Without a lot of hair to wear flowers in all these years on from the Summer of Love, I went to San Francisco ready to acknowledge if not actually obey. Scott McKenzie’s old hit stayed in my head for days, though it had to compete with a score of other songs celebrating the city by the Bay. In a corner room of the venerable Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, as the sun set on an eventful day poking around Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore District, the Presidio, Pacific Heights, Chinatown and bits of the Tenderloin, I took a line of sight down the tram line to Union Square on one side of me and down and away toward Fisherman’s Wharf on the other, all the time being gently visited by Eric Burdon’s words: Old child, young child feel alright / on a warm San Franciscan night.
The previous week, I’d bounced about Las Vegas to Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas and around the South Side of Chicago to any number of blues standards but that which drove me up and down the streets and around the watery environs of San Francisco – perhaps the most engaging of all American cities – were the songs that had been planted in my (then hirsute) cranium when it was a byword for the stretching of all known envelopes.
Venturing back after a long absence and fearing that its brashness might have been diluted, I had hit the streets running (and walking and perambulating), seeking out the cultural touchstones that have been making visitors feel alright since the Animals leader had made the city his home toward the end of the sixties. They were in place largely as I’d left them along with the array of charismatic characters and assertive attitudes that render the Northern California metropolis quite irresistible.
As with New York, there are songs that celebrate the city from the canons of all known music forms, and have been almost since it began life in 1776 when the great Franciscan missionary to California, Fray Junipero Serra, built the Mission Dolores, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, on a site just a little south of the present City Hall. From the time in July 1846, when Capt. John B. Montgomery of the U.S.S. Portsmouth took possession of the tiny hamlet of trappers and whalers in the name of the people of the United States, it has been an integral part of the history of America’s western seaboard and a muse and lure for the creatively inclined.
Now pretty much every American city or state has an official song, often cemented on statute books by legislature confirmation. Georgia’s, not surprisingly is Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia by Ray Charles. But the Bay City has two, crooner Tony Bennett’s signature tune I Left My Heart In San Francisco coming first to mind. However, in 1984, the city adopted a second . This induction harkened back to the 1936 MGM disaster musical, San Francisco. Clark Gable, as Blackie Norton, “made with the sweet talk” to Jeanette MacDonald, as Mary Blake, in the Barbary Coast’s mythical Paradise Saloon.
During the movie’s 1936 premiere, some of the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire became ill during the extraordinary earthquake sequence and left the theatre. Folks are made of sterner stuff these days and the film is shown without incident each April 18th at the Castro Theatre to mark the disaster – the earthquake that is, not the disorientated cinema patrons. And, when a plucky Jeanette stands amongst the rubble and intones San Francisco open your golden gates!, all present lustily sing along. (As they did at Judy Garland concerts when she so memorably rendered it around the end of the fifties).
Like nearby Seattle, San Francisco has a wild, rambunctious past linked to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s and perhaps that accounts for its unshakeable sense of self-identity. No American city looks like it and certainly none feels like it. It has the sort of physical appeal that travel guides like to call quaint. To quote one published decades past by Frommers: “Luxurious mansions jostling little pastel-coloured cottages on steep hillsides, old cable cars struggling up or hurtling down the precipitous streets, the cutting edge of the Transamerica Pyramid towering over the exotic pagodas of Chinatown, one of the largest Far Eastern communities outside of Asia, the huge flamboyant silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge framed against the Pacific, the splendid backdrop of San Francisco Bay with the dark island of Alcatraz anchored amid its icy blue waves, especially at sunset – all the details of an amazing urban composition.”
This urban composition is imprinted upon us whether we realise it not – making a visit, first or repeat, an exercise in overt and subliminal recognition. It has been the setting for more memorable movies than can be recounted, including Dark Passage and Pacific Heights on Pacific Heights, The Graduate in Berkeley, Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai by Sausalito’s docks, various Indiana Jones scenes around Marin County, the car chase classic Bullitt up and down those hills (where residents still put bricks behind their rear wheels when parking near vertically), Hitchcock’s Vertigo all over the place, the cop classic Dirty Harry, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Birdman of Alcatraz, which immortalised the formidable prison on the island in the bay. That prison and that island was taken over by Native Americans in 1969 in one of the most successful protest actions of the 20th century.
