Jun 27, 2013

Early 1967: the San Francisco Scene

SAN FRANCISCO BRAY

The most fragile thing to maintain in our culture is an underground. No sooner does a new tribe of rebels skip out, flip out, trip out, and take its stand, than photographers from Life-Look are on the scene doing cover layout. No sooner is a low-rent, low-harassment quarter discovered than it appears in eight-color spreads on America's breakfast table. The need for the farther-out permeates our artistic involvement. American culture is a store window which must be periodically spruced and redressed. The new bohemians needn't worry about opposition these days: just exploitation. The handwriting on the wall says: preserve your thing.
The new music from San Francisco, most of it unrecorded at this writing, is the most potentially vital in the pop world. It shoots a cleansing wave over the rigid studiousness of rock. It brings driving spontaneity to a music that is becoming increasingly conscious of form and influence rather than effort. It is a resurgence which could drown the castrati who make easy listening and devour all those one‐shot wonders floating above stagnant water.
Talent scouts from a dozen major record companies are now grooving with the tribes at the Fillmore and the Avalon. Hip San Francisco is being carved into bits of business turf. The Jefferson Airplane belong to RCA. The Grateful Dead has signed with Warner Brothers in an extraordinary deal which gives them complete control over material and production. Moby Grape is tinkering with Columbia. And a fistful of local talent is being wined and dined like the last available shikse in the promised land.
All because San Francisco is the Liverpool of the West. Not many breadmen understand the electronic rumblings from beneath the Golden Gate. But youth power still makes the pop industry move, and record executives know a fad sometimes needs no justification for success except its presence in a void. There is the feeling now, as pop shepherds watch the stars over their grazing flock, that if the San Francisco sound isn't the next Messiah, it will at least give the profits a run for their money.

"The important thing about San Francisco rock & roll," says Ralph Gleason, "is that the bands here all sing and play live, and not for recordings. You get a different sound at a dance, it's harder and more direct."
Gleason, jazz and pop critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes with all the excitement of a participant. But he maintains the detachment of twenty years' experience. It is as though Bosley Crowther had set up headquarters at Warhol's Factory. Gleason's comprehension of the new sound is no small factor in its growth and acceptance by the hip establishment.
That Ralph Gleason writes from San Francisco is no coincidence. This city's rapport with the source of its ferment is unique. Travelling up the coast from the ruins of the Sunset Strip to the Haight is a Dantesque ascent. Those 400 miles mark the difference between a neon wasteland and the most important underground in the nation. San Francisco has the vanguard because it works to keep it. Native culture is cherished as though the city's consuming passion were to produce a statement that could not possibly be duplicated in New York. Chauvinism in Southern California runs to rhetoric about pulse and plastic, but up north it is have-you-seen-the-Mime-Troupe? and Haight-Street-makes-Greenwich-Village-look-like-a-city-dump.
Ten years ago, San Franciscans frowned on North Beach, but let it happen. Now, the city is prepared to support the rock underground by ignoring it. The theory of tacit neglect means a de facto tolerance of psychedelic drugs. San Francisco is far and away the most turned‐on city in the Western world. "The cops are aware of the number of heads here," says Bill Graham who owns the Fillmore and manages the Jefferson Airplane. "The law thinks it will fade out, like North Beach: What can they do? To see a cop in the Haight...it's like the English invading China. Once they own it, how are they going to police it?"
With safety in numbers, the drug and rock undergrounds swim up the same stream. The psychedelic ethic - still germinating and still unspoken - runs through the musical mainstream in a still current. When Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist with the Grateful Dead, says "the whole scene is like a contact high," he is not talking metaphor. Musical ideas are passed from group to group like a joint. There is an almost visible cohesion about San Francisco rock. With a scene that is small enough to navigate and big enough to make waves, with an establishment that all but provides the electric current, no wonder San Francisco is Athens. This acropolis has been carefully, sturdily built, and it is not going to crumble because nobody wants to see ruins messing up the skyline.

