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Goin’ to California

Goin’ to California

A couple of recent events had me finally getting around to a post about California, and then, on top of that, movie blogger Jay mentioned a road-trip to California that could result in a Cal-themed movie post.

The two events happened within about a week. First, my wife Sweets and I had a rare opportunity to go out on a date—and we took it. We wanted to see a movie, and the only one I really wanted to see was the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. As a Brian Wilson fan, I knew I’d love it and had read in reviews that the Pet Sounds-session scenes were recreated with a fine eye and ear for how it happened. But I was concerned that Sweets, only a casual Beach Boy fan, wouldn’t get much out of it. Turns out that I loved the movie, as I expected I would, but my wife may have loved it even more. She really got into the story of this odd savant musician and the way it was told on screen.

Beach Boy Books

Beach Boy Books

And then, my daughter surprised me on Father’s Day with tickets for Sweets and me to see Brian Wilson in concert. I had already seen The Beach Boys live twice (three times if you count Mike Love’s version) and had seen both Pet Sounds and Smile thrillingly recreated live by Brian and his newer friends. I really wasn’t expecting much this time around, but was happy my daughter had come up with such a nice gift. It couldn’t have been better timing for my wife, now voraciously listening to all of my Beach Boys LPs and reading my Beach Boys books. The concert was wonderful (and, indeed, they performed “Wonderful”), with lots of deep cuts and treasures I’d not heard them do live. We are both still listening to a lot of Beach Boys lately, and I’m reading two books I hadn’t gotten around to, Heroes and Villains and The Beach Boys FAQ. We’ll be “havin’ fun all summer long,” looks like, with Beach Boys music and tales.

holland

“California Saga: California” One of the numbers I hadn’t heard live was this one, one of the few songs written for The Boys by Al Jardine. It appeared on their Holland album in 1973 and was released as a single (but didn’t climb very high). Al was part of this tour and sang lead on the song. (Al’s son Matt has taken over Jeff Foskett’s duties covering the Brian Wilson falsetto leads in concert; Mr. Foskett, for some reason, left after many years in the role to join the Mike Love aggregate).

It’s a pleasant song, with bass line and structure reminiscent of “California Girls,” but in a Sons of the Pioneers style

“California Girls” Not much I need to say about this one. Brian performed it in his show, it sounded great, the crowd loved it. It’s a classic. All of the Beach Boys sang on the recording, but only Carl played on it. The rest of the instruments were handled by the Wrecking Crew. It’s the first song Brian wrote after his initial acid trip. Doesn’t sound very trippy, but it is pretty glorious.

poses

“California” This song is not my favorite on Rufus Wainwright’s Poses album, from 2000, but that’s because it’s keeping such wonderful company. Poses, to me, is an improvement over Wainwright’s debut, which had several mind-blowing high spots, but several songs that seemed overproduced and overblown.

“California” provides a nice and poppy counterpoint to the gorgeous title song, “Shadows,” “Greek Song,” and the sublime “The Tower of Learning.”

blue

“California” “Won’t you take me as I am, strung out on another man?” Joni Mitchell sings, “California, I’m comin’ home.” Joni Mitchell’s Blue album was a downer masterpiece, and this ode to her adopted home is perfectly done. This song, along with “All I Want,” “Carey,” and several others from the album were part of the set lists of countless female vocalists of the mid-to-late seventies. If you walked into a happy hour at a restaurant/bar and there was a woman with a guitar, you knew it would only be a short while before a song from Joni’s Blue would be heard. Blue songs at happy hour. What a concept.

I have noted before that Sweets has an unnaturally hostile attitude about the music of Joni Mitchell. We used to fight about it; now it’s one of our running gags. When Mitchell recently wound up in the hospital after an aneurysm, my wife did express some sympathy—but moved no further toward giving her music another spin. It’s all Brian Wilson for her now, anyway.

Brian on Video

Brian on Video

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Goin’ to California” is one of the songs John Lee Hooker fumbles through on his Travelin’ Man album. I’m sorry, but I have long tried to appreciate Mr. Hooker and his music. I love raw, “feel” music, and am addicted to the music of quite a few of the Delta blues players, from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. John Lee Hooker sometimes does a good job of delivering his music vocally, but the man just can’t play guitar. He hammers away at one chord, his timing a mystery to any who try to follow. On his solo stuff, it’s not so noticeable, but on this record, you can tell the band is desperately trying to keep some semblance of order to the proceedings. Alas, they do not succeed.

Drive My Car

Drive My Car

I am a car idiot. For years, I relied on my friend Mark to keep my crap cars running, and I was always grateful that he didn’t mock me too much when the car just needed a switch flipped or a nut tightened. Mechanical and electrical intelligence are not something I ever had, and it was my association with my dear buddy Mark that made me appreciate that not only was my book learnin’ not superior to his specialized knowledge—it was inferior as a source of income or other usefulness.

chuck b

Although songs about cars, like cars themselves, were never something I cultivated, I’ve enjoyed quite a few hit car songs in the pop-rock world, including several by Chuck Berry, King of the Car Song. Some highlights:

