But did you know that California Stars is only partially Wilco’s? This article uncovers the enchanting backstory behind one of Rock's greatest gems.
It Was Almost A Bob Dylan Song?
First of all, we must note that California Stars (along with the other tracks from Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol.2) are actually a collaborative effort between Billy Bragg & Wilco.
But the lyrics of every song were written by someone else. Who? The iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie.
The great Bob Dylan actually mentions these same lost lyrics in his book Chronicles Vol. 1. Dylan tells a story about these lyrics and meeting his hero, Woody Guthrie (whom he calls "the true voice of the American Spirit") when the old folk singer was on his death bed.
The story goes that Dylan played Woody’s songs for him. Dylan said they smoked cigarettes together and talked.
At one point, Dylan says Guthrie told him about a box of old poems and lyricss he'd written but never set to melodies. Guthrie told Bob the songs were stashed in the basement of Woody’s house out on Coney Island.
And Woody, told Bob Dylan he could have them if he wanted them.
Dylan went toGuthrie's home to ask for the lyrics. After riding the subway out and sludging through an icey swamp, Bob arrived at Woody’s house to inquire about the box. But Guthrie’s wife wasn’t home, and Dylan was turned away empty-handed, never to return.
Over thirty years later in the late 1990’s, Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie met and invited Billy Bragg to create melodies for her father’s lost lyrics. Bragg was a versatile English punk-rocker whom “embodied Woody’s spirit.” The only problem was that Billy Bragg was a solo act. Therefore, Bragg then invited Wilco, fronted by Jeff Tweedy, to collaborate.
That unlikely collaboration between Bragg and Wilco bore California Stars as we know it. The song is a smiling, dreamy jam. At first listen, one might think the song is perhaps about a night in wine country or perhaps the Hollywood hills. Perhaps not.
Man's Search For Meaning
When you search“California Stars Meaning” you’ll find forums and articles with comments and first-hand accounts from fans and those agreeing it’s a good song or remembering a drive “down 5” or driving through the night desert.
Someone will say Wilco wrote the song to perfectly embody California.
Someone else corrects him and relates the Guthrie back-story.
Another commentor said they think Woody’s lyrics are “a little more cryptic on Stars” than most of his other songs.
No one mentions anything about popular American quilting patterns.
That said, one day during childhood, a framed picture of a silk-screen showed up in my parent’s house.
It depicts six quilting squares, navy blue on white, on embossed paper.
Flash forward about two decades to one night when my infant son was fussy and crying at his Grandparent’s house.
I decided to walk him around the house to try and calm his fussiness. His face softened as I moved about the house showing him around.
Eventually, I stopped in front of the aforementioned silk-screened picture. I had read somewhere that babies like contrasting patterns, so I lingered to let his eyes survey picture.
I scanned it too. Then my eyes drifted down to the faint words, I'd never really noticed before. Written in pencil were the words, “Quilt: California Star.”
That was the moment I learned that sometimes, questions are answered you didn’t even know you were asking.
Suddenly, Guthrie’s lyrics were a little less cryptic; Wilco’s rendition, a little less Hollywood. It's a quilting pattern, of course!
This changed the entire context of the song.
“Under California Stars” literally means “beneath a hand-stitched quilt.”
Knowing this, the scope of California Stars becomes smaller, more focused-- yet somehow bigger.
This was already a great song. But now it has an added layer of meaning.
The warm-starry-night-in-California appeal is maintained. The feeling it presents is still idyllic and California-dreamy, but you get under that veneer.
The song always held a presumption that “California Star meant Hollywood Star.” That was a notion that made the song seem somehow as fleeting as the stardom it represented.
But now that we know what the song is about, it carries a simpler, yet deeper meaning. The real stars, your stars, are much closer at hand.
Talk About Uncovering the Truth!
It seems that what opens up with this new information is a smaller story. Perhaps it's a bit more world-weary-- but wiser.
It seems like 'California Stars' is perhaps more gracious now, more firmly grounded, and more comfortable in its own skin.
The new message might be described as: "a good bed and a good partner is all you need to keep you working on."
And by the way we know that partner of yours is good because the California Star is a really complex pattern to stitch.
The California Star represents the way a good partner is one who can help you handle the complexities of the world and life.
Let us be wise enough to dedicate ourselves to that life, to that bed, and to all the dreams it represents.
Wilco's Still Rocking
The members of Wilco are constantly releasing new material. And that's not hyperbole!
Jeff Tweedy and family literally played a live a show on instagram every night during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tweedy also released his second book in 2020 titled, "How To Write One Song." In addition, Tweedy released an album titled, "Love Is The King."
Thanks for reading! And thanks Wilco for bringing California Stars to life!