Songs about Los Angeles: “In California” by Neko Case Lisa Marr

“In California” (listen to it on last.fm) is a song about searching but not finding; about disillusionment; about being lost.

Photo by flicrk user nancy- under a CC license
Photo by flickr user nancy- under a CC license

In California I dream of snow
And all the places we used to go
With the night falling down
With the night falling down
Now I’m living in Korea Town
Waking to the sound of car alarms

Neko Case didn’t write this song, although I first heard this melancholic track off her album Canadian Amp while virtually thumbing through iTunes’ Neko collection. Philistine that I was, for years I believed it to have been penned by the Western-noir fox confessor of Americana herself. Instead, it was actually written by a woman named Lisa Marr, who fronted a band called Cub, and who played off and on with Neko in the 90s.

Was “In California” autobiographical? Or was it, as it is with many songwriters, a case of a musician crafting a narrative around an imaginary life?

So while this post was originally supposed to be about a song and a city, I now find myself drawn into a search for a woman, and her story…

I remember your face when I showed you the ticket
Said you were happy for me, your heart wasn’t in it
Just a phone call away
Now there’s nothing to say
As the days roll by, disconnected

In the land where the sun is always shining on
Crying alone, palm tress are laughing at me
Another fool playing songs that don’t matter
For people who chatter endlessly

Another suicide on the 405
The Black Dahlia she smiles and smiles
It’s the same old town that bled her dry
One more starlet one more time
Bound to make it do or die
Talk a walk to Bonnie Brae
Try to wash these dreams away
They try to tell me L.A is beautiful when it rains

I think it’s important to note the disappointment, the sense of anti-climax, dreams dying on the vine. And it’s also important to note that those things happen a lot in Los Angeles. Relentless booster of LA that I am, even I have to admit that at times the golden sunshine seems to burn the life out of everything, the endless urban grid an arid cage for pacing.

The Chili Peppers’ “At least I have her, though–the city, she loves me” seems for the most part like a lucky one-off; LA doesn’t love anyone very often. Lately even I’ve been occasionally feeling as if I’ve seen every street, smelled every bacon-wrapped dog, and the most exquisite of jasmine-perfumed breezy evenings seems melancholic. Too many ghosts and memories crowd every drive along Sunset.

To really love this city–to find your home here, truly and deeply–requires an initial surrender of all those early visions of what you thought Los Angeles would be, or of what it would give you. Until you can let go of those images you superimposed, with great hope, over LA, you can’t really get in. You’re locked out, lonely.

For me, maybe that vision was simply that LA could be all things for me, for all time.

The final line, “They try to tell me LA is beautiful when it rains,” evinces the presence of friends & acquaintances — maybe even an LA fan like myself — who encourage our protagonist to discover, for herself, the better parts of this city; but implied is the fact that is has not rained since she has arrived in this impersonal, harsh town, and the sensation is one of suffocating drought, dying of thirst. If love & dreams are like water, so ubiquitous in Vancouver & Washington State (where both Marr & Case hail from), then LA seems a desert.

In analyzing this song, I decided it’s got siblings out there. I suggest you also listen to Neko Case’s “Thrice All American,” an unabashed, through-it-all love letter to rusty Northwest port town Tacoma, which could be a genuine literary foil to “In California”…:

Well I don’t make it home much, I sadly neglect you
But that’s how you like it–away from the world
God bless California, make way for the Wal-Mart
I hope they don’t find you, Tacoma

and the Twilight Singers’ “Bonnie Brae,” whose dark take on East Hollywood/K-Town’s street named, in old Gaelic, “pleasant hill,” shows just how lost you really can get in this city (the street crops up occasionally throughout a number of songs by local songwriters)…:

There was a rapture, so I can never see you anymore
nightmares believable, walking into sweet oblivion
i’m not saying it’s easy, to feel it all or not at all…
‘cuz when you play with fire, take your fate, it’s not going away
situation dire, on bonnie brae,
on bonnie brae


Lisa Marr’s name sounded familiar when it cropped up during my research. Maybe it just had a familiar ring; maybe I’d heard it before. Marr appeared to still be in Los Angeles, and still playing music–despite the disenchantment of “In California,” she must have settled in ok (if indeed the song was autobiographical in the first place)–so I sent a mass email out to everyone I knew, asking if anyone could introduce us.

