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The Golden Road: A Report on San Francisco

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The Golden Road: A Report on San Francisco

This article originally appeared in Issue 10 of   Crawdaddy   in June, 1967

Sitting in the window, Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village, flirting with the girls going by, the Grateful Dead very loud on 4X speakers somewhere in the room behind me; ninety-two degrees, a week short of summer, a week back from the Coast, San Francisco. Now, 3,000 miles away, what do those words mean? Was I ever anywhere but here?

The geography of rock. There are a half-dozen LPs sitting by my New York City phonograph, at least two from San Francisco: Moby Grape and Grateful Dead. Rock Scully, a Dead manager, just walked by; the Grateful Dead are at the Cafe Au Go Go, two blocks from here. The Moby Grape are midtown, playing at the Scene. We speak of a San Francisco Sound because these groups developed there. They may not come from there (Skip Spence is a Canadian, the Steve Miller Blues Band got together in Chicago); they may not even live there (Moby Grape is technically a Marin County group; Country Joe are #1 in Berkeley, but half a dozen local bands get better billing in San Francisco). But San Francisco—the Fillmore, the Avalon, the Trips Festivals, the Diggers, Owsley’s acid, Haight Street and Ashbury and Masonic and Golden Gate Park, the Straight Theater, Herb Caen, the Barb, the communication company—these have been and are and will be the environment and influences that have shaped the music of many of the best bands in America.

More specifically, the several aspects and influences of the San Francisco area have created a community; out of this community has come a feeling, an attitude; and it is this attitude that has imparted a unity to the music coming out of the Bay Area. It is this attitude that is most commonly reflected in the San Francisco Sound.

There is a geography of rock; San Francisco is different from New York musically, different because the music made by the Grateful Dead would be different if they had developed in New York, playing the Night Owl or Action City, trying to get a master sold, living on East 7th Street and maybe dealing meth for rent money, padlocking their front door and freezing in the winter and worrying about the air and not having children till they can afford the suburbs, reading the New York Times and having maybe two dozen friends that they see once every two months or so, never considering that they might find a manager who wasn’t just an adversary, never thinking that there was much more to it than making the charts, never wondering about the empty girls with too much makeup and an unshakeable confidence in this best of all possible nothings…probably hating each other after a while and wondering why people shat on them for doing just what everyone else does.

New York is New York, and it’s very good for some things. The energy it generates is second to none; nowhere in the world is there as much activity to dive into every time you turn around. Some people thrive on that. I do, much of the time, and that’s why I stay here; but I don’t think it’s a place to make music. San Francisco is.

The trolleys run along Haight Street pretty often; the tourists snarl up the traffic a bit, but still you can get from the Oracle office to Fillmore Street, change, and arrive at the Fillmore or Winterland in less than twenty minutes. At fifteen cents for the entire journey, that’s not bad at all. The Avalon is a little farther away, but just as accessible, and nowadays often more worthwhile.

But the ballrooms have lost their importance. They were vital once; without Bill Graham, and the hard work and business know-how he threw into the Fillmore when the scene was starting, there might never have been an SF Sound to talk about. Give him credit, and give Ralph Gleason credit, without whose enthusiastic columns in the SF Chronicle the city would have no doubt shut down those psychedelic superstructures before you could say “building inspector.” And Ken Kesey, the man whose Trips Festivals irrevocably tied together rock ‘n’ roll and light shows and the head community. The Family Dog, illuminator Bill Ham, the Charlatans, the Matrix, and Jefferson Airplane, all those originators who now cling to their place in history with alarming awareness that after two years the past is buried in the dust of centuries.

The ballrooms have given way to environments even more closely knit into the community. The great outdoors, for one; the Panhandle is only two blocks down from Haight Street, and on an average weekend you’ll hear everything from Big Brother & the Holding Company down to the local teen group playing Top 40 hits off-key. And it’s all free, free not just from admission charges but from walls and stuffy air and hassles about coming and going; free so that the music is as much a part of your life as a tree in blossom. You can stop and embrace it, or pass on by.

The Panhandle is the San Francisco Sound today: the music of the street, the music of the people who live there. The ballrooms, obsolete in terms of the community, have been turned into induction centers—the teenyboppers, the college students, the curious adults come down to the Fillmore to see what’s going on, and they do see, and pretty soon they’re part of it. They may not go directly to Haight Street with flowers in their hair (though many of them do), but they change, they shift their points of view, their minds drop out of Roger Williams and into the Grateful Dead.

