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So much of great songwriting is how well you imply. Songs make their point through far fewer words than prose, and often even fewer words than poetry; instrumentation, harmonies, and beats ideally add meaning that maybe the words can't fully convey. I do work at poetry, but I know I'm not a songwriter: I don't have the grasp of music to match my grasp of words, and just have to hope that my words do enough singing, as it were.

Implying the story can also make the song more universal. Paul McCartney knew how to take his very specific inspiration for "Yesterday" and turn it into, well, "Yesterday": a song that can apply to so, so many relationships gone wrong. Even when people joke about Taylor Swift, saying she is very specific in what inspires her lyrics, Swift's still good at knowing how to suggest without getting bogged down in details. Or in her own way, when Sheryl Crow was asked which of her relationships inspired "My Favorite Mistake" and she replied "All of them." We don't need to know what inspired it; we can just appreciate, and empathize with, the song.

I'm thinking of what's implied in "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
I'd be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
California dreamin'
On such a winter's day

Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher likes the cold
He knows I'm gonna stay
California dreamin'
On such a winter's day

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
If I didn't tell her
I could leave today
California dreamin'
On such a winter's day


Simple. The point-of-view's from someone somewhere cold, thinking of where it's warm, and he stays in the cold but does not necessarily where a certain someone expects him to be.

(I'll admit I misheard part of the song until I looked up the lyrics, checking in a couple of places to be sure they were right: I thought the line was "You know the preacher locked the door." That would still fit with "He knows I'm gonna stay." But I can be corrected. And when I was younger, I thought he'd said "began to pray," not "pretend.")

The song's main character is probably not a religious person, but puts on a show of it. What moves him to do that? Is it all for show, or initially for show but with the chance to grow into something else? People don't often stop at a church just to stop. But he doesn't seem driven there by disaster or tragedy; it wasn't an urgent thing, for him to go there. But it's a place where he can focus on...something. He'll think.

The preacher likely senses that the man isn't yet habitually or truly religious, but still welcomes him, as a preacher could and should. It's cold in the church, just not as cold as outside. Honestly, his saying "the preacher likes the cold" seems kind of presumptive; maybe he had to keep the heating bill down? Is the preacher that ascetic? Me not being the character in this song, I'd like to think I wouldn't be pretending to pray; but I'd try to be respectful. (I, a non-Catholic, was called out as a kid for not being respectful enough in a Catholic church; I've remembered that lesson*.)

He's also thinking of someone who's not right there, but who is near, also under heavy clouds and surrounded by brown leaves. No way to know her feelings about him, what he's doing (or if she even knows he's there; likely not), and the region they are at that time. And he's at least considered going away without telling her. Not necessarily to California, but to somewhere warmer than the here and now. But the song, to me, suggests that he knows he'd be a jerk if he did leave without saying anything. Maybe that's me reading too much into the moment. I don't know, and I can't know.

I have my own feelings about California in particular and warm places in general. I lived in Southern California from age 2 ½ to age 8; I didn't really experience or even quite understand cold until my early 80s' winters in Virginia, where most moisture seems to get sucked away, and the air gets a bone-dry kind of cold. Winter rarely clobbers Virginia the way it can clobber places farther north, but for me it was a shock. (Often literally, thanks to static.) As an adult, I wouldn't want to live in California again — Oregon is a good place for me — but once I was living on the East Coast, "California Dreamin'" started speaking to me. It's long been one of my favorite songs. I like to think I "get it": I can understand wanting to leave, to move, to be warm. My story will never, can never, be exactly the story of the man in that song; it doesn't have to be. But if it gets cold, or really deeply cold, I will still remember the warm times and places. That'll help.



* 1990, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. My family was visiting on a day trip with a young man named Roscindo, a Rotary Club guest who was visiting the U.S. from Argentina. We visited the town's Roman Catholic church. Roscindo took a moment to himself; I was talking until Mom pointed out to me that I was interrupting that moment of Roscindo's, and that he (and anyone else who was Catholic and visiting the church) deserved for me to be quiet. I shut up.

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