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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"California Dreamin'," as heard from a Californian's perspective

What can I say? It's a winter's day.

I am thoroughly a Californian. I've lived all twenty-one and two-thirds years of my life in the Golden State, and it's hard for me to imagine myself ever living anywhere else, though I expect that will be a reality sooner or later.

Being from California makes it really interesting for me to listen to songs that fantasize about it. From Al Jolson — singing a song written by one of my ancestors, Joseph Meyer — to the Beach Boys, to Marlena Shaw, to Katy Perry, artists aplenty over the past century have painted California as beautifully sun-kissed and full of life. My liking for those songs varies, but it's always a topic that makes me think.

With their 1965 hit "California Dreamin'," the Mamas and the Papas certainly get me thinking about how outsiders understand my home state. I really enjoy the song's perspective, as the narrator thinks about Los Angeles while enduring a blustery winter's day in New York. This mindset is exactly what co-songwriter Michelle Phillips was going through in the winter of 1963; inspired by her homesickness, her husband John began to write the tune.

"California Dreamin'" has a recording and production arc that really intrigues me. It was first recorded by Barry McGuire, with the Mamas and the Papas (John and Michelle, plus Denny Doherty and "Mama" Cass Elliot) providing backing vocals. Interestingly, when the Mamas and the Papas had a crack at recording "California Dreamin'" themselves, producer Lou Adler decided to keep their backing vocals and the Wrecking Crew's instrumental; the only changes made was replacing McGuire's vocals with that of Doherty and adding Bud Shank's flute solo. What's more, McGuire's baritone voice can be heard faintly on the left channel singing part of the first line, "All the leaves are brown," an indication of the song's journey as well as a slight production error. Doherty's lead vocal, meanwhile, begins on the right channel, filling up the sound as the other backing lines remain on the left. For most of the verse, Doherty's lead line is center-panned, leading to a very noticeable shift in the song's shape when the hard panning returns.

Getting back to the songwriting, even though "California" is only sung in the lead vocal three times throughout the song — once at the end of each chorus, and once at the end of the verse — I understand how John and Michelle think of the state, because they place it in contrast to their narrator's New York scene. If, in New York, "All the leaves are brown / And the sky is gray" (one of the greatest song openings ever), then California is surely more evergreen and clear-skied, especially in the southern part of the state. As Doherty sings, "I'd be safe and warm / If I was in L.A." The idea of being safe in addition to being warm is something that sticks with me about these lyrics; from where does the safety arise? Does it come from being sheltered from the elements, or does it come from a level of comfort?

If you want to really get philosophical about "California Dreamin'," though, look no further than the verse, where Doherty sings of taking shelter in a church. There's such a vividness of character to the lines "I got down on my knees / And I pretend to pray." It speaks to the narrator's hierarchical need for physical safety and warmth, but it also begins a short and satirical discourse on the contemporary nature of religion. From Doherty pretending to pray to the preacher "lik[ing] the cold" because it means more people will take shelter by attending his service, the Mamas and the Papas make it clear that the performative aspect of religion — showing up and literally going with the motions — has taken precedence for many, and that belief itself is becoming less prioritized. The preacher may see a bigger flock in the pews, but even he likely understands it's a result of outside circumstances... circumstances that would not arise in a warmer climate like in California. Maybe, just maybe, the more pleasant conditions create a more honest way of life.

I'm left with more questions about "California Dreamin'" than I am answers after concluding this short examination of its many parts. What I do know for certain is that the whole it yields is a slightly haunting expression of longing for simple comfort, something the Golden State is often characterized as having. Maybe I'll really understand how John and Michelle Phillips felt that winter once I venture out of my home state; check back with me in a few years on that front.


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