Skip to content

Song Sources: “Gone to California”

October 2, 2014

This is part of an ongoing series about our recordings. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

“Gone to California” is written as a letter from an estranged father to the son he left at birth. I had been delving into writing some songs where characters did unsavory things for what might be good reasons, and “Gone to California” was one of the best results of that experiment.

Lyrics

The last inch of land. (You are here.)

The first verse simple sets the stage and provides the frame:

Well, I’ve gone to California
to the last inch of land
Someday you’ll understand, son
When you grow to be a man

Since I was specifically writing the song to elicit a conflicting reaction on the part of the listener, it was important to figure out a way to make the narrator (the father writing the letter) if not reprehensible at least a obviously disgraceful. The “Well” at the beginning is a bit more than just an extra syllable in this case. There’s a slight flippancy to it that I thought fit the character. The character’s cluelessness is also on display in the condescending last line of the verse.

The chorus tangentially provides a bit of background on “how we got into this mess” in the guise of some advice:

You can run forever if the end is in sight
And the best way to love is blind
Water can drown you or keep you alive
But the devil’s gonna get you every time

There’s a bit of defensiveness in this, but it really is true that it’s a lot easier to judge someone when you’ve never been in there shoes. So if you can see a way out of a situation, you don’t have any trouble reaching for your goals, and it’s easy to tell someone else to love their partner blindly, and not everything is cut and dry, and sometimes you’re just screwed. I think a lot about empathy when I write, trying to really get into someone’s head and be honest with why they make a decision, regardless of whether I think the decision is the right one or the wrong one. Almost everyone who does things thinks they’re doing the right thing.

More background on “how we got into this mess”:

I was married at twenty to the first girl I laid
And I never planned on a son
There was nowhere to work and no way to get paid
And there’s more pretty girls than one

Since I already had it in mind that the character was a little clueless, having a bit of crassness in there was important, and the last line being from an old song made it seem like the sort of inappropriate joking that might go on if they met in person.

Some nights when I lay me down to sleep
I can smell her body next to me
And the river will carry me down to the sea
And someday my conscience will be free
Someday my conscience will be free

The bridge provides a bit more clarity about the timeline of the letter. I decided I needed something to show that it was being written after the narrator had already left, but also to show that he does regret his decision on some level, and that he did in fact love the wife he left. There’s a bit a nod to Springsteen’s “The River” here, too. I also imagined the bridge not being in the letter itself, but rather something that the writer was thinking as he wrote it, but that’s not really explicit in the lyrics.

The last verse gets to the real heart of the matter, that the letter is actually a plea for forgiveness:

Someday when you’re older and you read this letter
And you’re old enough to decide if you agree
Was it better to leave behind two people to suffer
Or stay by their side and make it three?

Is there a way to look at the father’s decision to run off as if it was the least bad decision? There’s no way to do both, but would having a father around who couldn’t hold down a job and might make the people around him miserable really a recipe for a happier household than one that had no father at all? The “when you’re older” is a callback to the first verse, but it means something a little different this time. At the time the letter is opened, the only judgment for the reader make is an emotional reaction toward his father that just picked up and left because he just didn’t feel like sticking around with his family. It’s perhaps less condescending now that some context has been provided, and maybe at some future time, the reader might think differently about it.

Music

The guitar riff was originally is based around a few notes of the hornpipe “Off to California,” with the timing and chords altered significantly to make it sound graver. It’s Irish in origin but was popular in the U.S. in the 19th century, presumably during the gold rush. The Session has numerous names and variants, so I would venture a guess that it’s older than that and was appropriated for different occasions (many tunes are) before it was written down and the name stuck.

I derived the verse melody from what was left, except that the verse is a bit simpler and jumps up an octave on the line going into the chorus.

Otherwise, the song was a fairly stock Americana/roots rock with big open chords. Jen did the overall arrangement of the song so that it had more dynamics, and we added the falsetto parts after trying a few things in band practice to add a part to contrast with the “up-ness” of the bridge.

Chris wrote his drum part. I was pretty thrilled that he used the “girl group” beat. It’s very different from what was in the song originally, but I thought it worked really well for the recording to give the song a different texture.

Recording

Like all the other tracks on the EP, the drums were recorded to a scratch track that Jen and I did, and then all other parts were overdubbed. I did the guitars last, and I made an effort to pare things back to the bare minimum. The drums and piano came out very tight, so I wanted to stay out of their way. Although there are two different guitar takes, for the most part, one is only on the riffs, and the other is only on the verse and chorus.

Tweet tweet. Wobble wobble.

Jen did her usual backing vocals, but I wanted a different texture behind the bridge to separate it further from the verses and chorus. Joe does really good “Ahhs” on his recordings, so we wrote a quick harmony part for him in the middle of the session and it came out sounding just right.

Gear-wise, the piano is again Chris’s upright, and the viola bass is going into Chris’s Ampeg. The guitar is my red telecaster from the Fireworks album. The tremolo was a tap tempo version of my Cardinal tremolo that I built. The amp’s tremolo sounded really good but I think it was a hair too slow for what I wanted. It’s a clean guitar otherwise with just a tiny bit of compression and the Tone King’s reverb.

Here’s how to play it if anyone’s interested:

Riff (with tremolo on 1/16th notes)
A                                     F#m                                         A                                    F#m                            A
E———————————-——————————————————-——-——————-————————————-
B——————–—————————-———————————————————-——-——————-——————-
G———————————2-———————————-——–————-——2—————————-————————
D———————————-————-—2———4——-4———4—2—4——4—2—————2-—4———————-
A—0——0—4—2—0————2/4———4-——4-——————-—————————2/4————4—2—0———
E———————————-———-——————-——————————-——-——————-——————————

A
Well, I’ve gone to California
F#m
to the last inch of land
A
Someday you’ll understand, son
F#m                                       E          E6  E
When you grow to be a man

D                                                    A
You can run forever if the end is in sight
D                                                     E
And the best way to love is blind
D                                                A
Water can drown you or keep you alive
D                         E                          A
But the devil’s gonna get you every time

I was married at twenty to the first girl I laid
And I never planned on a son
There was nowhere to work and no way to get paid
And there’s more pretty girls than one

D                                                      E
Some nights when I lay me down to sleep
D                                                      E
I can smell her body next to me
D                                                      E
And the river will carry me down to the sea
D                                   E                                   F#m
And someday my conscience will be free
D                         E                                   A
Someday my conscience will be free

Someday when you’re older and you read this letter
And you’re old enough to decide if you agree
Was it better to leave behind two people to suffer
Or stay by their side and make it three?

Advertisements
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: