The Mamas And The Papas: “California Dreamin’” (If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, 1965)

"I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray."

That line gets me every time. It says so much with so little and leaves itself open to a lot of probing to figure out what it really means. I wonder how it scanned in 1965, when this song was first released as a single, too.

Let’s back up a second. “California Dreamin’” is one of the most singularly bleak and haunting hit songs of its era. Though it was released in 1965, it didn’t become a big hit until 1966, when a radio station in Boston picked up on it, and it went to #4.

The song at the top of the chart when “California Dreamin’” blew up was Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” This, to me, is a defining example of the cultural split that was occurring in the US in the mid-60s. One was a martial, easy-listening tribute to American Special Forces that in effect celebrates the valor of soldiering; the other a melancholy, desperate and aimless search for shelter in a forbidding land.

Sadler sold more and charted higher, but decades of hindsight have left “California Dreamin’” the ultimate victor—it easily casts the longer cultural shadow today, Lee Greenwood and other outliers aside. Thing is, “California Dreamin’” even stood out in the repertoire of the group that made it. The rest of the If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears LP is light as a feather compared to this song.

John Phillips had written this song in 1963, when he and Michelle Phillips were still part of a folk group called the New Journeymen, and the first version was recorded by Barry McGuire as he was riding high on the success of “Eve of Destruction.” In fact, the Mamas And Papas version was cut over the same backing track, and they brought in Bud Shank, a jazz flutist who’d played with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, to add a solo. Shank’s use of dissonance gives the song’s mid-section a simultaneously stormy and lonely feel.

There’s a level on which this song is just about wishing you were somewhere familiar, and another on which it’s basically doing what everyone does: complain about the weather. If that’s all it was aiming for, though, I don’t think they’d have gone for such a heavy sonority.

And then there’s that solo verse from Denny Doherty, where he sings about stopping in that little church for sanctuary and pretending to pray so that he’ll be allowed to stay a little longer. What’s going on there? I’ve long wondered how deeply cynical that line was supposed to be—is he going along to get along, or does he more deeply suspect that praying itself is pointless? He’s in a praying pose to create the impression that he’s pious for the preacher; this implicitly acknowledges that virtually anyone in a praying pose might simply be creating an appearance.

At any rate, in 1965, this type of irreligious notion must have sounded odd in a pop song, regardless of how much was meant by it. It’s effective in the song for the way it enhances the narrator’s desperation, and maybe Phillips meant nothing at all by it, but it makes me think every time I hear it.