Seth Lachman

California Dreamin'

Some songs pass through the ears without provoking a hint of reflection, no matter how many times it's played on the radio. The Mama’s & the Papa’s California Dreamin’ is one such song. I remember hearing this song many times as a child sitting in the backseat of a dark purple Chrysler van on my way to a swimming lesson at the local rec center. And I’ve listened to it innumerable times in the years that followed. But the song's lyrics never stuck with me outside of the line “California’ dreamin on such a winter’s day”. If pressed, I might be able to remember the first few two lines as well, “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray”, but any more than that, and I’d need to phone a friend. But after watching the fantastic Chungking Express, I decided to revisit this classic pop song with a more critical ear.

One verse I had forgotten begins with the line, “Stopped into a church”, and this simple scene proves decisive to our understanding of the song. The traditional symbol of consolation for all "who are weary and heavy-laden" neither lifts the songwriter's spirits nor relieves him of his burdens as he “pretends to pray” in the halls of the church. In the final lines of this section, the lyrics dwell on the meaning of coldness within the church “You know the preacher like the cold/He knows I’m gonna stay”. Cold represents clinging to outward forms and traditions, even when they have lost all meaning and warmth. While the songwriter pretends to pray even though he feels nothing, the preacher recognizes that the young man won't leave this town because he hasn’t renounced the formal relationships which bind him to his surroundings. The author’s unwillingness to cut the ties of his hopeless situation foreshadows his primary reluctance to leave later in the song. “If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today.” The agony of the speaker’s plight is revealed in these lines. Leaving this hollow, decrepit place is possible only if he goes without giving his girlfriend any notice. But he can’t leave without telling her, and since he lacks the spirit to end the relationship, he knows when they meet to talk about it that she will emotionally manipulate him to stay. The guilt which draws him to pray to a God he no longer believes in creates a similar sense of obligation to a girlfriend he no longer loves. In both cases, he fulfills roles that have defined his sense of self up to this point, and until he can summon the courage to establish a new foundation, he can only dream of a place free from the shackles of his surroundings.