As I write this, it is -24° in Chicago. That is not the windchill temperature. That is just the temperature. Usually, at this frozen time of the year, people in the northern half of the United States think of ways to get themselves to somewhere that is warm. An escape from the exhausting wind and snow. Arizona. Florida. Maybe California. Yes. California. On a day like this, I think all of us who are snowbound in sub-zero temperatures are all dreaming, in some way, of somewhere different. Somewhere warm. It’s days like this, we seek the escape of songs like “California Dreamin’,” one of the truly great songs of the 20th century.
Written and recorded by The Mamas and The Papas, “California Dreamin'” is one of those perfect songs, a song where everything fits. Much like the brilliant “Up on The Roof,” there is nothing misplaced here. The words don’t have to be bent or misshaped to fit into the melody. The production creates a perfect mood of lonely and cold, and we find we are wishing for a different place, a warmer place, just like the narrator of the song.
“All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)
And the sky is grey (and the sky is grey)
I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk)
On a winter’s day (on a winter’s day)
I’d be safe and warm (I’d be safe and warm)
If I was in L.A. (if I was in L.A)”
Every line is sung by Denny Doherty as a lead, and then echoed as a back up by the rest of the group. All four voices are in glorious harmony, and we can easily sing along as the song progresses. It isn’t until the second verse that a narrative, a story beyond fantasy and imagination, begins.
“Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my knees)
And I pretend to pray (I pretend to pray)
You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the cold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna stay)”
Like so many other 1960’s folk-rock vocal groups, the Mama’s & the Papa’s were deeply rooted in the ethos of Laurel Canyon, the episode-center of the folk-rock movement that was also home to artists like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt and Laura Nyro, to name just a few.
The Mamas & the Papas were John and Michelle Phillips, “Mama” Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. There was controversy surrounding drugs, marital infidelity, song writing credits and more. Just like Fleetwood Mac, which would follow them by 10 years, it seemed the controversy and trouble fueled the music. There was passion, beauty and amazing harmonies.
Interestingly enough, “California Dreamin'” was written in 1963, even though it was not released by the Mamas & the Papas until 1965. It was written before The Beatles hit it big in the U.S., but after they had worldwide success with a string of #1 singles and the movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help. It was written as Bob Dylan was finding his way as a troubadour folk singer in Greenwich Village, and released after he went electric with The Band. “California Dreamin'” was written as new sounds and adventures of rock and roll were exploding around the world, but it was not released until the revolution was almost over. And yet, “California Dreamin'” fits in perfectly with the world of 1965 when it was released.
The song conveys a feeling, a feeling we all know too well. Especially those of us who live through cold, winter months, year after year. It’s gray, it’s dreary and windy, and we want to be anywhere other than where we are now.
“California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day”
And that is all. One verse, sung twice. One chorus. And we never get to California. This song, this classic song that we all know, that we all sing along to, that we all hear on classic rock radio over and over again is not even about a dream, it’s about the fact that we dream, and often, a dream is all that it ever will be. Just like the cold will stay, the preacher we visit in the church knows that we will stay, too.
California remains a dream on this gray, cold wintry day. Never safe. Never warm. Spring will be here soon.
Written by John Phillips and Michelle Phillips
Performed by the Mamas & the Papas
Released December 8, 1965