It only took 35 years for me to hear The Beach Boys version of “California Dreamin’” for the first time — and to be absolutely blown away by it.
I never thought I’d be able to say anyone could top The Mamas and the Papas’ version, but The Beach Boys did it. The way they clipped every other line, and backed it with an echo effect, was a subtle but powerful tweak. The beautiful backup harmony they brought, especially on the last lines of the song, was transcendent. And the very 80s rock saxophone (so reminiscent of the buff, shirtless guy in The Lost Boys as he wailed “I Still Believe”) elevated it even more.
It’s a song I’d heard a thousand times before, gently reworked into something that somehow, impossibly, exceeded what I would have said was the absolutely perfect original in every way.
But The Beach Boys version did more than just inspire visceral feelings in me when I heard it. It also reminded me how much more there is to the character and the story than you see at first glance (or hear at first listen).
The character in the song says “I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.”, which implies that he is not only uncomfortable and cold in his new, unfamiliar, and undesirable location, but that he is also unsafe.
He follows that up by taking refuge in a church that he doesn’t believe in, as evidenced by the fact that he only pretended to pray when he got down on his knees. He seems to be taking sanctuary from whatever it is that is endangering him, under the watchful eye of the preacher who likes it cold and knows he’s going to stay.
This is a guy with secrets, on the run, in strange and unfamiliar place, seeking shelter and protection from some mortal danger in a house of a god he doesn’t recognize with the help of a wise and mysterious guardian.
THAT is a story I want to hear, and a character I want to know a whole lot more about.