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“California Dreamin'”

Posted by purplemary54 on October 24, 2013

There’s a better than fair chance you have no idea what this song means.

I don’t mean its literal meaning, of course.  That’s pretty obvious: A guy who’s stuck somewhere cold and dreary wishes he could run back home to Southern California where it’s “safe and warm.”  Papa John Phillips wrote this song after a dream while they were living somewhere on the East Coast during the winter.  (The story I remember is that they were actually living in a tent in the snow because they had no money, but I don’t know if that’s correct or not.)  It was a huge hit for The Mamas & The Papas in 1965.

What people seem to have more trouble with is feeling it creates.  It’s a dreamy, bittersweet, melancholy song, but that emotion means nothing to you if you’ve never been to SoCal, or if you’ve never left it.  You can respond to it, understand it abstractly, even identify with it.  But the only way “California Dreamin'” really hits you in the solar plexus is when you’re a SoCal resident who listens to it, oh, anywhere else.

I got punched by this song when I was in Las Vegas one year.  Some friends and I went for New Year’s Eve, so it was really freakin’ cold outside.  I’d caught a cold, and I was feeling pretty miserable.  I decided to go back to the hotel and take a nap, so I took the bus down the strip.  They were piping music in, which I paid zero attention to until those familiar guitar notes came falling down like rain.

I almost cried.  Those lovely, slightly unsettling harmonies, spoke to every cold, tired, unhappy fiber of my being.  “I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.”  For the first time in my life, I understood what that song meant.  I’d longed for my home musically before–I played “Hotel California” on my Walkman as we landed at LAX after my high school trip to Europe.  But it was sort of an abstraction that was attached to my family and house and Disneyland.  This was the first time my feelings were ever about California itself.

I really do believe this state does weird things to people.  I was born here, and I’ve never lived anywhere else, so my perspective is naturally a little warped. California changes how you expect things to work.  Those of us who live here understand how absurd and shallow and expensive it is.  We criticize and complain about everything.  We sometimes even move away.  But we always come back, even if it’s only in spirit.

When we got the Powerball here a few months ago, the State Lottery started running commercials for it.  They used the best cover of “California Dreamin'” I’ve ever heard.  It’s by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian women’s choir conducted and accompanied by two brothers.  I don’t care that much about the Powerball, but I will almost always stop whatever I’m doing to pay attention to that commercial.  It’s haunting and surreal, and it captures every strange, discordant feeling anyone from this unreal place has ever had about California.


3 Responses to ““California Dreamin'””

  1. Sandee said

    I do like that second version. I see how generally the song would affect a native SoCalian. I get goose pimply when I hear songs that are strongly associated with New York or artists who have a certain New York quality. A lot of Frank Sinatra’s songs do that to me though his New York New York doesn’t. When I hear Rhapsody in Blue — I go into a trance state.

    • That’s a great example. New York songs have such a different energy, too. I’ve only ever been to Kennedy airport (changing planes to/from Europe) there, so I don’t have much to base my opinion on. But it felt electric. 🙂

  2. Sandee said

    Oh yes — the song I was trying to think of is All or Nothing at All — oh God I love that song!

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