Photo: RL Johnson
“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” (Joan Didion, Notes of a Native Daughter)
WHEN I WAS FIFTEEN years old, my best friend at the time offered me a trip California. Her mother was going on a business trip to San Francisco and was willing to take me along so that her daughter would have company.
It was a no-brainer. I knew, the way anyone who feels out of place in their home city just knows, that I belonged in California. I knew that San Francisco had to be the place for me, because if not San Francisco, then where?
I prepared the only way I knew how – by compiling a sixty song long playlist that included every song i could think of that mentioned either California or San Francisco.
I started with the obvious ones:
- Led Zeppelin was going to California with an aching in their heart.
- California had been good to Tom Petty – he hoped it wouldn’t fall into the sea.
- The Ramones were going out west where they belonged to have fun in the warm California sun.
- Eric Clapton was walking with his baby down by the San Francisco Bay.
- Woody Guthrie wanted to lay his heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars.
- The Animals were feeling alright on a warm San Franciscan night.
- The Mamas and the Papas were California dreaming.
So was I. I was dreaming of California because California was a place you were supposed to dream of. California was supposed to be providence. It was supposed to save you.
So we went to San Francisco. And we stayed on Grace Cathedral Hill, in a nice hotel. It wasn’t the Haight in 1969 – it wasn’t even the Mission in 1999. And even if it was, we wouldn’t have known what to do with it. We were kids. We rode the cable car down to Market Street to eat soup out of sourdough bread bowls and watch the fog roll in over the bay.
As the cloud cover convinced me that the Ramones’ fabled California sun was probably down in LA, I traded my starry-eyed California playlist for one more representative of my then-taste in music, which was, as the early 2000s would have it, pretty emo:
- The New Amsterdams were hoping that there would be promise in California, but they didn’t sound too sure.
- Death Cab for Cutie were leaving home as morning turned into California.
- The Decemberists lit a white candle on Grace Cathedral Hill, then went to get hot dogs on Hyde Street Pier.
I came to San Francisco looking for a California promised in songs written by rock stars as they headed west, driven by the kind of cultural manifest destiny open to a musician in a monoculture at the height of their popularity. I went back to the Northeast having found a California familiar to Northwesterners on indie labels – Northwesterners who knew better.
The dream of the 60s may have been alive on classic rock radio, but the early aughts were soggy with muted disappointment. Like the Vietnam War so many years ago, 9/11 had just splintered the American narrative, but youth culture gave us no reassuring counternarrative. The music industry was fragmenting as well, leaving micro-labels to pick up the pieces. Instead of freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll bravado, we had sad boys from the suburbs and they had a lot of feelings, most of which were grounded in uncertainty.
San Francisco had changed as well. Peace-love utopianism had given way to techno-utopianism, which, though no less radical in some ways, was far less sexy. Relieved of its burden as a pillar of counter-cultural relevance, it was free to be a city like other cities — unique in its own way, able to quietly nurture a homegrown culture while the public eye was fixated on Brooklyn.
California, in the meanwhile, or at least the “California” I had gone looking for, had long since untethered itself from the Bay Area, and either migrated further south along US-1, or separated entirely from the terra of the Golden State and became fully an idea — one that could touch down as a sheen of golden moments, but not one that could stay.