"I didn't have any musical revelation when I took acid. I'm a musician first. My drug experiences are separate..." The speaker is a member of the Jefferson Airplane, the most established group in the Bay Area.
Drugs are an open subject out here. When references appear in the music, they are direct and specific. But though concern with the dynamics of turning on is the most visible aspect of the scene here, it is by no means central to the music. While some groups seem impaled on a psychedelic spear ("How do we talk about drugs without getting banned from the radio?" is a key question of every Byrds album), San Francisco music says "pot" and goes on to other things.
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead insists: "We're not singing psychedelic drugs, we're singing music. We're musicians, not dope fiends." He sits in the dining‐room of the three‐story house he shares with the group, their women, and their community. The house is one of those masterpieces of creaking, curving spaciousness the Haight is filled with. Partially because of limited funds, but mostly because of the common consciousness which almost every group here adapts as its ethos, the Grateful Dead live and work together. They are acknowledged as the best group in the Bay Area. Leader Jerry Garcia is a patron saint of the scene. Ken Kesey calls him "Captain Trips." There is also Pigpen, the organist, and Reddy Kilowatt on bass.
Together, the Grateful Dead sound like live thunder. There are no recordings of their music yet, which is probably just as well because no album could duplicate the feeling they generate in a dancehall. I have never seen them live, but I spent an evening at the Fillmore listening to tapes. The music hits hard and stays hard, like early Rolling Stones, but distilled and concentrated. When their new album comes out, I will whip it on to my record‐player and if they have left that boulder sound at some palatial studio and come out with a polished pebble, I will know they don't live together in the Haight anymore.
But right now a group called the Grateful Dead is playing live and living for an audience of anybody's kids in San Francisco. Theirs is the Bay Area sound. Nothing convoluted in the lyrics, just rock lingua franca. Not a trace of preciousness in the music; just raunchy funky chords. The big surprise about the San Francisco sound has nothing to do with electronics or some zany new camp. Musicians in this city have knocked all the civility away. They revel in the dark, grainy sound of roots.
"San Francisco is live," says Janis Joplin, of Big Brother and the Holding Company. "Recording in a studio is a completely different trip. No one makes a record like they sound live. Hard rock is the real nitty-gritty."
Ask an aspiring musician from New York who his idols are and he'll begin a long list with the Beatles or Bob Dylan, then branch off into a dozen variations in harmonics and composition.
Not so in San Francisco. Bob Dylan is like Christianity here; they worship but they don't touch. The sound of the Grateful Dead, or Moby Grape, or Country Joe and the Fish, is jug-band music scraping against jazz. This evolution excludes most of the names in modern pop music. A good band is a "heavy" band, a "hard" band.
Marty Balin, who writes for the Jefferson Airplane, declares: "The Beatles are too complex to influence anyone around here. They're a studio sound." Which is as close as a San Francisco musician comes to describing his thing. Their music, they insist, is a virgin forest, unchannelled and filled with wildlife. This refusal to add technological effect is close to the spirit of folk music before Dylan electrified it. "A rock song still has to have drive and soul," Balin maintains. "Jazz started out as dance music, and ended up dead as something to listen to. If you can't get your effects live, the music's not alive."
Gary Duncan, lead guitarist for the Quicksilver Messenger Service, adds: "Playing something in a studio means playing for two months. Playing live, a song changes in performance. In a studio, you attack things intellectually; onstage it's all emotion."
San Francisco musicians associate Los Angeles with the evils of studio music. This is probably because almost every group has made the trek south to record. And the music available on record so far is anything but hard rock (the Sopwith Camel, for instance, earned everyone's disfavor with a lilting good-timey rendition of "Hello, Hello").
But resentment of Los Angeles goes much deeper than the recording studio. The rivalry between Northern and Southern California makes a cold war in pop inevitable. While musicians in Los Angeles deride the sound from up north as "pretentious and self-conscious" and shudder at the way "people live like animals up there," the northern attitude is best summed up by a member of the Quicksilver Messenger Service who quipped, "L.A. hurts our eyes."
Part of the Holding Company puts down the Byrds because: "They had to learn to perform after they recorded. Here, the aim is to get the crowd moving."
A member of the Jefferson Airplane says of the Beach Boys: "What Brian Wilson is doing is fine but in person there's no balls. Everything is prefabricated like the rest of that town. Bring them to Fillmore, and it just wouldn't work."
The technology involved in putting on a lightshow doesn't seem to bother San Franciscans, however, because what they're really uptight about is Southern California. There is a sneaky suspicion in this city that the south rules and The Bay is determined to keep at least its cultural supremacy untarnished. Even Ralph Gleason has little sympathy for Los Angeles music. "The freaks are fostered and nurtured by L.A. music hype," he says. "The hippies are different. What's going on here is natural and real."
The question of who is commercial and who is authentic is rhetorical. What really matters about San Francisco is what mattered about Liverpool three years ago. The underground occupies a pivotal place in the city's life. The Fillmore and the Avalon are jammed every weekend with beaded, painted faces and flowered shirts. The kids don't come from any mere bohemian quarter. Hip has passed the point where it signifies a commitment to rebellion. It has become the style of youth in the Bay Area, just as long hair and beat music were the Liverpool Look.
San Francisco is a lot like the grimy English seaport these days. In 1964, Liverpool rang with a sound that was authentically expressive and the city never tried to bury it. This is what is happening in San Francisco today. The establishment has achieved a much greater victory here than on the Strip: integration. The underground is open, unencumbered and radiating. The rest of the country will get the vibrations, and they will pay for them.
Which everyone thinks is groovy. The Grateful Dead are willing to sing their twenty-minute extravaganza, "Midnight Hour," for anyone who will listen, and if people pay, so much the better. But Bob Weir insists: "If the Industry is gonna want us, they're gonna take us the way we are. Then, if the money comes in, it'll be a stone gas."
It will be interesting to visit the Bay Area when the breadmen have gutted every artery. It will be fascinating to watch the Fillmore become the Radio City Music Hall of pop music. It will be a stone gas to take a Greyhound sightseeing tour through the Haight.
But that's another story about San Francisco. Right now, give or take a little corruption, it is new ideas, new faces and new music.
Which is what undergrounds are all about.

