In the second of Led Zeppelin IV's two acoustic offerings, the band pays tribute to Joni Mitchell as Robert Plant quests for the hippie promised land.
The last of the two acoustic numbers on Led Zeppelin IV, “Going to California” is a full-blown ode to hippie idealism. Though cultural memory likes to draw a line under hippie movement following the disastrous Rolling Stones Altamont concert and the Manson Family killings in 1969 as well as the 1970 Kent State shootings, it was very much a major presence well into the ‘70s. As I mentioned when discussing "The Battle of Evermore", Zep frontman Robert Plant was—despite his rock ‘n’ roll “Golden God” image, which certainly wasn’t without its sizable grains of truth—an unrepentant flower child during the band’s early years, one who it seems could be just as content if he were to drop everything for a simple life living amongst unspoiled natural beauty. In “Going to California” he does just that: after spending “days with a woman unkind” who “smoked my stuff and drank all my wine”, he opts to hop on a jet plane headed to an idyllic California in hopes of finding “a queen without a king”.
The song originated at the same 1970 writing sessions at Bron-Yr-Aur in the Welsh countryside that yielded the bulk of the folk-leaning Led Zeppelin III. Its finger-plucked appreggios and wistful, longing tone were inspired by denizens of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene, especially Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell, to whom the song is most likely a direct tribute to (take special note of the line “They say she plays guitar and cries and sings . . . la la la la”). It’s appropriately the gentlest cut from Led Zeppelin IV, an understated demonstration of the band’s ability to craft tranquil melodies as capably as it can bottom-heavy riff-rock. Close your eyes while listening and you can practically inhale the fresh mountain air and smell the fields of flowers Plant hopes to reach. That is, if natural disasters (read: earthquakes, the perennial worry of Golden State residents such as myself) on the way don’t do him in first. In an echo-laden bridge section, Plant cries, “Seems that the wrath of the gods got a punch on the nose and it started to flow / I think I might be sinking”, his one trying moment of self-doubt in his odyssey. But soon it subsides as his quest for hippie Eden resumes, and as he continues to search for “a woman who’s never, never, never been born”, he reminds himself “it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems”.
During American dates leading up to the release of the group’s fourth LP, Zeppelin incorporated “Going to California” into a brand new acoustic section of its concert setlist, which premiered during that leg of the tour. Fans still smarting after the dearth of heavy metal bombast on Led Zeppelin III weren’t initially receptive to this portion of the show, which prompted Plant to shout “Shut up and listen!” from his stool to the skeptical crowd. Eventually they did open their ears, and like every other offering from Led Zeppelin IV, it’s a classic rock radio perennial, so much so that its sound has seeped into the DNA of subsequent generations of hard rockers who wouldn’t be expected to be too familiar with Joni Mitchell or Pentangle. Critics were quick to point out what the blatant spiritual godfather of grunge group Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly” was when that song hit the airwaves in 1998, but they were by no means surprised. Zeppelin’s influence is so pervasive now even specific songs dictate how the language of rock music has developed—it’s matter-of-fatly accepted that of course a deep cut from the second half of a Zep album would leave its fingerprints on the work of top-tier rock groups more than two decades down the line.
As lovely as “Going to California” is, it ranks second to “The Battle of Evermore” as the album’s best acoustic offering. Compared to the urgent high drama that drives that song and its stakes-raising duet between Plant and Sandy Denny, “Going to California” is merely a pretty tune, a sedate respite from the rest of the record. But that’s true beauty of it in the context of Led Zeppelin IV--after all that bashing and riffing and hollering, it’s nice to have a moment to relax a little and savor the spirit of serene hopefulness conveyed by this low-key track. Even if you all you want is “Black Dog” times ten, at this point in the Led Zeppelin IV running order, “Going to California” is what you need to hear. You know, Jimmy Page might have been onto something with this “light and shade” contrast he strove for on his band’s records after all . . .