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San Francisco, Where Art Thou?: Reassessing The Musical Legacy Of The ’60s Psychedelic Capital

San Francisco turned rock and roll on its head when it fostered the radical psychedelic rock of the mid-to-late '60s. Gene Sculatti was there and reported on the dawn of the Dead and the Airplane as early as 1966; here he casts his gaze back on the Bay Area and considers the city's lasting musical legacy.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

A couple of weeks ago, paging through an article on Robert Plant in the September issue of MOJO, I learned that, upon their initial meeting in a Dublin pub, the Zep master and his current bandmate Buddy Miller initially bonded over a shared interested in the West Coast music of... Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

How quaint that, and an unexpected pleasure.

On Sunday, I woke to the sound of a neighbor kid, aged 12 or 13, practicing a lick on electric guitar. It was familiar, not unpleasant, and soon revealed itself to be "Black Magic Woman," likely learned from the 1970 hit by Santana. In 1970, this kid's parents may or may not have just been born.

No one talks about San Francisco anymore. They do, but it tends to be dismissive, as if its joys long ago expired, their significance lost in a world now less naïve, more realistic, proudly tougher. The guitarist Wayne Kramer, in sleevenotes to a reissue of MC5 material: "West Coast hippie music had a gentleness: a goofy, 'la-la' kind of electrified folk music. [The bands] represented mass-marketed peace-and-flower-power crap. I think they all hated us because we kicked all their asses."

On the eve of the 45th anniversary of its birth, a look back at the '60s San Francisco scene might be in order. Did it leave any impressions? Does it deserve respect?

On October 16 and 24 and November 6, 1965, an ad hoc group of music freaks called the Family Dog threw three "dance concerts" at Longshoremen's Hall on Fishermen's Wharf. The name acts were the Lovin' Spoonful (from New York) and the Mothers (Los Angeles), but local action was the real draw: the Charlatans in dandified Victorian drag playing amplified jug-band music, post-folk-rockers Jefferson Airplane, raga-drone primitives the Great Society, straight-outta-the-garage Quicksilver Messenger Service whiplashing Bo Diddley's back catalogue.

Was this the very next wave in a pop world that in just over a year had been knocked silly by the Beatles, Stones and the "British Invasion", of America, Dylan-gone-electric, the Byrds' folk-rock, "protest" and "goodtime music" and the truly unprecedented internationalization of pop?

It was.

Jazz critic and local booster Ralph J. Gleason wasn't far off when he proclaimed San Francisco "the Liverpool of the West." Both cities were cold, gray seaports, far from the cultural and commercial centers, where scenes sparked organically with little eye toward export. By 1967, the Bay Area was teeming, the Avalon Ballroom-Fillmore Auditorium circuit playing host to dozens of homegrown bands but also new arrivals who couldn't play as they pleased in Texas (Janis Joplin, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Mother Earth, and long-term visitors the 13th Floor Elevators), Chicago (the Steve Miller Blues Band) or New York (the Youngbloods).

Below the hip radar, San Francisco also birthed, in 1966 and '67, what was arguably the most hyperactive scene for what critics of the early-'70s would dub "punk rock." Packs of junior Jaggers and cod-Mersey combos steamed the teen canteens, among them such subsequently venerated acts as the Count Five, Chocolate Watchband, Syndicate Of Sound and the Golliwogs, who--with a name change--would morph into Creedence Clearwater Revival. The same suburban club realm served as the training ground for Sly And The Family Stone.

What began at the Longshoremen's Hall soirees as a bunch of eager kids' backyard party soon caught the attention of adults-—the record business. When the time came, the Frisco groups danced with commerce, but on their own terms. They were the first artists to contract to make full albums, not one-off singles or a limited number of "sides." Along with big-leaguers the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys, they changed the exchange rate of pop from the single to the LP (it became the dominant configuration in the U.S. in 1967). They thus enjoyed an economic stimulus of their own. In late 1965 the Airplane signed with RCA Records for an unheard-of $25,000 advance. Barely a year later, Capitol handed the Steve Miller Band $60,000 plus a four-year multi-album option that, when exercised, awarded the quintet (which then included Boz Scaggs) a cool $750,000.

The San Francisco groups were also the first to demand, and most often get, creative control over the recording, packaging and promoting of their music. RCA assigned Jefferson Airplane a staff producer, but for their debut albums the Grateful Dead and Steve Miller picked their own (respectively, Dave Hassinger and Glyn Johns).

Lightshows, colorful crowds and enhancing agents made psychedelic rock a live, had-to-be-there experience, but the high-stakes bets placed by the record labels left no doubt: These wagers were expected to pay off.