(by Richard Goldstein, from the Village Voice, early 1967)

2 comments:

  1. McNally writes that Goldstein visited San Francisco in Jan/Feb 1967. "He'd visited 710 and was fascinated with its openness, people wandering in and out at all times, so unlike New York with its paranoia and police locks. He felt welcome in the Dead's home, yet felt 'shy about being around such incredible people,' and they reacted by being 'solicitous.'"

    But Goldstein later said (with hindsight), "I always had very mixed feelings. And the Dead apotheosized this for me because on the one hand I felt that scene was extremely naive and apolitical and completely without substance and tradition...and very middle-class. And I wasn't middle-class...so I held some contempt for it on those grounds. On the other hand, it worked. It was a really functioning community. All the hierarchies of status that applied in New York weren't there, and the way the Dead lived was sort of the essence of this notion, and that's what I regarded as so heroic and romantic."

    When the Dead played in NYC that June, Goldstein had the impression that they'd been "parachuted in, that there was a kind of gap between them and the audience... [There was a] lack of edge and definition in New York terms in their music," and the Dead came across as "innocent, as compared to New York." [McNally, p.197-98]

    This article is more about the general SF rock scene than the Dead, though they get the most attention:
    "They are acknowledged as the best group in the Bay Area... Together, the Grateful Dead sound like live thunder... No album could duplicate the feeling they generate in a dancehall. I have never seen them live, but I spent an evening at the Fillmore listening to tapes. The music hits hard and stays hard, like early Rolling Stones, but distilled and concentrated."

    I wonder what tapes he listened to - from Bill Graham's stash of recordings? He mentions that the Dead do a 20-minute Midnight Hour, so perhaps it was the 11/19/66 tape (which also has a couple blues covers the Stones did).

    He makes much of the SF musicians' hostility to Los Angeles, and mentions the SF authorities' 'benign neglect' of this drug-filled youth scene. The tacit comparison is to the November '66 "Sunset Strip riots" between LA police & young clubgoers protesting curfew laws & club-closings by the LA city officials...the implication being that the SF underground scene is safe from similar opposition.

    The irony, though, in writing an article extolling San Francisco's fragile underground, is that Goldstein was helping to wipe it out. It was articles (and TV spots) like this that inspired the mass migration to SF in '67. He may have meant "it will be a stone gas to take a Greyhound sightseeing tour through the Haight" ironically, but those tour-buses were one of the reasons the Dead fled the Haight a year later.

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  2. I haven't found out yet just which issue of the Voice this article ran in...

    But Goldstein did review the Dead's first album for the Voice, and I'll post that next.

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