California used to be the place people would go to get lost. Or rather, it’s the place they would go to lose sight of who they once were and find their truest self. It was the ultimate frontier, a boundless country supposedly endowed to Easterners by Manifest Destiny. When my parents moved to San Francisco, the dream of wide-open space was still there; it was still a malleable place where they and so many others moved to help sculpt the landscape into something that reflected their ideals. That freeform experiment was the one I was born and raised in.
Growing up in San Francisco meant the ghost of freewheeling ‘60s idealism haunted my childhood. I lived a neighborhood away from the Haight-Ashbury, played soccer around the corner from the biker hangout depicted in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, and knew who the Manson family was sooner than most kids would. Joni Mitchell’s name was ingrained in my mind as one of the state’s great cultural founders and I grew up considering Blue’s “River” to be a classic Christmas jingle. Of course, Mitchell is Canadian, which makes her the perfect Californian. It’s the last entry in a long list of places she’d wandered over the course of her career, the state she called home.
I really confronted the mythology of California for the first time when I left the state with full knowledge that I wouldn’t be returning in the foreseeable future. I listened to “California” on the flight, a dorky habit that’s carried on for the past five or so years since I moved to the East Coast. Like Mitchell’s Paris, I often find New York to be too “old and cold and settled in its ways” but it can be a lot of other things, too. “California” was my morning alarm when I first moved to New York; that short, simple acoustic flourish reminded me of waking up in the bed I left on the other side of the country. Eventually, I transitioned to a standard, blaring alarm, the type that doesn’t remind you of anything so much as inspire a sense of dread.
Now, I only listen to “California” when I’m on a plane back to San Francisco, preparing for that feeling I get when I land and know that I don’t belong there anymore. Or, at least, I don’t belong there right now. It’s hard to accept that the place you were born and raised won’t define you for forever, that you might settle elsewhere and never return. “California” doesn’t make me yearn for the state anymore, because it’s not really a song about California. It’s about claiming a home–whether it’s place you were born or the place you end up–and feeling whole again.
My favorite verse in “California” arrives toward the end: “Will you take me as I am? / Strung out on another man / California coming home.” She asks California that question, knowing all the while that the answer is yes. For a long time this was it; the place you could show up battered and broken, strung out on a man or something else, and still be accepted. Mitchell pleads for that acceptance, her register climbing higher, higher, up and over the Sierras. Will you take me as I am?
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.