summer. She could be...unsympathetic. But because Henley's focus is on the narrator's love and obvious longing for her, the listener is willing to forgive her (or at least overlook her indiscretions with the summer people).****
I can see you
your brown skin shining in the sun
you got your hair combed back
and your sunglasses on
The last two lines of this portion of the chorus change, by the way, giving us a more specific picture of this girl every time the narrator remembers her. We go from the lyric above to
I see you walkin' real slow
and you're smiling at everyone
you've got the top pulled down****
and the radio on, baby
you've got your hair slicked back
and those Wayfarers on.
And take a look at the progression through just those two lines of lyrics. At the beginning of the song, the narrator swears that "I'm gonna get you back/i'm gonna show you what I'm made of." But by the end of the song, when the narrator realizes (or tries to convince himself) that "those days are gone forever/I should just let 'em go," the girl has become "slick" and has name-brand sunglasses on. She's not as innocent as she was at the beginning of the song, and neither is he.*****
* Don't you wish sometimes that there was some way you could wipe certain things from your brain and replace them with things that would be more useful to you? A few years ago, when I was studying for the bar exam, I could not remember the nine elements of a holder in due course (you don't care, really. I barely care, and I needed that information to pass the bar). And I wished at the time that I could erase the useless things, like the lyrics to "Xanadu" by Olivia Newton John, and replace them with the elements of a holder in due course, but you can't do that. I did eventually learn the elements...by singing them to the tune of "When You Wish Upon A Star." And after the exam, I promptly forgot them. But I still remember all the lyrics to "Xanadu."
** Seriously, was any Eagles song, not a hit? Desperado, Tequila Sunrise, Already Gone, Hotel California, Lyin' Eyes, One Of These Nights, Life in the Fast Lane, and about a billion other songs, all of which I know by heart because the Eagles were one of the groups my mother and I agreed on.
*** Or guy, depending on whether you're listening to the DJ Sammy remake or not. It's a tribute to the universality of the emotion the song is capturing, I think, that the lyrics work equally well whether they are sung about a girl or a boy.
**** And who wouldn't be willing to forgive her, by the way, once they saw the video, which was a beautiful black and white video that has repeated shots of very...athletic men jumping up and down as if they are playing volleyball. Take a look (but turn off your sound as the music isn't Don Henley):
***** Notice the subtle ambiguity here. Are we talking about a girl, or a convertible? Either? Both? I heart Don Henley.
****** And neither is the world. Perhaps the most famous lyric in the song is "out on the road today/I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac," which is a perfect lyrical encapsulation of the cynicism and commercialism of Now as opposed to the innocence and sincerity of Then. When The Ataris did a cover of the song, they changed the lyric to "I saw a Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac" to convey the same sense of commercialism vs. genuineness.