(HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA) — I’m typing this on the California coast, where I’m slowly making my way up the Pacific Coast Highway (aka Highway 1) all the way to northern tip of Washington. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful drive, filled with beaches and waves and lots of weird and wonderful things to see. Unfortunately the massive storm that just hit northern California has washed part of Highway 1 into the sea, so I’ll be changing my route around Big Sur. A bummer for me, but obviously my thoughts go to those much more seriously impacted by the storm.
Given my location and route, it should be no surprise that I’ve been listening to a lot of music about the state of California. This is my first extended trip in the state and it’s been fun to drive through (and map a route to) so many towns and places mentioned in popular songs. Let’s look a few.
“Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys
If you know me at all, you know the Beach Boys have a special place in my heart dating all the way back to childhood. And since I’m in one of the towns mentioned in this song (Huntington), it feels like the perfect place to start. I’ve never been on a surfboard, and I doubt I ever will be, but I sure did spend a lot of time in my youth singing along to songs about surf culture.
“Hollywood Nights” by Bob Seger
I’ve definitely come to appreciate Bob Seger’s music more as I’ve gotten older. I don’t know why, exactly. But I find some of the stories he tells hit me a little harder than they did when I was younger. In some ways that’s a little odd because his songs feel very much like they’re written for a younger crowd. This song in particular is a classic that combines beach life and driving through the hills. I took a drive through the hills yesterday and it sure is easy to see why someone would write songs about them.
“California Dreamin'” by The Mamas and The Papas
It’s probably illegal to write a column about California music without mentioning this song. Written by band members John and Michelle Phillips, this song was first put on wax by Barry MacGuire with the Ms & Ps as the backing vocalists. They then released their own version, which hit #4 on the charts and is now listed in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs. For you jazzheads out there, Bud Shank plays the flute solo.
“California Stars” by Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg and Wilco
I’m going to end this week with a song we don’t play on the Drive, but a great song nonetheless. Woody Guthrie left behind many sets of lyrics for which he never wrote music. Eventually his daughter Nora asked singer/songwriter Billy Bragg and the band Wilco to write music for some of these lyrics. The resulting albums (Mermaid Avenue Vols. 1 & 2) are masterpieces, and this song is my favorite from those recordings.
Have you got a favorite California song? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.