Thursday, February 22, 2007

"California Dreamin'" / The Mamas and the Papas

If you want proof of how much music changed during the 1960s, just listen to yesterday's Patsy Cline song and then this one. "Crazy" sounded perfectly at home on the radio in 1961, but by 1965 -- just four years later -- the airwaves were full of a new sound entirely. When the Mamas and the Papas burst onto the scene with this song (fittingly, released in November), it was a perfect counterculture anthem of defiance and alienation -- and unforgettably lush and catchy to boot.

The soft intro, picked on an acoustic guitar, stated the song's folkie intentions from the outset, but this was no folk song, not with that metallic rock 'n' roll drumbeat, the brittle echo-laden production, the jazz flute in the instrumental break. And while folk music had harmonies, they weren't harmonies like this, a dense wall of vocals you could almost climb into. Because the song had "California" in the title, I used to associate those harmonies with the Beach Boys' sound, but the Wilson brothers always sounded sunny, their mellow voices blending in Four-Freshman-inspired polyphony; there's nothing sunny about the minor-key dissonances of "California Dreamin'." No, these harmonies owe more to the British Invasion, to the Zombies' "She's Not There" and the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" and the Beatles' "Things We Said Today." (And in turn, next year we'd get the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby.") Denny Doherty's lines are constantly overlapped by Cass Elliott and Michelle Phillips' counterpoint, so there's scarcely a beat without vocals, their voices crunching together at the end of every verse in a haunting dissonant chord.

No, this song is about as un-California as it could be, but that's the point. The singer is roaming aimlessly in the middle of bleak winter -- "All the leaves are brown / And the sky is gray" (I can see that scene outside my window, which is probably why this song came into my head today) -- and he's pining for warm Los Angeles. But it's not just the weather that's got him so gloomy; there's a subtext of romantic complication, never spelled out but hinted at in the end: "If I didn't tell her / I could leave today." He's not telling us the story, he's just brooding -- and that note of mystery makes this even more compelling.

What really made this song a hit, though, was the controversial second verse: "Stopped into a church / I passed along the way / Well, I got down on my knees / And I pretend to pray." Pretend to pray, and Denny delivers that line with an extra punch of desperation. But religion is no consolation; quite the opposite. "You know that preacher likes the cold / He knows I'm gonna stay" -- the church seems like part of the forces ganging up to suppress this California dreamer. (It was the anti-establishment 60s, after all.)

That tantalizing flute comes weaving in right after this verse, the inarticulate expression of all his yearning, and by the time the final verse begins again, it seems like the women are taunting poor Denny, the same way the girl back-ups often seemed to be shaking a warning finger in Motown songs; there's no getting away from those nagging echoes. He's truly trapped.

Of course, when I first fell under this song's hypnotic spell in 1965, I had no idea that the singer, Denny, was sleeping with back-up singer Michelle -- but then, neither did Michelle's husband John Phillips, who wrote the song and stood there playing guitar while Denny sang it. So who is it about? I suppose it shouldn't matter, but somehow I think all that complicated emotion is what gives this song its extra power. That and the magnificent voice of Cass Elliott, who starts out trying to blend her voice in those close harmonies with Michelle's frail soprano, but can't help overpowering her by the second verse. The story goes that Cass was in love with Denny too -- you could say she's singing her heart out here.

And in the end, the only thing that really matters to me about the Mamas and the Papas was Cass's voice. I remember seeing them for the first time on TV, with John wearing that stupid fur hat he favored, Michelle slim and blond and beautiful, Denny in an embroidered Mod tunic -- and hefty Cass, wearing an absolutely huge flowered caftan, swaying and singing away. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. It was so clear she was there because SHE COULD SING. I cannot tell you what a powerful message that sent me as a little girl.

And on this bleak winter's day, the sound of Cass Elliott's voice is still better than any dream of California.
Have a listen at


Stephen Connolly said...

Sad to hear that Denny Doherty passed away recently. He'd moved back home to Canada and became a frequent contributor to CBC radio.

NickS said...

I have to confess, there are times when reading your blog is depressing for me because you can make it look so easy.

This is a great write-up of "California Dreamin'." You touch on the same lines in the lyrics that I would have, and which made me love the song, ("If I didn't tell her / I could leave today." and "You know that preacher likes the cold / He knows I'm gonna stay") and nicely treat their emotional complexity. In addition your setup, with the comparison to "Crazy" and the comment about how much the song does not have a "California sound" and the closing with your memories of Mama Cass, and descriptions of the band are spot on.

I tip my hat to you for this one.

Holly A Hughes said...

Aw, gee, thanks! It is an inspiring song to write about, truly.