Back on the street something is happening that may be even more important than the music in the park. The Straight Theater, long a cherished vision, has burst into reality. The Straight is an ancient movie house, an imposing structure capable of taking some 1,700 people out of the center of Haight Street and into whatever it feels like presenting. The property includes a theater, which will be used for concerts, gatherings, poetry readings, etc., a dance workshop, another smaller theater for experimental drama, a photographic studio and darkroom, various storefronts, a backyard mall, and more, all of which is being lovingly shaped by devoted hippie artisans into what should be the model for future art centers all over the country.

And in the air, another major change: KMPX-FM, not just radio for heads but rock radio for rock heads, a station that totally ignores the Top 20 (because you can hear that stuff any time you want on seven other frequencies) and just plays what it feels like playing. KMPX is run something like a college radio station; the people in charge know much more about rock ‘n’ roll than they do about radio programming, how to talk jock, how to sell an audience, or any of that other crap. They make mistakes—records go on the turntable at the wrong speed, careless comments go out over the air—and everyone loves them. There are no mistakes, because they can do no wrong. They’re human, and they love the music—and that’s what’s been missing in radio till now.

If you examine San Francisco closely, you’ll find major changes taking place in almost every aspect of city life. New attitudes toward jobs, toward education, toward entertainment and the arts. Basic shifts in the relationships between man and his environment, shifts that have affected every facet of that environment, changes that best can be communicated not in words but in music: Big Brother & the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Steve Miller Blues Band, Country Joe & the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grateful Dead.

Consider the albums. The Airplane was first—and second, too, for that matter. The San Francisco Sound on records begins with those first two notes of “Blues from an Airplane,” and a more noble beginning would not have been possible. Regardless of how many better albums have been recorded since Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, that album still glows with the beauty of the first trip, the birth cry of a new era in music. Between the Buttons was the definitive last statement of an earlier age; JA Takes Off is the first of a new generation of rock albums, of which Sergeant Pepper is only the latest and best.

Tim Jurgens, Ralph Gleason, and Marty Balin all used the word “love” in their attempts to pin down what made that first Airplane album different. It is much easier now to understand what they were getting at. Jefferson Airplane Loves You with what has been disdainfully referred to as “potato love”—the indiscriminate love for all people simply because they are people. This attitude enriches their music. Compare Revolver with Sergeant Pepper, do you really think the Beatles loved you when they recorded the earlier album?

Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane’s second, is a definite bringdown; certainly the worst LP to come out of the current Bay Area scene (not considering such piffle as the Sopwith Camel, who ceased to be an SF group when they met Erik Jacobsen). The problem with Pillow is mostly that it’s not an album; it’s a collection of tracks that neither feel good nor sound comfortable together. The Airplane, of course, were the first SF group to record a second album, and it is likely that at least one other good Bay Area group will flounder on their second try. And Pillow, despite its disunity, has halt a dozen fine tracks which prove that the group is better, even if their LP is worse. Sometimes progress is not reflected in quality—and this is often the fault of fate and the a&r man more than the group.

At any rate, the Airplane’s first LP is easily as good, in context, as that of any other Bay Area group so far; and how well other groups do on their second albums remains to be seen. It’s always kind of lonely to be first in line.

The Grateful Dead’s first try is pure energy flow. West Coast kineticism has developed into a fine art; the first side of this album rolls with a motion so natural that one suspects the musicians have never listened to the Who or the Kinks or even the Four Tops—they have developed their own kinetic techniques without reference to the masters in the field. With one exception: this album has so much in common with The Rolling Stones, Now! as to be almost a sequel.

Of course, l’m not complaining. Now! will always stand as one of the great rock albums, and by giving us the New World, sun-rising-over-the-Pacific-Ocean version of that album the Dead have unquestionably added to the quantity of joy around. And the Dead’s LP is much more firsthand: where the Stones glorified the mythical American South rock joint in “Down the Road Apiece,” the Dead give you the feeling that that kind of wonderful abandon is a part of their daily scene (“Golden Road”). The Stones assume the persona of Chuck Berry driving down the New Jersey Turnpike (which they’ve probably never been on!) to convey their personal energies in “You Can’t Catch Me”; the Dead do a song with almost identical impact (“Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”) but they don’t need to think of themselves as Sonny Boy Williamson—the song goes out direct to every teenybopper in the audience, and by the time they start into the fourth minute or so, every member of the band really feels every word that Pigpen says. Musically, the Stones’ performance is as good (in fact, better) than the Dead’s; but where the Stones confront a mythical highway cop, the Dead confront the actual members of their audience. Hence the Grateful Dead LP, though not quite as good as Now!, is at times even more effective.

