John Craigie
John Craigie
Wallace Baine

Wallace Baine: John Craigie’s longing for home stands out among the best songs ever written about California

A Santa Cruz cameo in a Super Bowl ad brings columnist Wallace Baine to thinking about one of Ingelwood’s native sons — the venue of this year’s football fest — and that person’s contributions to the musical mystic that is California. John Craigie, who performs locally next month, went to UCSC in the 90s and was transformed by the experience.

Singer/songwriter John Craigie is a proud native son of Inglewood, the site of last week’s SoCal-centric Super Bowl. But was he offered a slot to perform alongside Snoop and Dre at the halftime show?

Wallace

No, he was not. And neither was he consulted on the high-profile commercial for California tourism titled “Am I Dreaming?” that debuted on the Super Bowl telecast. (You weren’t dreaming: That was indeed the Giant Dipper at the Boardwalk and Henry Cowell State Park featured in the “Dreaming” ad.)

These slights of Craigie rise to the level of grave injustice — at least in the eyes of this Santa Cruz hack — because this guy has written and recorded the best song about California since that “All the leaves are brown …” song grew stale.

The song is boldly titled “I Am California” — sounds like something Walt Whitman would have written, doesn’t it? — and it creates a spell, albeit a melancholy one, that taps into the ever-renewing mystique of the Golden State.

Craigie will be performing on back-to-back nights March 2 and 3 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, which is a slightly more intimate venue than the Super Bowl halftime show. Santa Cruz plays a central role in Craigie’s story — more on that later — but in the light of his upcoming dates locally, I thought I would, with Craigie’s help, answer The New York Times which, a couple of weeks back, issued its “101 of the Best Songs About California.”

I’m certainly not going to dis the Times’ list, mainly because it does in fact include Craigie’s “I Am California.” But it is every American’s birthright to counter someone else’s playlist with one of his or her own. I’m sure it’s in the Constitution somewhere. So, let’s have a go at crafting a playlist that’s a bit more palatable to local tastes.

In our playlist — borrowing our title from Mr. Craigie — we’re going to avoid the cliched California songs, those you’ve already heard a kazillion times before (Ironclad rule no. 1: No “Hotel California”). Plus, we’re going to mostly steer clear of songs that celebrate Los Angeles, because LA tends to suck all the oxygen out of any conversation about California culture.

Also, we can’t be too parochial. Sure, let’s embrace songs about Santa Cruz, but locals have great love for other parts of California too, even SoCal if we’re in the mood. And we won’t be too literal either. Sometimes a song doesn’t have to explicitly mention California to somehow capture its unique vibe. So, we’ll be blurring a few lines.

Among the highlights:

  • Who among us in the 831 doesn’t get a secret (or not-so-secret) thrill hearing Eddie Vedder wail “Can’t help thinking that I wish I would/Move my ass down to Santa Cruz” in the groovy Pearl Jam song “Santa Cruz.” (No. 2)
  • The band Cracker put out an album called “Berkeley to Bakersfield” that’s an entire mini-opera of great California songs, the best of which may be the swaggering “California Country Boy” (No. 13)
  • I’m always haunted by the mythic story of Marshall Tucker Band’s “Fire On the Mountain” (No. 21) about the driving force that drew people to California when there was “gold in them hills and it’s waiting for me there.”
  • Hearing Journey’s “Lights” (No. 29) at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark on a beautiful night in China Basin is something every Californian (Dodgers fans excluded) should experience.
  • The Mermen’s “Unto the Resplendent” (No. 8) has no words, but it communicates California’s sense of majesty with music alone.
  • Those of us who drive Highway 1 every day probably take it for granted. The antidote to that is the Decemberists’ lovely ode “California One.” (No. 9)

But sitting pretty at Number One is John Craigie’s wistful “I Am California,” a song about living outside California and still experiencing its gravitational pull. Craigie lived his life as a Californian until about a decade ago when he moved to Portland. It was about three years after leaving California that he began to reckon with his native land’s hold on his imagination.

“It’s definitely coming from a place of having moved away,” said Craigie, “and also from the perspective of a lot of people who leave it and want to come back.”

It’s a song of palpable longing, a motherland whispering to all her lost children:

So drink all my wine
Cut all my trees
Make love on my beaches
Smoke all my weed
I Am California
Can’t you see
Wherever you roam
You’ll always want me

Over the years, Craigie lived up and down California, Joshua Tree, Big Sur, Shasta. But pivotal to his life and career was Santa Cruz. He arrived in Santa Cruz as an 18-year-old college freshman from Los Angeles in 1998. And in the four years he lived locally, Craigie was transformed.

He came to town hot for Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day — who wasn’t in those days? But in Santa Cruz, the young aspiring musician discovered KPIG and saw and heard many artists in the idiom that was only then being labeled “Americana.” Before coming to Santa Cruz, he had never heard of the likes of Todd Snider, Greg Brown, Guy Clark, Steve Earle. Now, he’s in their company.

Craigie singles out John Sandidge of Snazzy Productions and the host of KPIG’s live show “Please Stand By” as his most important champion early in his career as a songwriter.

“John has been a huge part of my beginnings,” said Craigie, “and he was one of the first people to really believe in me. He took me under his wing, and really stuck his neck out for me a lot of times, and I’m very grateful for that.”

As for “I Am California,” which first appeared on the 2017 album “No Rain, No Rose,” it ranks at the top of Craigie’s songs in number of listens on Spotify.

“It was such an easy song to write,” he said. “I know that sounds a little cocky. But I mean, in the sense of longing and the respect for the nature and the landscape was so strong within me, that it just wasn’t hard to get there.”

It’s easy to fall in love with too, exactly because it’s ambivalent and moody. It wouldn’t work at all as a California tourism commercial, and it would have completely bombed at the Super Bowl. But still, when all the cheerleading is over, and the Golden State boosterism wanes, this song will linger, precisely because of its sense of melancholy, kind of like that other California classic, the one that begins “All the leaves are brown …”

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