  • 1955—In his first hit (#5 Billboard), Chuck chases “Maybellene” in a Ford V-8; she’s driving a Cadillac Coupe DeVille.
  • 1956—Now he’s got the DeVille, a “souped-up jitney,” in “You Can’t Catch Me.”
  • 1957—Next, in “No Money Down,” he’s back in a Ford, this time a “broken-down, raggedy one,” and wheeling and dealing to get a Caddy—a “yellow, convertible, 4-door DeVille.”
  • 1960—In “Jaguar and Thunderbird,” two cars are in a street race, with a cop car hot in pursuit.
  • 1964—Now Chuck’s chasing “Nadine,” as she heads toward a “coffee-colored Cadillac.” She ends up in a Yellow cab, so he gets in one, too, but, at song’s end, he still hasn’t caught up with her. That same year, Chuck drives around in a “calaboose” with “No Particular Place to Go.”
  • 1965—He pleads with his “Dear Dad” for a Cadillac because, once again, he’s stuck with an old, broken-down Ford.
"Low Rider" on 12"

“Low Rider” on 12″

There are a few other car songs that especially affected me. War’s “Low Rider,” from 1975, is one. I have long fantasized about having my own jukebox. I am convinced that there is something about the sound of a 45 rpm record that cannot be replicated on any other format, including the LP. If I ever obtain my Dream Jukebox, one of the first 45s I will load into it will be “Low Rider.” The crisp bass lead vocal of Charles Miller; the sax/harmonica riff; the timbales—magic!

“Long May You Run” (The Stills-Young Band, 1976) is a sentimental favorite, because it was a favorite of my aforementioned pal Mark, a generous and loving fellow who died too young, following a ten-year migraine the doctors couldn’t help him with. Mark loved Neil Young and he loved cars, so it’s a perfect tribute song that I imagine him singing along with every time I hear it. (“Maybe the Beach Boys have got you now / With those waves singin’ ‘Caroline.’”) Mark loved to sing and always wanted to be up on stage with the bands he mixed sound for, but, as much as he fought it, his true métier was cars. I have a fond memory of watching a B-movie on HBO in the late seventies with Mark. A bad guy hops into a Chevy and cranks it up. Mark turns to me, shaking his head, and says, “They dubbed in a Chrysler starter.”

And so, the car songs of the Beach Boys. Not my favorites, generally—“409,” “This Car of Mine,” “Shut Down.” But a couple that involved automobile rites of passage are among the very best, and were the flip sides of a two-sided hit. The A-side, “I Get Around,” was the first Beach Boys song to hit #1 on Billboard, and it manages, as much as any of their songs or anyone else’s, to mix a good rockin’ beat with ethereal harmonies. (Decades later Mike Love sued and got royalties for coming up with “Round, round, git around…”) The B-side was the gorgeous “Don’t Worry, Baby,” surely the most beautiful song ever written about drag-racing. Brian Wilson wrote it as an homage to his favorite pop single, The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” The Ronettes later covered “Don’t Worry, Baby,” so now everybody’s happy.

beach b

I had stopped keeping up with the Beach Boys in the early seventies, when one evening I joined a friend I’d known in high school choir and a few other collegians for a woodsy. We chanted “Cowabunga-fa-fa! Cowabunga-fu-fu!” around a raging fire and beat on bongos and rattled shakers and drank lots of cheap beer and Boone’s Farm. But we also sang some Beach Boys songs because my friend had not forgotten them. I’m sure we tried “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” plus several others that were not car songs. The next day, after my hangover cleared up, I had Beach Boys songs going around and around in my head. I wound up becoming curious about what Brian and the boys had been up to since their run of hits, and I devoured their post-Pet Sounds albums Friends, Sunflower, Smiley Smile, Holland, and the rest. Not a car song to be found. Brian had long left the drag strips, and the beach and, really, the Boys behind. I’ve kept some of these later LPs, especially Friends, in the rotation ever since, and a highlight of my concert-going experiences was a performance I saw in the mid-‘00s of the reconstituted Smile album. Glorious, with Brian in the middle of it all, a little bewildered but well-supported by Wondermints, Van Dyke Parks, and Brian sound-alike Jeff Foskett. A masterpiece, I think. A long way from surfboards and souped-up machines.

Years ago, I went into Collector Records in search of the Domingo Modugno hit “Volare,” which I had to learn for a high school class reunion gig. It was the song of their graduation year, 1958. I told the guy at the counter, a local character named Bucks, why I needed a copy. He slammed his hands down on the counter. “You’re going to learn ‘Volare’ for a gig? My band, The Volares, is having a CD release party next month! Will you sing it there?” Bucks’ band was not named for the song; it was named after the Plymouth Volare. I learned “Volare,” Italian lyrics and all, and sang it at both gigs, and it has never left my repertoire since.

Found at Collector Records

Found at Collector Records

They are saying young folk nowadays aren’t as car-crazy as my generation was, so I guess the age of the great car song is long past. Here’s to car songs of yore that we’ll never forget, and to my good friend Mark!

Honorable Mention: Yes, most car songs were written and performed by men. But two of the very best were by women: “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams.

Jackie Brenston’s #1 R&B hit from 1951, “Rocket 88,” is now considered to be one of the candidates for first rock & roll record.

Great Song Titles: “Dodge Veg-O-Matic” is a classic Jonathan Richman gem, from Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers. I can actually picture Jonathan drivin’ it proudly.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Car Crazy Cutie” is a Beach Boys car song that is pretty dang stupid, about a girl who has “axle grease imbedded ‘neath her fingernails.” Nice.

Dream Jukebox Candidates: “Low Rider” by War is one of the best singles ever. The 1983 Prince hit “Little Red Corvette” is another one for the Dream Jukebox. It’s more about sex than cars, but you can say that about so many car songs. Even the surfer-shirted, white-pantsed Beach Boys were using their vehicles to reel in the babes. “Nadine,” and almost any other single by Chuck Berry, would also be welcome.

 

So, which car songs get you all charged up?

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