San Francisco knew all about protest in sixties – it was its stock in trade. The campus of the University of California, Berkeley, rivalled the Sorbonne in Paris as the ultimate hotbed of discontent and crucible of revolution. Today, it looks rather less of a threat to the established order; its students plainly more interested in acquiring knowledge that will lead to six figure salaries than perpetuating the Free Speech movement or reviving the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Of course, the allure wasn’t all based in protest and the search for a new way. After WWII, it was one of the cities that absorbed a population movement from the south. San Francisco was a long way from the Delta, and it didn’t boast the studios and record companies of Chicago, New York or Detroit, or even Los Angeles, but it had a free and easy tone to it that connected with a lot of black bluesmen. And it was a long way from home, which had its own allure.
John Lee Hooker dropped by around 1962 and, though the song that came from his visit was titled ‘Frisco Blues, the sentiment was anything but a lament – more a paean of praise. Later the masterful Otis Redding told us how he left his home in Georgia headed for the Frisco Bay in (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay.
By the time Otis Redding had headed for the Frisco Bay, it was the end point of the western world’s most heavily trodden pilgrimage trail, particularly for the young. As London had been since the explosion of the Beatles and their fellow beat merchants in 1963, San Francisco was the hippest, hottest most evocative city in the world and the people that mattered were flooding in – to look, to live, to luxuriate in its atmosphere. Swinging London and grooving San Francisco. The very names were enough to send shivers through the culturally deprived residents of the remainder of the world’s burgs.
It was a city open to all manner of styles and influences while being beholden to none in particular. That is probably why four kids from the Bay Area were able to call themselves Creedence Clearwater Revival and convince the world that they were bona fide sons of the south. It was very likely why it was able to make available a relatively blank canvas to the sudden surge of psychedelic acts, some of whom – like Janis Joplin – came from as far afield as Texas.
The freaks of San Francisco were on their own plane of consciousness at the Matrix Club, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore Auditorium or Family Dogg, listening to the birth of free-form FM radio and experiencing the unbelievable light shows that accompanied performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, It’s A Beautiful Day, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Country Joe & the Fish, Moby Grape and so many others. San Francisco became a magnet for those who sought a truly alternative lifestyle and, for a relatively short time, before buses began ferrying in gawking tourists to the Haight-Ashbury area, it really was a brave new world.
All those hippies, heads and wanderers – the tens of thousands of actually middle-class youths who settled – had to take up residence somewhere and, with the Victorian houses around Haight-Ashbury taken up by bands and Berkeley by militant students, Sausalito, under the Golden Gate Bridge, housed a thriving community. Then, in the early seventies, gay men began purchasing cheap houses in Eureka Valley, giving birth to The Castro district (bordered by the Mission District, Twin Peaks, Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights), which is now a thriving centre of restaurants, nightlife, specialty shopping and accommodation, with a village atmosphere. Nearby Mount Davidson, is the highest in the city, at 938 feet. As with the Sutro Tower reached from Twin Peaks Boulevard, the sweeping views of the Bay, when not blanketed by fog, are quite spectacular.
But then so much of this city is – even its tattered cosmic grandeur. A stroll down Haight Street revealed more tattoo parlous and lingerie salons than head shops but there was an engaging piece of street theatre by a man behind the frame of a television set and there were two girls who beguilingly parted me from a few dollars by way of an acrobatic live rat. At the end, by the Golden Gate Park, where tear gas once broke up riots and more than a few rampant young protesters procreated productively beneath the bushes, there is a vast and cavernous Amoeba Records store that is worth a day of your stay.
Not that one needs to go looking for music; it is with you every moment you’re in the city by the bay. The songs keep coming at you – whatever your taste or your generation – a constant celebration in song. Let’s Go To San Francisco by the Flower Pot Men, We Built This City by Starship, Lights by Journey, San Francisco (You’ve Got Me) by the Village People, San Francisco Days by Chris Isaak, San Francisco by Vanessa Carlton and San Francisco Bay Blues by … well, just about everybody (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton included). More than your head may be able to handle.
©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.