(The Stones do, of course, confront their audience in “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” but it’s not emotional confrontation. It’s great showmanship, posturing—similar to the Dead’s terrific posturing when they “do” the whole Kingston Trio era and its approach, in “Cold Rain and Snow.” I’m comparing the Dead to the Stones not to show a preference for either, but to point out the fascinating similarities in the impact of their music and in the music itself—play “Schoolgirl” after listening to “You Can’t Catch Me” to appreciate the extent to which the Dead resemble the Stones in their concept of what music is and how a rock band should perform.)

The first side of the Dead album is one song, unrolling its varied but equivalent delights at top speed. “Beat It on Down the Line” (“That’s where I’m going to make my happy home”) moves into the certainty of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” with the ease and impact of Jean-Luc Godard. Garcia smiles, Pigpen squints, and you’re on your way. And you can’t turn back. “See that girl?... Well, she’s coming down the stair…and I don’t worry, I’m sitting on top of the world.” (Appropriate J. Garcia guitar run here.) Breathless.

The flip is something else: introspective, more like a journey than a joyride. “Morning Dew” conjures loneliness, pain, uncertainty, courage; pleads, asks, questions, denies; and finally, “l guess it doesn’t matter anyway.” Apocalyptic. Or just resigned. “I thought I heard…” And whatever it was, you’ll find it in the song. Beautiful, with a kind of intense detachment. San Francisco isn’t known for its vocalists, but this song could change all that.

“New, New Minglewood Blues” serves as a sort of bridge in the context of the album, which is not at all the nature of the song in live performance…and no doubt this is one of the many things about this LP that disappoints fans of the live Dead. The more you’ve grown to love Grateful Dead live performances over the years the more difficult it must be to accept an album which is—though very beautiful—something completely different. Only “Viola Lee Blues” has any of the fantastic “this is happening now!” quality of a good Dead performance; only “Viola Lee Blues” takes you away as far as the longtime Dead fan has grown accustomed to being taken. It’s an escape song—a prisoner for life dreams his way to the dim edges of space and time—and if you don’t think you’re a prisoner, surrender to “Viola Lee” and see what happens.

When the Country Joe album arrived at the Crawdaddy! office, it was immediately inscribed “This record is to be played on special occasions only,” and certain factions suggested that it would be in poor taste to even review such a sacred work. Sacred or not, this album does seem distantly removed from anything that has been previously associated with rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, the staunchest hard rock supporter on our staff can find no redeeming musical value in it at all. He’s wrong, of course; or, to be more accurate, he’s somewhere else. For many people, this album is so exactly where we are, it’s frightening. To be played on special occasions only.

Words should be applied to this album with extreme caution. Like a kaleidoscope, it’s easy not to appreciate—all you have to do is stare at the toy instead of into it—but if you do dig it, you may suddenly find it very hard to decide which of the sliding multicolorous worlds all around you is your own. It’s perfectly fair of me to especially dig “Flying High” because I’m a longtime hitchhiker; but when I decide that “Section 43” is without question a midsummer thundershower, and then realize that the storm is outside the window and not in my head, perhaps I’m too involved in the music.

Background music is an old concept; this album, at last, is in the foreground. It is Joe MacDonald’s world, and you are invited in. Does it seem strange that the introduction to “Flying High” has nothing to do with the song, or that Lorraine’s first name is really Martha? Not at all—remember, we are guests here. This is Berkeley 1967, Fish Street, residence of Country Joe—we are invited to see, hear, feel, smell, but not participate. “Grace”—that’s not a singalong. This is music at its most sensuous and least analyzable—sounds, unidentifiable, flash at you, words evoke pictures but no meaning, you never hear the same thing twice. But you always feel the state of grace.

