Sunday, September 28, 2008

California songs

Rain is making the leaves shudder this morning: they're still mostly green, although a few close to the house have gone yellow at the tips and, beyond the end of the driveway, an entire treetop is orange. It's an early fall, even by these standards, and I'm listening to Peter Bradley Adams sing about leaving Los Angeles, his slightly mannered, breathy voice joined, in the second verse, by Sarah Siskind's lilting harmony line: "And we made our peace with lonely nights / And you healed our broken hearts." Wistful songs about California get me every time. Does any other place inspire so much dreaming and melancholy? I know from my six years of living there that it can be a profoundly disconnected place, profoundly solitary, as folks pursue their happiness in relative isolation from and disregard for others; but it's also a place where blue takes on a thousand new meanings, where no one apologizes for their pleasure, and where a kind of blithely superficial friendliness does (it does, my east coast friends, it really does) go a long way. And coming back east after that feels inevitably, I think, like failure; even if you know it's the right thing, at least for now, to do.

Denison Witmer returns to this sense of opportunity lost or relinquished in at least two songs about California: the first, "Los Angeles," from the 2006 re-issue of his first album, Safe Away, has him singing, in short, slow phrases: "I'm your / Lost happiness / Up in your / Los Angeles / Sky." And, as with Adams' reminiscence of a city he's taking flight from, here too it's all about the sky: compromised and toxic and vast and, in the warm, oblique early-evening light that, even now, can make my throat tighten a little, so full of promise. But that promise--and this is why it's inevitably with wistfulness that folks sing of the place, at least since Joni Mitchell swore, "California / I'm coming home"--that promise comes at the end of the day, not at the beginning. California's is a crepuscular beauty. It's a promise that's already fading. That's why I find it so damn poignant and true.

That may also be why I'm thinking of it now, in our crepuscular mid-atlantic season, a fall that seems to be arriving at least a week or two early, and with an uncharacteristic burst of bright color, maples blushing all along these hills.