I abruptly felt like a damned idiot when I realized that the Lisa Marr I was looking for was the Lisa Marr I’d interviewed some time ago when writing a story on the Echo Park Film Center. Along with Paolo Davanzo, she co-directs the amazing community resource that is the EPFC. Marr herself, a slight, dark-haired woman who had that dewy look of someone who does yoga every day, had presented me with a membership pin a few years back.

The pin’s lived on my everyday jacket–a lightweight Army-green thing spiked with close to a dozen pins–even since then. Who knew that all the last few years I was listening to this song, the woman who’d written it had also punched out the little badge affixed to my lapel.

I emailed the EPFC right away, only to find Marr was leaving in the next few hours for two weeks in Japan, on an EPFC-related trip, presumably with much film in tow.

So this post, here, will have a post-script, when I interview Marr after her return to Los Angeles. As with the song, I suspect a new story will begin where the final line ends.

For the initial Songs About LA post & the collection of published posts on the topic, go to Julia’s introduction here.

Photo courtesy nancy- at flickr via a creative commons license.

11 Replies to “Songs about Los Angeles: “In California” by Neko Case Lisa Marr”

  1. Lisa Marr is an amazing songwriter. I tracked down one of her (rare) live performances after being turned on by Case’s rendition of “In California.” Her group, The Lisa Marr Experiment, has recorded (at least) two albums well worth every bit of effort one must take to track down. One gets the sense that Marr has indeed surrendered to the sublime (look that word up if you think it means something like ‘pretty’ or ‘nice’ or ‘happy – cuz it don’t) charms of LA, and her songs have given me courage and something maybe south of hope but well north of despair on many days when the sunshine and red car tracks that don’t go nowhere get to be too much.

  2. Thanks for that, boyhowdy, and I’d love to burn those albums from you if you’re able…

    Incidentally, perhaps your comment will be the impetus Travis needs to write her much-discussed, never-drafted post about the sublime in Los Angeles. [hint, hint]

  3. What a great post and like Julia said–inspirational.

    One passage really resonates: “To really love this city–to find your home here, truly and deeply–requires an initial surrender of all those early visions of what you thought Los Angeles would be, or of what it would give you. Until you can let go of those images you superimposed, with great hope, over LA, you can’t really get in.” I was able to do this and I love this city, warts and all. I have a lot of friends though who just can’t get past their idealized view of what L.A. should be and what it should give to them. It makes me a little sad and I’ve tried to stop “selling” them on what the city has to offer. And then I’m supportive when they move away.

  4. Jodi–I too have watched with great disappointment while a friend fails to “get” LA. And I’ve seen many people leave.

    She’s not for everybody, and everybody’s not for her. Bummer, that. :\

  5. Lucinda: that was…glorious.
    I’m posting what jodi noted on my blog. It says what I woulda said, only you said it first and better. I was born here. Lucinda’s heard the story, she’s the only one who knows, but trust me- it’s bloody. If it weren’t for gunfire, I’d be from Colorado.
    Never mind.

    In one of the first posts I ever read at Metblog, someone tried to convince me that L.A. was a great place because you don’t really have to trust anybody; it was so plastic and fake and full of crap that it didn’t matter what you do. The words ‘bonehead’ and ‘ass’ flowed before my eyes.

    L.A. is tough. People say NY is tough. NY plays tough in the movies (we make those here, don’t we?). We are tough because everyone expects us not to be. Everyone comes here to live out their dreams…and then sometimes we have to hold them and tell them, ‘no, sorry, your dreams…are not so good. Come, let’s go behind Vons for cardboard boxes and I’ll help you pack.’

    I still say Steely Dan gets this place, but I had a rocky ’80s and my ’90s were literally spent in a mansion in the jungle. So, what do I know?
    -Jeff

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