St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

California Dreamin' by The Mamas & the Papas

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I'd be safe and warm
If I was in L.A. Read full Lyrics
The 1960s in America is one well-documented decade. Yet, as many revivals as it has had, when we look back on it from all the way into the 2000s and 2010s, the overwhelming feeling you get is one of... suffocation. Weren't the psychedelic colors, headbands, bell-bottom jeans, peace symbols, and incense fumes just a bit too much? The 1960s had such a strong character all their own that they drown out other decades. While everyone was busy tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, they were also cutting themselves off from every other time but their own. Examining the 60s is fascinating but also somewhat repulsing, like studying an inbred family where they all have the same birth defect.

Stained glass inside St. Patrick'sStained glass inside St. Patrick's
So, everybody grab your acoustic guitars and your bongs and pile into the Volkswagen minivan with the Grateful Dead stickers plastered all over it, as we take a trip back to Los Angeles, California, circa 1965. If you've seen LA in modern times, you cannot appreciate what a different place it was back then. It was not the concrete jungle they have today. Urban sprawl and smog had yet to choke the soul out of the city; it was possible to take the 91 freeway east and see orange groves just fifteen minutes out of city limits. It was the kind of place you could get homesick for.

And homesick is just what you'd be if it was 1963, you were in New York City, and it was so bitterly cold that you'd go into a church (St. Patrick's Cathedral, namely) even if you weren't religious and pretend to pray, just to warm your bones.

Every word and note of this song is dripping with disdain for the singer's current location, wishing he were somewhere else. It does an amazing job of expressing passion for California, without saying anything about California itself beyond that it's "safe and warm." The only inferences we can pick up are from the contrasts: In California, the leaves are never brown (actually, palm and pine trees don't change, ever, and they don't really have "leaves"), and the sky is never gray (they didn't have the smog yet then). It is most definitely never cold; certainly not what anyone east of Denver would call "cold."

The second verse takes a stab at religion, as well. The preacher seems unsympathetic, both liking the cold and knowing the singer is going to stay there, against his will. The singer has to pretend to pray just to be allowed to stay and get some warmth.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, where it's usually a lot colder than L.A.St. Patrick's Cathedral, where it's usually a lot colder than L.A.
And the last verse even gives us a tantalizing mystery: under what circumstances could you "leave today" if you "didn't tell her"? We know that the singer is out for a long walk; now, is he on his way back to a woman whom he's considering abandoning, or is he bearing news e.g. "I got the job," which will cement their residence in New York, but without which he could go home?

Ironically, the song didn't really break in California; it was a radio station in Boston that gave it enough airplay to get well-known. Even then, though the song never made #1, it stayed on the charts for several months.

Today, the song is also heavily associated with homesick soldiers on tours of duty away from home; 1965 was also the year that the American-Vietnam War kicked off, together with the protests against same. The US still mourned JFK, and dreaded the era of Neocon Republicans which came in that year and is still upon us today. Martin Luther King, Jr., was spearheading the Civil Rights Movement, to strong opposition from the KKK. With such a turbulent time upon the country, the melancholy mood of the song fit perfectly.

Thus, we have a song that's more about a time than a place. Yet the place is symbolically at the heart, standing in for your home, where it's always safe and warm no matter where or what year it is.

Cen Fox
May 22, 2010
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