Most of the milestones we use to measure our lives are pretty pedestrian. Friends come and go, relationships blossom and wilt, jobs appear and disappear. Children grow up, borrow the car for a few years, come home to do laundry for a few more, then get on with their own lives.
Birthdays, holidays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations and funerals shuffle by in a never-ending parade of Shoebox greeting cards, florist bills and seasonal aisles at CVS. Houstonians may also mark time with hurricanes and (very) occasional sports-team championships.
But when your air conditioner goes on the blink just in time for the first serious (and ongoing) heat wave of the year — now that you remember.
Air conditioning in music
Discovering your AC has exhausted its cooling capacity is not the absolute worst thing that can happen, but it's close. It's at least as bad as an ATM spitting out a negative number when you check your account balance, or your girlfriend telling you she thinks it would be best if she got her own place. Of course, if the AC is busted, who can blame her?
It would be interesting to see where air-conditioning ranks among things people in these parts take for granted. Considering it took the arrival of indoor AC for Houston to go from sleepy Southern railhead to major metropolis, it's got to be up there with food, shelter and Wi-Fi access. Most Houstonians would probably rather give up their firstborn than that sweet, sweet air-conditioning.
Cinderella may have said it best: You don't know what you got till it's gone.
Because practically all its traditional North American nerve centers — New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Nashville — are either relatively far north or directly in the path of cooling Pacific breezes, popular music has endowed heat with overwhelmingly positive connotations. It signifies excitement, anticipation, passion, desire: "Heat Wave," "Heat of the Moment," "Burnin' for You," "Hot Child in the City," "The Heat Is On," "Sex on Fire."
George Gershwin told us the livin' was easy in the summertime, and even Janis Joplin believed him. (Growing up in Port Arthur, she should have known better.) Eddie Cochran and The Who had the summertime blues because they were broke and out of a job, not because their ACs were busted. On "Midnight Voyage," the Mamas & the Papas even say "turn the air-conditioning off." The nerve.
Allusions to cold, however, are almost universally negative. Things are cooler than the other side of the pillow or cold as the grave. Think Foreigner's "Cold as Ice," Rick James's "Cold Blooded" or Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted Snake." John Lennon's "Cold Turkey," Joy Division's "Ice Age" and Bruce Springsteen's "10th Avenue Freeze Out" are cold comfort. To Stevie Ray Vaughan, a cold shot was tantamount to a drag. You're frozen, noted Madonna, "when your heart's not open."
Bad things happen to people who can't warm up — "Cold...been excommunicated 'cause I'm cold," testify Tears for Fears on that eponymous song from 1993's Elemental. Cuddly St. Louis pop-rockers Ludo even had the temerity to title a song about a departed lover "Air Conditioned Love." Just wait until the AC goes out in your tour bus, guys.
In spite of its Southern origins, country music is no better. Hank Williams lamented his lover's "Cold, Cold Heart," while Emmylou Harris discovered the only result of melting John Hiatt's "Icy Blue Heart" was a "river of tears."
Noise did manage to uncover a few musical champions of climate control, though. Beck breaks it down like this on "Hot Wax": "Beautiful air-conditioned sitting in the kitchen, wishing I was living like a hit man." El Paso's At the Drive-In offers a clue to the source of the hardcore outfit's abundant angst on "Blue Tag": "The air condition is on intermission / We're burning on the border."
Pam Tillis rates air-conditioning right up there with tequila and chocolate in "Killer Comfort." David Lee Roth's "40 Below," in typically tasteful Diamond Dave style, informs some lucky lady, "You get a fast crash course in air-conditioning / Yeah, my freezer's just hummin' / Stick your face in the Artic blast."
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy had a vision of "sailors sailing off for the air-conditioned room at the top of the stairs" in "Poor Places," which, as Noise's AC gasps and wheezes in his second-story window, sounds like a cruel joke. (It is hot in the poor places tonight, Jeff...trust me.)
Lake Charles native and former Houstonian Lucinda Williams makes a cold chill sexier than a hot flash on "Hot Blood." Any number of rappers can tell you about the ice on their wrist or in their grill, but on Chamillionaire's "I'm da King," air-conditioning is the most precious bling of all: "Air-condition on my wrist, I stay with free-on sleeves."
Going without AC can even lead to hard time. Tesla understood, demanding, "Turn on the air conditioner, or these people are gonna kill you!" on "Before My Eyes." It was too late for '70s hard-rockers UFO, though. Reflecting on some bad decisions from the recreation yard at Rikers Island, the narrator of "Love Deadly Love" admits "8 to 15 I'm doing hard / You and your lover shot through the head / Air-conditioning lead."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Ironically, it took a Brit to properly capture the true importance of Freon-assisted cooling in song. "Sun is perching on my office block, the air-conditioning's run away," XTC's Andy Partridge sings in "Summer Hot as This." "No one dares to swim the street below, while the world's a ball of baking clay."
Over the past couple of weeks, as Houston has become a baking ball of clay (and then some), Noise has come to realize all the songs about air-conditioning in the world won't lower the mercury one single degree. The icy guitar of Coldplay's "Shiver" comes pretty close, but even Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool or New Edition's "Cool It Now" couldn't soothe his fevered brow.
It turns out rearranging the furniture to move your bed closer to the AC — which, praise the Lord, wasn't broken, just in need of a well-deserved rest and thorough defrosting — works much better. CHRIS GRAY