2018 is the 20 year anniversary of Wilco’s most popular song (according to iTunes) California Stars.
But California Stars is only partially Wilco’s.
It’s worth noting that California Stars and the other tracks from 1998’s Mermaid Avenue (and its brethren Mermaid Avenue Vol.2) are actually the collaborative Billy Bragg & Wilco manifestations of lyrics written by the iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie.
Bob Dylan mentions these same lyrics in his book Chronicles Vol. 1 . In it, Dylan writes about meeting his hero Woody Guthrie, when the old folk singer was on his death bed.
The story goes that Dylan would play Woody’s songs for him. They’d smoke cigarettes together and talk. One day Guthrie, who Dylan calls, “the true voice of the American spirit”, told Bob about a box of songs and poems he had written but never set to melodies. The songs were stashed away in the basement of Woody’s house out on Coney Island, and Bob could have them if he wanted.
Dylan went 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 turned away empty-handed.
Thirty odd years later in the late 1990’s, Nora Guthrie (Woody’s daughter) would meet and invite Billy Bragg (a versatile English punk-rocker whom “embodied Woody’s spirit”--who would then invite Wilco) to create melodies for her father’s lost lyrics.
That unlikely collaboration bore California Stars as we know it; a smiling dreamy jam, perhaps about a night in the Hollywood hills.
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 someone comments 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 silk-screen showed up and has hung in my parent’s house ever since.
It depicts six quilting squares, navy blue on white, on embossed paper.
Flash forward, and my infant son is crying at his Grandparent’s house.
I’m walking him, trying to calm his fussiness. His face softens as I move about the house showing him around.
Eventually I stop in front of the aforementioned silk-screen and let his eyes survey the contrasting pattern.
I scan it too and my eyes find the faint pencil words I’d never noticed: “Quilt: California Star”.
This was the moment I learned that sometimes, questions are answered you didn’t even know you were asking.
Suddenly Guthrie’s lyrics are a little less cryptic, and Wilco’s rendition a little less Hollywood.
Taken in this original context (that “under California Stars” literally means “beneath a hand-stitched quilt”) the scope of the song becomes smaller, more focused, yet somehow bigger.
The already-great song now has an added layer of meaning.
The warm-starry-night-in-California appeal is maintained.
And while the picture presented is still idyllic and California-dreamy, you get under that veneer, and what can replace the presumption of “California Star = Hollywood Star” (a notion that made the song seem somehow fleeting as the stardom it represented) is a simpler notion that the real stars, your stars, are much closer at hand.
What opens up is a smaller story, more world-weary perhaps, but wiser. More gracious, more firmly grounded and comfortable in its own skin.
The simple message becomes: a good bed and a good woman is all you need to keep you working on.
And we know she’s a good woman because the California Star is a complex pattern to stitch.
Which represents the fact that she can handle the complexities of the world, including him.
And he’s smart enough to give her his life for it, and the dreams they share.