Monday, September 14, 2015

(empo-caalii) New York Dreamin? (When the associations don't go that deep)

Songs can work on many levels, and sometimes the superficial understanding of a song is opposite of its underlying meaning. The two most famous examples are the rah-rah patriotic song "Born in the U.S.A." and the love song "When a Man Loves a Woman." If you take half a moment to examine the lyrics to either song, you will realize that the flip interpretations of the song titles have nothing to with the actual songs. (In that regard, Cheech & Chong's "Born in East L.A." is a true representation of the meaning of Springsteen's original.)

But let's look at another song - one that I talked about two years ago. "California Dreamin'" was written by John and Michelle Phillips and has been recorded by many, most famously by their own group The Mamas and the Papas. As I noted in 2013, the song has become closely associated with California, to the point that it's used in Powerball commercials from the California Lottery. (You know, dreaming of hundreds of millions of dollars...or something.)

But is it a California song?

Back in 2010, this blog included a series of posts on California songs. With the exception of a post about the town of California, Maryland, most of the posts had to do with the state of California. The posts talked about people ranging from Roy Rogers and Lawrence Welk to Devo and Ed Crawford, people who came from Ohio and other places and contributed to the California music scene.

The first post in the "empo-caallii" series discussed some ways to define California music.

But what exactly is California music? I can think of three possible definitions.

First, you can look at musicians and bands who use their songs to comment, explicitly or implicitly, on California. Whether you're singing about a "Hotel California," singing a song that lists a number of California surfing locations, or singing the praises of Compton and the LBC, you can definitely identify lyrical content that relates to California.

But what of musical content? Is there a "California sound"? Certainly there are Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Bakersfield-based musicians who have a clearly identifiable sound. Perhaps the Byrds, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, Dick Dale, any of Phil Spector's bands, X, and the aforementioned Tupac Shakur never played a gig together, but there are certainly musical elements in all of their works that can be tied to the Golden State. (When speaking of Glen Campbell, I'm not only thinking of his solo work, but also his session work; he was, after all, a touring member of the Beach Boys for a while.)

And, of course, you can have musicians who don't sing about California, and who don't sound like California, but they happen to live in California. Are they part of the California sound? I've been mulling over this third question the most, and may end up posting some additional thoughts on this later. (Hence the blog label, should I care to revisit this, or any other California-related topic.)

Now if you look at the first of my three criteria, "California Dreamin" is clearly a California song. After all, the singer is dreaming about California.

But the circumstances in which "California Dreamin" was composed suggest something altogether different. Michelle Phillips has shared her thoughts regarding the composition of the song:

Michelle PHILLIPS remembers 1963 as a year of bone-chill and profound homesickness. The Long Beach native, then 19, had married John Phillips in late 1962 and the two had shuttled off to New York to seek fame with their folk group, the New Frontiersmen.

This brings to mind the first important fact about "California Dreamin" - it was written in New York City. The Phillipses were living near Washington Square at the time. Why? Because they were folk musicians, and folk musicians gravitated to Greenwich Village. Bob Dylan left Minnesota and went to Greenwich Village. John Phillips took his woman and went to Greenwich Village.

Homesick Michelle explained the incident that subsequently formed a major part of the song.

One blustery day, the couple were strolling by the marble spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I wanted to go in just to see what it looked like, but John wouldn't go with me," Michelle recalled. "He had been sent off to a parochial school when he was 7 and, well, he just had very strong negative feelings about the church. So I went in alone."

So if you have a song, composed in the center of the worldwide folk movement (several years before "folk rock" became a thing), focused on St. Patrick's Cathedral, would that be a California song, or a New York song?

Perhaps the song is more at home at Coney Island than it is in Disney's California Adventure.

And it clearly doesn't have much to do with a Californian winning the Powerball lottery.
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