I wish they all could be California, I wish they all could be California, I wish they all could be California songs.
On his new album Born and Raised (which was mostly recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, but partly in various sound rooms in Los Angeles), the six-string songwriter John Mayer sings about heading out west with his headphones on, “boarding a flight with a song in the back of my soul.”
The song, the album’s opening track, is Queen of California. There are references to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, two Canadian artists drawn to the Golden State – the setting of the dreams of the Mamas & the Papas and the destination of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land and Led Zeppelin’s Going to California, but also the place where Pete Townshend was “exquisitely bored.”
California has long been a songwriter’s muse, just as surely as it has been the target of Okies, actors and a truckload of Clampetts – “California is the place you oughta be.”
The state’s cities, of course, are celebrated often: Randy Newman was quite fond of L.A., where Sheryl Crow wished to have fun and watch the sun come up over Santa Monica Boulevard.
Johnny Mercer exclaimed Hurray for Hollywood; the Kinks, with Celluloid Heroes, were more measured in their tribute of the cinema city, where “everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star.”
Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Dionne Warwick preferred San Jose to Los Angeles, but weren’t sure how to get there. (U.S. Route 101 is the way, Dionne, if you’re without GPS.)
San Francisco? In 1967, Scott McKenzie gave travellers vital guidance as to floral apparel: “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Tony Bennett famously left his heart there, and Eric Burden and the Animals, with San Francisco Nights, pledged their loyalty to a last place on earth: “I wasn't born there, perhaps I'll die there – there's no place left to go.”
Where there are dreams, there are dreams dashed. The Red Hot Chili Peppers knew that ( Californication), as did John Fogarty ( Lodi):
“Just about a year ago
I set out on the road
Seekin' my fame and fortune
Lookin' for a pot of gold
Thing got bad; things got worse
I guess you will know the tune
Oh lord, stuck in Lodi again”
There's no end to songs about that shaky west-coast state, a paradise found and lost – a part of the world where fantasies are chased but where suns set and all the leaves are brown. The Eagles summed it up with their iconic rocker about an inescapable place that could be heaven or could be hell. Here’s to pink champagne on ice, and to living it up, for good or for bad, at the Hotel California.