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Monday, January 31, 2011

Girls in Their Summer Clothes/Bruce Springsteen

There's a lot of conjecture out there that Bruce Springsteen's Girls In Their Summer Clothes, from his 2007 album Magic, was inspired by Irwin Shaw's celebrated 1939 short story The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (found in the collection Short Stories: Five Decades).

We could find no statement from Mr. Springsteen to either confirm or dispel this rumor (even after an exhaustive 6-minute search), but we found an essay by critic Armond White that links the song and the story.

"The notion of the Great American Novel died the moment Hollywood was invented and though the idea was briefly resurrected in the mid-20th century, it died again with the birth of rock and roll," White wrote in the journal First of the Month. He argues that Springsteen's 2002 album The Rising was "an honorable attempt at a kind of novelistic national vision—a high cultural concept translated to a pop medium," but concludes that "Magic perfects the Great American Novel concept into an Album-of-the-Moment urgency." He continues:

Springsteen faces the same fundamental questions as the post-WWII American novelists. His sexual and social response is essential to the rich feeling of a song like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" which was inspired by Depression-era writer Irwin Shaw's career-defining short story "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," where an entwined dilemma of marital fidelity and urban stress concentrates attention on a lost faith.

We're not sure we agree with White that the Boss was inspired by Shaw. Springsteen's hopeful song about persevering through hard times to a better future (Things been a little tight/But I know they're gonna turn my way) has little in common thematically with Shaw's story, in which a couple strolling in New York confront deep fault-lines in their marriage as a result of the husband's wandering eye. But when White calls the song "my favorite track on the album," we're in complete agreement.

Shaw's story seems to have inspired some other musicians though:
Brian Hobbs features an instrumental called Girls in Their Summer Dresses on his 2010 album Second Glances.
Texas musician David Fahl's song The Girls in Their Summer Dresses appears on his 2008 album Life Is Good. "I wrote this at the request of my wife in honor of the Irwin Shaw short story of the same name," Fahl says.

Also notable is The Girls In Their Summer Dresses by The Airborne Toxic Event, which can be found on the deluxe edition of their eponymous album, released in 2008. The band's Mikel Jollett discussed the song with Radio Free Silver Lake:

"The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is a story by Irwin Shaw. It's about a man and a woman walking down the street in New York city in the summer. The man keeps staring at these beautiful women as they walk by. The woman, who is his wife, is not happy about this. They fight. He reasons that he's been a good husband, supportive, faithful, etc... but just must stare at these woman. He can't help it. It's a very compelling argument he gives, but she simply can't accept it, won't accept it. The song is basically their argument -- his reasoning and her response to it.

I didn't actually read the story until I saw that Woody Allen movie Celebrity. There's a writer in that movie who says about the story that the title alone is better than most short stories. I thought so too. Such a compelling image the words inspire, kind of a nostalgia for innocence, youth: who are these girls? Why are they wearing dresses? Will I ever know such things again? Have I lost something? Am I dying?

The story's pretty good, too.

You can sample the song here. Jollett himself is at work on a novel and--in a touch that warms our Classics Rock! heart--the band's name comes from a section of Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise.

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