“Death Sound” (“I see the minutes chasin’ the hours”), that homicidal tambourine, schizophrenic lead guitars. It’s all in the impact; if it doesn’t scare you. I can’t talk you into fright. “Section 43”—simply the most satisfying, evocative piece of music I know; I could wander its paths forever. It’s a concert performance—no individual virtuosity can be found and praised; each person did his job precisely and flawlessly, up to (and especially) the feedback and few tinkling notes at the end. The brilliance is in the composition; and in a subtle way we should consider this whole LP a composed rather than a performed work, because every note seems to have been firmly in place in every song long before the actual recording of the album. On “Love,” a mistake is met with “Aw, come on,” as if nothing could be more ridiculous at this point than doing something wrong. Indeed, a perfect Fish album: it had to be this way.

“Masked Marauder” is utterly delightful; instant movie soundtrack for whatever is going on around you. (Theme music, not background stuff.) “Superbird” would be instant #1 if radio stations weren’t so sensitive. It’s the only rock ‘n’ roll song on the album, and of course it’s perfect. “Drop your guns, baby…” Wow!

Everything on the album is one-of-a-kind, as a matter of fact; like Sergeant Pepper, the only thing linking these songs is that they like to be heard together. “Sad & Lonely Times” is a ballad, very simple, very warm—pretty. “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” is a totally different type of ballad: Berkeley Gothick, cynical, respectful, overpowering. Even affectionate; few people who’ve heard this album could really describe this song, but every one of them could describe Lorraine. And though every description would be different, each would be thoroughly respectful, thoroughly correct. David Cohen (organist) is magnificent.

And “Bass Strings” is the invocation of the Muse. “Hey, partner, won’t you pass that reefer ‘round?... I think I’ll go to the desert…Just one more trip now, and l know I’ll stay high all the time.” If you want to understand the Bay Area, “Bass Strings” will give you a fair start.

Well, it took me a long time, but I finally figured out who Moby Grape remind me of: the Everly Brothers. Also Buddy Holly, Buffalo Springfield, middle-Beatles, Byrds, New Lost City Ramblers, the Weavers, Youngbloods, Daily Flash, and everybody else. Above all, the Grape give off this very pleasant sense of déjà vu. Rock has become so eclectic you can’t even pick out influences—you just sense their presence. I don’t really know why the Grape remind me of the Everly Brothers. But it’s a nice feeling.

Moby  Grape is one of those beautifully inextricable groups with four guitarists (including bass), five vocalists, five songwriters, and about twelve distinct personalities (Skip Spence alone accounts for five of them). The Grape is unusual for an SF group in that it does not have an overall, easily identifiable personality. It is without question schizophrenic—which is nothing bad, because the group is extremely tight and they simply shift personality from song to song. Their music is always unified; it’s their album as a whole that’s schizoid. In fact, much as I like it, I enjoy the songs even more one at a time (for your convenience, Columbia has issued almost the entire album on singles—which is particularly nice because the mono mix is far better than the stereo, which must have been done too fast).

Skip Spence’s two songs make it clear that he’s the most talented—though not the most prolific—songwriter in the group. “Omaha,” to my tastes the toughest cut on the album, is one of the finest recorded examples of the wall-of-sound approach in rock. It surges and roars like a tidal wave restrained by a seawall. Moby Grape is a particularly violent group…not in the sense that they want to do harm to anyone (it is a huge misunderstanding to think violence is inherently evil, or that it necessarily causes harm—there is violent joy, and this album is proof of that), but in the sense that almost every song is attacked with great force and abandon, Moby Grape assault their audience, bathing them in almost unavoidable joy. Jamming it down their throats, in fact. The other Skip Spence song on the LP, “Indifference,” is another screamer, a well-constructed, brilliantly executed shuffle number, to be sung on the street, loud, early in the morning, or listened to in the afternoon with your fist pounding the table.

Peter Lewis is second in the hierarchy of Grape writers, and probably the most sensitive. He shares with the other Grape members the ability to create extremely appealing melody phrases, chorus lines, and rhythm riffs; this ability, combined with the resultant concentration on structure, tightness, and brevity, is what makes all the Moby Grape songs sound like good singles. Lewis, in “Fall on You,” puts together a number of catchy little themes into a very nice, very fluid song, vaguely reminiscent of “One More Try.” In “Sitting by the Window,” he waxes almost eloquent, with just enough restraint to make the song both illuminating and unpresuming. The guitar work is really excellent; the three Grape guitarists work together with exceptional taste throughout the LP.

