Monday, March 3, 2008

TOPANGA CANYON


Listen to Topanga Canyon by John Phillips.

OK, back to work. Like Thursday's post, today's song is from John Phillips' 1970 record John, The Wolfking of L.A., and it happens to be my favorite from the album. Like Thursday's post, it's another travelogue--only this time it involves a less discernible route and purpose. In fact, the beauty of this particular travelogue lies in its ambiguity. It may actually be more appropriate to say its creepiness lies in its ambiguity...whichever.

Each verse tells a different story and, to my mind, each verse gets a little more skewed in its intent and outcome. First, Phillips goes out to Topanga to wait for his drug dealer...Tiring of this, he drives all the way to Fairfax & Third to the Farmers Market where he, oddly, derides the people "working in the sun" for selling their wares "for a profit" to just "anyone". The second verse veers off into images of man's failed attempts at mastering nature--He quickly references "train wrecks in the mountains" and "shipwrecks on the seas", before returning to the chorus without making any judgments about these disasters. The final verse speaks of unnamed people, all of whom end up "going down" in one way or another, whether in San Francisco, New Orleans or even Camarillo ("picking beans"!). The chorus is a chilling resignation: The Wolfking is in over his head, despite all the expectations others had for him.

The chorus is a bit of an epitaph as Phillips cut only a few more good songs (including "Kokomo"), most of which were slight compared to the Mamas & Papas and Wolfking. Musically, I think this song is thrilling--it's similar to the arrangements heard on GP, Grievous Angel, and Elvis's The Memphis Record, with James Burton playing some truly amazing lead guitar and former members of the Ronettes singing backup...not to mention the sublime piano and pedal steel. Oh yeah, and being vague and creepy in your road song gives you special status as a King of the Road.

Photo: View of the Pacific, Eagle Rock, Topanga State Park.

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6 comments:

Laura said...

I don't think this is technically a road song.

Corbett said...

Yes it is.

Bill said...

Any song by a King Of The Road is a road song, ipso facto. Wolfking John is a King Of The Road, so him singing Happy Birthday would make Happy Birthday a road song. Logic. See also: Roger Miller.

Corbett said...

Well argued but this song has plenty of the elements I outlined in the beginning, even if he weren't a K of the R! She's just being ornery...

Laura said...

Boys, I should be allowed to have an opinion without being called ornery. I think a real road song is more explicitly about a trip, usually a long distance one. It also might mention trucks, diners, Mexico, highways, trains, leaving town, place names etc. But just driving around LA?? Not sure that truly qualifies in my opinion.

Corbett said...

I think roads in LA count! Anyway, he talks about San Francisco and New Orleans too.