Songs trace decline of California’s youth culture
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.