Songs trace de­cline of Cal­i­for­nia’s youth cul­ture

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Henry Sre­brnik Henry Sre­brnik, who has been to Cal­i­for­nia many times, is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

In sum­mer, many thoughts turn to beaches and the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can state with which they have long been iden­ti­fied – Cal­i­for­nia.

Is it pos­si­ble to trace the de­cline of the Cal­i­for­nia youth cul­ture through a closer look at three sem­i­nal songs by Cal­i­for­nia rock groups?

I’m think­ing of the Beach Boys, the Ma­mas & the Pa­pas, and the Ea­gles, all in their time mas­sively suc­cess­ful mu­si­cians. They ex­em­pli­fied the genre, it­self in­flu­enced by, and in some ways a syn­the­sis of, African Amer­i­can gospel and blues, and white coun­try and folk mu­sic.

The songs are the Beach Boys hit “Cal­i­for­nia Girls,” “Cal­i­for­nia Dream­ing,” by the Ma­mas & Pa­pas, both re­leased in 1965, and “Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia,” the 1976 tri­umph by the Ea­gles. Those in my age group grew up with th­ese songs and many oth­ers like them.

When Brian Wil­son wrote the pop song “Cal­i­for­nia Girls,” with its sunny, up­beat (and by to­day’s stan­dards, sex­ist), lyrics — “The West coast has the sun­shine and the girls all get so tanned” — it came to de­fine the prom­ise of mid-six­ties Los An­ge­les as the cen­tre of Amer­i­can glam­our and youth. (The Bea­tles did a hu­mor­ous take on “Cal­i­for­nia Girls” in their 1968 record­ing “Back in the U.S.S.R.”)

Hol­ly­wood was pro­duc­ing beach and surf­ing movies for ap­pre­cia­tive teenage au­di­ences. It was all about fast cars, surf­boards, and in­no­cence.

“Cal­i­for­nia Dream­ing,” though re­leased at about the same time, was al­ready in­flu­enced by the bur­geon­ing coun­ter­cul­ture. A blend of six­ties pop and the folk mu­sic that had surged in pop­u­lar­ity early in the decade, it sounds wist­ful and melan­choly.

The civil rights move­ment and the war in Viet­nam had made young peo­ple aware that all was not well, even in sunny Cal­i­for­nia.

The “myth” of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia had now be­come a some­what unattain­able dream. As Denny Do­herty, him­self of course a Haligo­nian, laments, he’s just “Cal­i­for­nia dreamin’ on such a win­ter’s day.”

Eleven years later, with “Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia,” the Ea­gles have de­scended into a nar­cis­sis­tic world of drugs, lust, he­do­nis­tic ex­cess, and ni­hilism. “We are all just pris­on­ers here, of our own de­vice,” Don Henley is told.

In the end, many want to es­cape, but there is no go­ing back once you have joined the party at the Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia. As the last stanza warns Henley, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

Don Felder, the gui­tarist for the Ea­gles who wrote the tune for “Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia,” has said the song was in­spired by driv­ing into Los An­ge­les filled with high ex­pec­ta­tions that later proved dis­ap­point­ing. The Golden State was no longer so golden.

In a Nov. 25, 2007, in­ter­view on the CBS show 60 Min­utes, Henley called it “a song about the dark un­der­belly of the Amer­i­can Dream.”

By 1976 the United States had gone through many trau­mas: the mur­ders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the dis­as­ter of Viet­nam, and the forced res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon over the Water­gate scan­dal.

Though the tur­moil of the 1960s had dis­si­pated, the down­ward tra­jec­tory was nearly com­plete, and Amer­ica would soon be en­ter­ing the 1980s and the Age of Rea­gan.

The Bushes, Clin­ton, Obama and Trump were about to ap­pear over the hori­zon. The age of in­no­cence, if ever it ex­isted, was long gone.

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