The California Playlist

Living a long time away from home tends to put a bit of a halo around the place. You never want that halo to go away, really. You want it to stay there as a means of making memories into something more than just recorded data. Surrounding your home with a healing light makes it safer to come back to.

When I was living in China, I would use music and literature to turn down the intensity of the glow I put on California without extinguishing it entirely. The bad is as important as the good: when you love someone, something, or someplace, and your affection is more than just infatuation, you take the good with the bad and to the extent possible, you love both. Music, at its best, elevates both the good and the bad.

I have written up several bits of music in this forum, but before I go further I think it’s worth putting out the playlist I used in China to keep California alive.

I want to grow this list, so your suggestions for additions are welcomed. My plan is to shift it to a separate page that we can all use to build the Soundtrack of the Golden West.

In alphabetical order, the seventeen tracks on our list are:

Sheryl Crowe, “All I Wanna Do” – Crowe’s breakthrough hit captures the creative torpor of a Hollywood afternoon as experienced from a barstool. The song is a still life from the 1970s that echoes the angst of frustrated writers pounding on typewriters in Garden of Allah bungalows a generation sooner. It is pure L.A. poetry.

Neil Diamond, “Be” – Diamond and his music are much maligned, usually with good cause. But if you experience the music of America’s preeminent living schmaltz-meister in the right time and right place, it is magic. Diamond’s soundtrack for the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the best part of the movie, and(sadly, that’s not saying much. But if you are driving up a deserted stretch of Pacific Coast Highway – like Morro Bay to Monterey – this is the music you want playing.

Mammas and Pappas, “California Dreamin’ ” –  We get a bad rap in California for being superficial, for jumping on trends, and for taking our lives through a series of turns. We are the home of reinvention, and this classic song speaks to me about those moments where depression and pain become hope and promise.

Al Jolson, “California, Here I Come” – Yes, it’s old and more than slightly corny. But if you listen to it at just the right moment, and you listen to it all the way through with Al Jolson singing, it will tug at the heartstrings.

Marlena Shaw‘s, “California Soul” is a song that captures the feeling of urban California in a way that no other song has before or since. If there is an anthem all of us living in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento can share, this is it.

Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, “Deadman’s Curve” – The California street racing phenomenon that birthed the Fast and Furious long pre-dated the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Mazda RX-7. Jan and Dean’s ballad brought together the Surf City sound with the bleeding edge of a car culture that remains in the blood of every Californian.

Charlie Haden Quartet West, “Haunted Heart” – The title track represents the excellence of the entire album, a moving accompaniment to an evening reading Raymond Chandler. The music evokes with pitch-perfect tone the Los Angeles of the pre-War and post-war years.

Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” – Almost everyone I talk to who has spent some decent time in San Francisco tells me that there was a moment in their lives when this song touched them, and their affection for the City coalesced and never went away. I get it. I remember my moment, and San Francisco came alive for me every time I sat there in the dark of my Beijing study and listened to this song.

Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.” – Originally written as a tongue-in-cheek anthem a year before the 1984 Olympics, Newman’s song is both paean and parody, holding up a mirror to a city that can love itself and laugh about it at the same time. To Newman, L.A. is not a balkanized mess lashed together by strings of concrete, but a city of towns in the way New York is a city of neighborhoods.

Journey, “Lights” – I played this song one evening during the summer I spent squatting in my sister’s apartment in Berkeley. The living room looked out over the Bay to the city, and it all came together. I challenge anyone to watch a sunrise or sunset in Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica, or Coronado while watching this song. You’ll get it.

Katy Rose, “Overdrive” – Rose captures the essence of the eternal summer vacation lifestyle of the hills above Los Angeles in a song written to get you in your car and on the freeway.

Freddy Martin ( as “Felix Figueroa”) and his Orchestra, “Pico and Sepulveda” – There is no meaning to Martin’s ditty, beyond a simple recitation of Los Angeles street names strung together to make a tune partisan to an otherwise unremarkable west Los Angeles neighborhood. It resonates, though, as a sideways tribute to the often irrational loyalty we have to our neighborhoods.

Train, “Save Me San Francisco” – An uplifting anthem of a prodigal son who tries life in the Pacific Northwest and realizes that you can’t find California anywhere but here.

Wang Chung, “To Live and Die in L.A.” –  The theme song to the movie of the same name evokes Noir L.A., circa 1985, a reminder that the ugly underbelly of the city still lives and breathes beneath the glitter.

Four Preps, “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” – A pop hymn to the most popular island of Southern California’s archipelago, the song salutes the state’s affection for waterborne recreation, and is a subtle reminder that while the offshore islands of New England are the playgrounds of the rich, California’s have been for the people.

Moon Zappa, “Valley Girl” – An anthem to what happens when you mix American suburbia with California and add a dash of Hollywood and a generous helping of retail therapy. I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley, and the song proved that Zappa’s father Frank had an ear for the teen zeitgeist even as the dad of a teen.

The Ink Spots, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” – A modern tribute to California Romanticism and our nostalgia for Spanish California. The image painted by Helen Hunt Jackson and others raised the missions to be a symbol of a happier, simpler time, and the Ink Spots capture that sentiment with beauty and elegance.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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