Can you actually tell anything about a person depending on what parts of ‘California Dreamin’ they sing along to? Whether they take the high notes or the low ones. Whether they try and match the desperation in John Phillips’ voice when he sings ‘Waalll I got down on my knees…and I pretend to pray”. Whether they like to be the voices singing those wintry lines first, or the haunting echo that tails them like unforgiving fate. Do these sonic choices say something about the kind of people they are? Was my friend a lead singer because he sang the solo bits? Or did the fact that he was a lead singer predispose him to taking up those lines? And what about that over-enthusiastic (and inevitably untuneful) quorum who insist on singing all the lines? What would one slot them as? Enthusiasts? Go-getters? Schmucks?
It’s a measure of this song’s resilience to easy interpretation that the ultimate California group, The Beach Boys tried their hand at it, and failed badly. Granted they were a couple of decades past their prime, but they would have made a mess of it even in 1966. There’s something unforgiving about the song, something resigned and devoid of hope. To inhabit it properly, you have to live in it – except this song is no place to live in, that much is clear from the time the singer starts his story, if not from the first notes of the guitar. The only hint of the California warmth the singer so desperately wants to get back to is in the answering vocals - and heard a certain way, even these can sound sympathetic but non-committal, like a good stern priest. Or that preacher, the one who likes the cold.
What links ‘Like a rolling stone’, ‘I want to hold your hand’, ‘This year’s love’ but does not necessarily apply to ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Stairway to heaven’? Great songs all, but only the first three have that rare ability to convey to listeners at large exactly what they are about, without their having to be explained or translated. ‘California Dreamin’ also belongs in this club. Wong-kar Wai knew this when he used it again and again in his 2001 feature ‘Chungking Express’. Faye Wong’s waitress was given no back story, her motives were never explained. Instead, we were invited to understand her through her actions, the most common of which was playing ‘California Dreamin’. A remarkable cultural transplant, with all that longing and dislocation skipping a few decades, crossing an ocean and landing up in modern-day Hong Kong. What’s more, it sounds like it belongs there, more in tune with the characters in this movie and their complex emotions than with the quintessentially American Beach Boys. Come to think of it, the wind may have started carrying the seeds over earlier. Freddie Aguilar of the Philippines had a hit a few years ago with ‘Anak’; I don’t understand a word of what he’s saying, but it’s that same unsettling, intimate feeling.
Man decides to take a walk. It’s a cold winter’s day, full of sleet and bitter wind. Six months ago, this kind of weather may as well have existed on Mars for all it mattered to him. Now he braves it every day. He hasn’t missed a walk in six weeks, it’s the only thing that helps him clear his mind a little. He has tried going to church but can never seem to immerse himself in the experience the way the people around him do. He likes the preacher though – tough, old guy, never shivers no matter how high or hard the wind blows. For some inexplicable reason he feels the preacher likes him as well. Which is strange, because he hasn’t gone anywhere near confession, and is pretty sure it’s written all over his face that he has no intention to.
…maybe he understands that I am not the same as the others, the ones who walk in here to give thanks, those who complain, ask for things, betray the fact that they are human with their every greedy breath.. That I have a darkness which I carry around inside me, a void his church will never fill. That I have sacrificed, just like he has probably sacrificed. Or maybe he’s just interested because I’m from out of town. We tend to forget that priests come from humans, as do gods, and were probably human once themselves.
The lines echo in my head until they stop making sense. If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today. If I hadn’t told her, I never would have left. If life were that simple, we would all be in LA.
In all honesty, I don’t see myself leaving this place any time soon. The people are sterner here, more rugged, but also more rooted. There are fewer cars, quieter bars. No orders cocktails, they all drink beer. I am slowly learning to accept, if not embrace, the present…which is not to say the past is behind me. I still have difficulty thinking of California as a place; right now, for me, California is a person. She appears in my dreams, the one time when I have no control over what I am seeing or hearing. It’s warm while it lasts but I wake up that much colder for the experience.
Thinking of trying out some prescription meds. You know any good ones?
Yours, in fond remembrance of times past…