THE FLOURISHING UNDERGROUND
SAN FRANCISCO - Forget the cable cars; skip Chinatown and the Golden Gate; don't bother about the topless mother of eight.
The Bay Shore area is the Liverpool of the West. Newsweek says so. Ramparts says so. Crawdaddy says so. And thousands of scenieboppers all over the nation are craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the newest pop acropolis.
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 magazine 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 re-dressed. 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 folk-rock. It brings driving spontaneity to a music that is becoming increasingly conscious of form and influence rather than effect. It is a resurgence which could smother the Monkees, drown the castrati who make easy listening, and devour all those one‐shot wonders that float above stagnant water.
Most important, if the sound succeeds, it will establish a new brand of culture hero with a new message: pop mysticism.
Talent scouts from a dozen major record companies are now perusing the scene, and grooving with the tribes at the Fillmore and the Avalon. Hip San Francisco is being carved into bits of business territory. The Jefferson Airplane belong to RCA. The Sopwith Camel did so well for Kama Sutra the label has invested in a second group, the Charlatans. 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 Elektra. And a bulging 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 bread-men understand the electronic rumblings from beneath the Golden Gate, but they are aware of two crucial factors: the demise of Merseybeat created a doldrums which resulted in the rise of rhythm-and-blues and milquetoast music, but left the white teenage audience swooning over an acknowledged fraud: the Monkees. 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 sympathetic time. 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 'n' 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 20 years' experience. It is as though Bosley Crowther had set up headquarters at The Factory. Gleason's thorough comprehension of the new sound is no small factor in its growth and acceptance by the hip establishment. He is a virtual tastemaker in the Haight, and even when the hippies put him down they talk to him, and he listens.
That Ralph Gleason writes from San Francisco is no coincidence. This city's rapport with the source of its ferment is unique. Traveling up the coast from the ruins of the Sunset Strip to the Haight is a Dantesque ascent. It is no accident that 400 miles makes the difference between a neon wasteland and the most important underground in the nation. San Francisco has the vanguard because it works hard 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 the grandeur of nature, but up north it is all have-you-seen-the-Mime-Troupe? and Haight-Street-makes-the-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 like a current. When Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist of the Grateful Dead, says "the whole scene is like a contact high," he is not talking in fanciful 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 oldest and most established group in the Bay Area. With a cohesive, vibrant sound, they are the hip community's first product. Their initial album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was weak enough to make you wonder about all the noise, but the new release, Surrealistic Pillow, is a fine collection of original songs with a tight and powerful delivery. The hit single, 'My Best Friend,' is a pleasant enough ballad, but much better [is] 'White Rabbit,' which is Alice in Wonderland with a twist of psychedelic lemon. Grace Slick's vocal wobbles deliciously and the lyrics are concise and funny. Especially worth repeating is the song's advice: "Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head."
The mouse is sometimes employed to symbolize psychedelic "enlightenment." In Los Angeles, the same realization is expressed by the Flower. A concern with and an expression of turning on is an aspect of Bay Area rock, but it is by no means central to the music. The secretive reserve that characterizes every other hip community is unnecessary baggage here. There is open talk of drug experience. When references appear in the music, they are direct and specific. 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 produce 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 meagre record player, and if they have left that boulder sound at some palatial LA 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 'n' roll 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 that civility away. They are back in dark, grainy sounds that are roots.
"San Francisco is live," says Janis Joplin, singer for 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 Paul Simon literacy or the Butterfield Blues bag (which means sounding like you've got a Ph.D in spade music) or 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, unchanneled and filled with wildlife. There is a fear, a dread, of the A&R man's ax. 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 is anything but hard rock (the Sopwith Camel, for instance, earned everyone's disfavor with a lilting good-timey rendition of 'Hello, Hello'. "They give us a bad name," says one musician. "They're a diversion," says another. "They smile nice.").
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 Jefferson Airplane [member] 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 into the 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 not artificiality but 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. If the money comes in, it'll be a stone gas."
It will be interesting to visit the Bay Area when the breadmen have glutted 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 "Pop Eye" column, Village Voice, 3 March 1967)
Goldstein's review of the first Dead album: