I’m a big José Feliciano fan, and his version of this song is stunning. I hadn’t listened to it in a long time, until a few months ago when I heard Bobby Womack’s cover, in a movie called Fish Tank. It astounded me too. I downloaded the Womack version (ended up downloading his greatest hits, and highly recommend it), and have now listened to this one song, both versions, dozens of times. What a perfect little evocation of longing and loss, but with just a smidgen of hope there at the end. I’m an atheist, but these lines are evocative even to me:
I stopped into a church (stopped into a church)
I passed along the way (passed along the way)
You know, I got down on my knees (got down on my knees)
And I pretend to pray (I pretend to pray)
Oh, the preacher likes the cold (preacher likes the cold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna stay)
Oh, California dreamin’ (California dreamin’)
On such a winter’s day
Interesting: I just searched to find these lyrics, and there was a note that these are the original words, with the phrase “pretend to pray.” Both Feliciano and Womack sing “began to pray.” So maybe it works the other way, too. Just as a sincere expression of a need to pray, even without belief, touched me, maybe the two musicians, evidently believers, were touched by the longing itself. On the other hand, they both changed the words, so maybe not.
Anyway, there is something about the particular imagery of the church, and the brown leaves and gray sky, and the longing to be some place else, that gets me every time. Great song, worth settling down and listening to over and over.