Songs About Los Angeles: “California” by Joni Mitchell


Joni Mitchell’s song, “California,” from her 1970 album, Blue, doesn’t mention Los Angeles. It doesn’t really have that much to say about California either, aside from a few lines about things like kissing “a Sunset pig” (what twenty-somethings called cops back then) and likening the state to a  “make me feel good rock and roll band.”

Her words are of yearning; for a place, for an idea, for a moment that comes through not lyrically, but in the loving turn her voice takes after she gives a good-humored but exasperated account of her misadventures on a trip through Europe. You can hear her smiling as she sings about going home; to California, to Los Angeles, to Laurel Canyon; where she and others planted themselves, grew, scattered the fruits of their creative labors to the planet’s reaches, tried to change the world.

“It’s too old and cold and settled in its ways here,” she grumbles in France. “California, I’m coming home.” This from a Canadian.

She gleans the irony of going to a party in Spain and finding everyone caught up in “reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue”–  wanderers searching for a sense of place or a way to get back to the garden. She observes and realizes hers is in California.

I remember when I first had that feeling about Los Angeles. It was about two years into my residence here, after a trip back east to visit my former hometowns of New York and Pittsburgh (Yes, I have two.) One night, I flew into Long Beach Airport, stepped out of the plane onto the roll-up stairs that lead down to the tarmac, felt the soft breath of a warm spring night on my face, saw the small Art Deco terminal surrounded by towering palm trees and, for all of the carping and difficulty I was having finding a good fit in Los Angeles, swooned.

In spite of the seismic and cultural faults and shortcomings I sometimes obsessed over and probably imagined, I stood on those Jet Blue steps and discovered a love for Los Angeles that even now still catches me by surprise. Sometimes I have to leave it to appreciate it. (I recommend flying into Long Beach on a warm night.) I feel like there’s more I can express about LA by not talking about it, but by noticing other places for what they seem to lack. I understand now, for better and sometimes worse, the meaning of the saying, “Los Angeles is not what it seems.”

I feel like Joni; done searching, knowing I’m in a place that will take me as I am.

8 thoughts on “Songs About Los Angeles: “California” by Joni Mitchell”

  1. I can’t see the video here at work, but I can relate to your words. I usually love L.A., but when I go back “home,” (loosely defined for me), I sense a much greater appreciation for what we have here and often look very forward to getting back.

  2. Entirely lovely. I grew up knowing of Joni Mitchell but it was only in 1999 in a live performance at Pauley Pavilion (with Van Morrison and Bob Dylan on the bill) that she how awesome she was. What a treasure.

  3. Even though a native Canadian, my understanding is that Joni was a resident of Laurel Canyon. Her song “Ladies of the Canyon” refers to the residents of that area.

    When she says he’d “even kiss a Sunset pig” she’s indeed referring to either the LAPD or the LASD (Weho) who were probably suppressing all sorts of bad behavior along Sunset Blvd at the time that her vision of the area was formed. Remember the war protests, plus the Hollywood/Weho music scene.

    What I like about Joni’s earlier music is how she transports you to the time and place. Consider Chelsea Morning, Woodstock and Carey, in addition to California.

    In November 2000, after writing a blog entry about some Joni Mitchell songs, I got an email in my guestbook from “KMF” stating, “I have a friend who was a friend of Joni Mitchell’s during the writing of “Carey Get Out Your Cane,” and she once told me the story behind that song. The girl in the story is Joni herself, and the “Carey” character (who is also referred to as the “red red rogue” in “California”) is a guy she hooked up with on an extended trip to Italy & Greece back in ’69 or so.”

  4. God, that’s a pretty song.
    L.A. is a place you have to leave before you can really appreciate it.
    Good choice.

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