Some places, just like songs, leave a lasting impression on our lives. But what happens when a place and a song is combined? That is when we experience a bit of magic. Just like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was an ode to West Virginia, “California Dreamin’” was the track for those who missed the sunny state. Yet when it comes to the lyrics, the two songs couldn’t be further apart.
Husband and wife duo John and Michelle Phillips composed “California Dreamin’”. It was a song that expressed Michelle’s longing for the warmth of Los Angeles, while they were going through a harsh winter in New York City. In an interview, John Phillips claimed that the song was composed in the middle of the night:
“The words ‘California dreamin’ kept going through my mind. I started working on some chords for the song. And I went through more chord progressions and things that fit the melancholy of the song.”
John had woken up Michelle at night and asked her help to complete the song, as he preferred working together with her. Hence, the continuous bleakness of “California Dreamin’” is accredited to Michelle – rooted in her own homesickness and yearning. The Mamas & The Papas initially added the backup vocals for the “California Dreamin’” version recorded by Barry McGuire and later had their own version recorded in 1965.
The song did not find immediate popularity upon release as part of The Mamas & The Papas’ 1966 debut album ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’. It was in Boston – not in L.A. as one would expect – that “California Dreamin’” had its breakthrough, when a radio station gave it nationwide airtime.
While “California Dreamin’” never reached the top spot on the charts, it performed well commercially. By 1966, the song was charted at #23 in the UK Singles chart and #4 on Billboard Hot 100 and US Cash Box. “California Dreamin’” was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001, included on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Gold certified by RIAA in June 1966.
Listen to “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & The Papas
The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreamin’” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
Known as the anthem of homesickness, “California Dreamin’” later became a tune representative of the California sound – a genre that was part of the American counterculture movement in the 1960s. The song is short, both in terms of the length of the track and the lyrics. But it leaves the listener with a sense of quiet nostalgia no matter whether they’ve been to California or not.
“I’d be safe and warm (I’d be safe and warm)
If I was in L.A.”
Right as the track begins, the listener is treated to the guitar intro played by P.F. Sloan that sets the mood of the song. Added to this are the lyrics which describe a cold winter morning, full of dreary browns and grays. The song talks of a man that goes out for a walk on this bleak day and how much he longs for the comfort of sunny L.A. instead, where he’d feel safe. So he daydreams of California, clearly yearning for the familiar feelings of a balmy ocean breeze and blue skies.
“Stopped in to a church
I passed along the way”
In this verse, we see how the man steps into a church to momentarily get away from the cold. This idea belonged to Michelle, who loved to visit the churches in New York, her life in the city enriching this track. The verse continues to speak of how the man would pretend to pray, just so he would not be asked to leave the warmth of the church. We see how “California Dreamin’” lyrics bring in little details that make up the whole – for example, speaking how the preacher prefers the days when it’s cold outside as people would then seek shelter in the church.
It is perhaps a criticism of religion that we find in this verse, cynical of an institution that exploits people’s weaknesses. In fact, John had initially wanted these lyrics changed because of his own negative experience with religion. It is lines like this and the overall difference in the sound that embodies the influence of American counterculture in this track.
The repeating chorus at the end is preceded by the plaintive flute solo by Bud Shank, who had allegedly improvised it. This verse repeats the previous one, albeit with a tiny change in the middle – “If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today”. These lyrics on the surface seem quite innocuous as they seem to talk about the fact that the man just wishes that he could head back to California without even informing his significant other.
However, once we get to know that John and Michelle divorced in 1969, it brings in the alternative interpretation that these lines might hint at their eventual separation. A view that is certainly a better fit for the stark mood of “California Dreamin’.”
What is truly remarkable about “California Dreamin’” is that this song builds up nostalgia about the sunny state of California without even a single mention of its signature blue seas and the skies. This is some incredible songwriting exemplified, as the tribute to California seems to be almost a backhanded, stated in direct contrast to the winter in NYC.
This is how the track stands apart from songs such as “Country Roads” – it is not a tribute to a state or a place per se but more of a small fantasy or daydream that describes the songwriters’ yearning for California. Hence, it is not really a surprise that “California Dreamin’” eventually gained popularity, as more and more listeners discovered the appeal of the blatant escapism of the song.