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12 June, 2004

California Dreamin'

Isn't this a dark song?  Perhaps because of the title, I'd equated it with the lyrically-vacuous surf music of the mid-sixties, but I listened to it properly today, and was surprised.

The first verse is as I'd expected; a 'grass-is-greener' dream comparing that state's climate with the winter conditions currently experienced by the narrator:

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
I'd be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
California dreamin'
On such a winter's day

The second verse is less straightforward:

Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray

Pretend to pray? That's unexpected. The first time I heard it, I thought it was 'began to pray', but no, the narrator's mind is elsewhere, either dreaming of California or agonising over how to get there.

You know the preacher likes the cold
He knows I'm gonna stay

The preacher's a cynic, thinking the narrator's dream is no more than that; he's never going to break free and actually go. Either that, or the preacher doesn't see (or care about?) his parishioner's dilemma.

California dreamin'
On such a winter's day

With that lead-in, the flute solo (a solo in a song only lasting 2:40 mins overall?) introduces a wistful tone.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
If I didn't tell her
I could leave today

So either someone - mother, partner - is going to be abandoned, or will forever be regarded as the millstone preventing the narrator from fulfilling his dream. Neither is exactly an uplifting message, and the song ends by reinforcing the negativity of the narrator's situation:

California dreamin'
On such a winter's day
On such a winter's day
On such a winter's day

It's a very pretty song, of course, and the Mamas And Papas performed it well, but I wonder how many of their listeners really thought about the lyrics. Of those who did, I wonder how many hearts were broken by listeners following the dream.
The Bobby Womack cover version currently accompanying a TV advert in the UK is smoother and fits the tone of the lyrics a little better (or in a more expected manner, anyway), but now I understand why the advert only features the innocuous first verse.

[Lyrics © Phillips/Phillips, 1964]

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