In retrospect, both the financial and creative expectations were met. Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills topped the U.S. chart for eight consecutive weeks, launching Janis Joplin as a major star. The Airplane placed five albums in the Top 20 from 1967 to 1969, including Surrealistic Pillow with its hits "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love." Santana kicked-started Latin-rock with Santana and Abraxas and the singles "Oye Como Va" and "Black Magic Woman." In 1969 and 1970 alone, Creedence batted five LPs into the Top 10, adding to the world's songbook such standards as "Proud Mary," "Green River," "Lodi," "Bad Moon Rising" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain." Blue Cheer invented power-trio heavy metal ("Summertime Blues"), and acid-rock standards were set by the Dead's Live/Dead, Country Joe and the Fish's Electric Music for the Mind and Body, Quicksilver's Happy Trails and the Miller Band's Children of the Future. To some, Moby Grape (1967) stands as one of the strongest debuts by any American band of the era. Other Bay Area groups charted nationally as well, including the Sopwith Camel and It's A Beautiful Day.

At least three enduring, if now increasingly diminished, commercial institutions emerged from the city's '60s-music heyday-—four if one counts the poster renaissance (and five if the poster artists' invention of underground comics is added in).

FM album-rock radio began in 1967 when ex-Top-40 DJ Tom Donahue bought time on an obscure ethnic-language outlet to program the music Top-40 AM wouldn't touch.

Fanzines like New York's Crawdaddy! and San Francisco's Mojo-Navigator Rock & Roll News had launched roughly simultaneously a year earlier, but the birth of the modern rock press can be traced to the Nov. 11, 1967 inaugural issue of Rolling Stone.

The contemporary music-touring business likewise began in the city. Before San Francisco proved rock could fill ballrooms, pop concert venues were limited to multi-act Dick Clark-type caravans and local bars and teen clubs. The advent of the Avalon and the Fillmore, and the demand for West Coast, and later British, acts in other parts of the country created a virtual Pony Express route of what Frank Zappa ungenerously called "psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street"—-in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Denver and Vancouver, B.C. Convention centers, outdoor festivals and sports arenas came next.

(At the epicenter of activity, California concertgoers basked in the best bills. In one six-month stretch in 1967, the Fillmore boasted shows by Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf, the Byrds, the Doors, Chuck Berry, Buffalo Springfield, Martha and the Vandellas, Junior Wells, B.B. King, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, the Blues Project, the Young Rascals, the Animals, Charles Lloyd, the Mothers, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Who.)

And what of San Francisco's sins? It's tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to list marathon guitar soloing and a lack of professionalism at the top of a short list. Yet the blueprint for instrumental stretching exercises had already been sketched out by the Yardbirds' blues rave-ups and the jazz-style guitar jams of Mike Bloomfield on the Paul Butterfield Band's East-West album. The lack of stage presence and the interminable instrument-tuning of early Dead and Big Brother sets qualifies as the worst kind of amateurism, but it was an aspect of the musicians' Let's-just-get-up-and-play attitude, which itself seems to prefigure the unpretentiousness of punk a decade later.

The single most frequent charge against '60s Frisco music is that it advanced a sort of "goofy, la-la" sensibility, a brand built on naïve, if not altogether disingenuous, notions of universal peace and love. Images of the period (invariably a mini-skirted, high-on-something blonde lashing her long hair at an outdoor concert), and the pronouncements of any number of self-appointed hippie spokesmen of the later '60s, surely appear to support the charges.

But there's little of that in the music of San Francisco itself. Joplin essayed tortured-soul art over the almost psychotic guitar-playing of Jim Gurley in Big Brother. Grace Slick's acid tongue in caustic screeds like "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" more than balance Marty Balin's romanticism in Jefferson Airplane. Quicksilver's soundscapes are positively gothic, and Country Joe & the Fish essayed edgy, hard-left politics well before the MC5 bravely bared their chest hair for the revolution. True, many of Robert Hunter's lyrics for the Grateful Dead leave him open to charges of cosmic puffery ("searchlights casting for faults in the clouds of delusion"), but he'd have no shortage of co-defendants at trial. Donovan comes to mind, as do Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic and a respected Liverpool foursome. "Get Together," the Youngbloods' San Francisco-identified anthem, preaches fraternal affection, an offense routinely committed by the world's major religions.

The la-la school of California rock seems to have been founded further south, in the blithe sunshine-pop of Los Angeles studio acts like the Mamas and the Papas, the Association, Harper's Bizarre, the Sunshine Company, the Cowsills and others. In fact, the single most damaging and persistent strike against San Francisco's reputation is probably "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)." Scott McKenzie's global, summer-of-'67 hit lives in infamy, on oldies radio, and in every film and TV drama and documentary that purports to depict "the '60s." The song was written by head Papa John Phillips, recorded in Hollywood and sung by a Florida-born folksinger.

These days, it's not a tune you hear many teenaged guitarists practicing.

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