But describing each song is not really the way to write about Moby Grape. They are elusive; you detect a thousand moods and changes, but you never quite hear the words, never know who’s singing, never are certain who’s playing lead. You can’t pin them down, can’t get too close; you learn to forget, learn to absorb their music, learn to stop trying, submit to it—and sooner or later it all comes clear. Country Joe, the Dead, are very clean; this group never lacks for tightness, but they get fuzzy ‘round the edges. They aren’t involving, but you dig the changes; they aren’t involving, but you listen for the words; they aren’t involving, but there’s something going on here…and slowly but surely the depth in this music (which at first attacked you but seemed so uninvolving) swallows you up, and you feel the complexities it invokes.

Moby  Grape is an almost ideal example of a “rock ‘n’ roll” group, and their emergence now, as the historical concept of rock ‘n’ roll seems on the verge of disappearing into a music too complexly based to fit a general description, is both surprising and quite pleasing. The Grape play short, melodic songs, complex but straightforward, tightly structured with careful drumming and rhythm, experimental (but not “far out”) bass, exciting, well-thought-out lead guitar (no fooling around) and early-Beatles- or Everlys-style group vocals. A given song (“Mr. Blues”) might draw on c&w and blues traditions, Otis Redding phrasing, Keith Richard restrained lead guitar, “Captain Soul” rhythm progression, etc. And every note is proper, polite. It’s enough to make you nostalgic; nothing is more refreshing than the unexpectedly familiar.

These are the major rock albums to come out of the Bay Area thus far. However, there is a very important, very good album recorded by a San Francisco group in the new vein prior to the Airplane’s first LP. I haven’t mentioned it because the group is not generally thought of as a rock group. They are classified under jazz, which is fine; but I think at this time we can also add John Handy’s Live at Monterey album to the list of great SF rock LPs. Listen to it, study its structure and its changes, and I think you’ll understand why. Rock is not a term that can be or that wants to be defined. San Francisco rock is an even more elusive concept, particularly when one removes the obvious geographical limitation and includes the Who’s Happy Jack and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One specifically San Francisco, or New World, trait is the inclusion of open acts of kindness toward the listener within the body of the album. Throughout Sergeant Pepper you feel that the Beatles are with you and understand where you’re at (“we’d love to take you home with us”). The Who in their comic operetta “A Quick One” bathe the listener in the repeated assurance that “you’re forgiven.” For everything. And the gentle applause at the end of each side of the John Handy album is a subtler application of the same effect.

Geographically, the San Francisco groups have the common heritage of the Bay Area ‘65—’67, and all the influences present there; most specifically, they have all been reared by the same audience, the Fillmore/Avalon crowd, the first good rock audience in America. This audience is responsible for, in addition to the Airplane, Handy, the Grape, Country Joe, and the Dead, at least three other fine groups as yet unrecorded: Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Steve Miller Blues Band. Big Brother is in many ways the most exciting group in the Bay Area; and though they are all white, Sandy Pearlman has correctly called them “the best spade band in the country.” Their arrangements, their control of what they’re doing, their material all indicate that under the right conditions they could produce the best SF rock album yet. Steve Miller is the most creative of American white blues bands at present, which says a lot for the San Francisco influence. Quicksilver is a fine example of a group that would have gone nowhere were it not for the SF audience egging them on; they’re still in the growing stage, and not yet ready to record, but there’s good reason to believe that the moments of brilliance they now enjoy will soon become hours of brilliance. Outside of San Francisco they wouldn’t have bothered getting better because they wouldn’t have needed to.

Above all, the San Francisco Sound is the musical expression of what’s going down, a new attitude toward the world which is commonly attributed to “hippies,” but which could more accurately be laid at the feet of a non-subculture called People, earth people, all persons who have managed to transcend the superstructures they live in. People who have responded to the reality of the industrial revolution by requiring that they run the system and benefit from it rather than be made part of it. In very small print between the lines of “Naked If I Want To,” “Grace,” and “Cream Puff War” is written the following message: There is a man, me, and there are Men. These two forces will and must interact as smoothly as possible. Everything else—concepts, objects, systems, machines—must only be tools for me and mankind to employ. If l or Man respect a system or a pattern more than ourselves, we are in the wrong and must be set free. “Nothing to say but it’s okay…”

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