Led Zeppelin‘s “Going to California” was a passion project for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. “When you’re in love with Joni Mitchell,” Plant memorably quipped, “you’ve really got to write about it now and again.”
Their music was, of course, very different – as were their backgrounds. But both acts ultimately journeyed to the West Coast, from Canada and England, respectively, while forging those wildly divergent paths.
Plant recognized the complications right away: Mitchell fell in immediately with the Laurel Canyon crowd, putting her inside the scary fault line that threatens to send a good portion of the state falling into the sea. Also, the Laurel Canyon folks hated Led Zeppelin.
So the band’s admiration for Mitchell remained largely long distance. They spoke of her admiringly in the press, while creating a moment of touching pastoral beauty on Led Zeppelin IV in Mitchell’s honor.
“That’s the music that I play at home all the time – Joni Mitchell,” Page told Rolling Stone in 1975. “The main thing with Joni is that she’s able to look at something that’s happened to her, draw back and crystalize the whole situation, then write about it. She brings tears to my eyes. What more can I say? It’s bloody eerie.”
Mitchell admitted that she wasn’t used to these public displays of affection. “Other artists would cross the street when I walked by,” Mitchell told Interview in 2005. “Initially, I thought that was due to elitism, but I later found out they were intimidated by me.” That was particularly true, she added, when it came to “straight white men. … They would come up to me and say, ‘My girlfriend really likes your music,’ as if they were the wrong demographic. Led Zeppelin was very courageous and outspoken about liking my music, but others wouldn’t admit it.”
Led Zeppelin’s westward adventures already included all manner of huge shows and after-concert debauchery, so they well understood its allures – and its dangers. Plant said the song was also an opportunity to reflect on “the first years of the group,” he told Spin, “when I was only about 20 and was struggling to find myself in the midst of all the craziness of California and the band and the groupies.”
Meanwhile, a loose-knit group of emerging singer-songwriting talents had been drawn to Laurel Canyon, including Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, among others. “The canyon scene was a continuation of the artistic will to create some sort of aesthetic and respectable role for pop music,” an impressed Plant said in Barney Hoskyns’ Led Zeppelin IV, “so that there was an intention beyond ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby.'”
Listen to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’
Unfortunately, Led Zeppelin weren’t exactly welcomed into this ever-earnest denim-clad circle. “The people who lived in Laurel Canyon avoided us,” Plant added. “They kept clear because we were in the tackiest part of the Sunset Strip, with tacky people like Kim Fowley and the GTOs.”
“Going to California” ties all of these seemingly disparate strands together, paying tribute from afar to Mitchell’s flaxen looks and sharp intellect – while still retaining dark worries about the risks of manifest destiny. In fact, the song’s protagonist has to navigate through a mountain-shaking earthquake while chasing down the object of his affection. If there was any wonder about just who that is, Plant makes a clear reference to “I Had a King,” the opening song from Mitchell’s debut album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull: “To find a queen without a king,” he quietly offers in the final verse. “They say she plays guitar, cries and sings.”
Plant would ultimately downplay ardent lyrical moments like that one, telling Spin that the song “might be a bit embarrassing at times lyrically, but it did sum up a period of my life when I was 22.”
Still, there’s no denying its gentle allure, as Page and John Paul Jones complete things with an utterly idyllic string accompaniment. IV went on to hurtle Led Zeppelin to another level, both creatively and commercially. Their dreams of achieving consistent brilliance had finally been realized. “I don’t think there are too many people who are capable of it,” Page ruminated in the talk with Rolling Stone, before quickly adding: “Maybe one: Joni Mitchell.”
Ironically, a minor temblor rattled the studio while he was attempting to get a final album mix at Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound.
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