Once Upon a Time in San Francisco

A Nostalgic Joyride

Once Upon a Time in San Francisco

Joe Stephens takes us for a poetically nostalgic ride through the many layers of San Francisco’s colorful past. The apartments of dead rock stars, the famous haunts of Beatnik trailblazers and vintage bookstores come together to create a scene of inspiration, rebellion and doom.

“The edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive and alive.”
— M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity

My weekends are full of walking. And as I find my way, fog and sun and trees and wind never stop shuffling their order, keeping me in a constant state of jacketing and un-jacketing.

When I’m not wearing it—like when I was heading up 16th Street toward Valencia and the Mission District, past the old ballpark that’s now a grocery store where Joe DiMiaggio once roamed center field for the Seals—I sling it through a strap on my brown bag, the same one that holds my phone, my red notebook, a couple of books and a pen to mark everything up. I used that pen as I sat with some eggs and Jorge Luis Borges, chatting with him about a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires on blindness. “It was a gift,” he said, and I had a few questions for him.

I had used it again to update a list after our breakfast when I left Dog Eared Books a little farther down the road. It was the fourth lovely bookstore I had wandered into since I arrived in San Francisco, and the fifth was only a few hours ahead. In fact, as I was to discover, Green Apple in Richmond might even have been a little better.

To get from number four to number five, you would do well to head toward Dolores Park, and when you climb for a moment and stand at the top, pausing to look around and watch the city roll up and down hills toward the bay—the same one Otis Redding was “sittin’ on the dock of”—you immediately think of the incredible tour of San Francisco that Dirty Harry gives during his epic pursuit of Scorpio. Then you think of your brother and smile, because who else does Clint Eastwood remind you of? And as you leave the park, you think of that Friday evening in Austin where you both had another one of his movies to watch—the goal being to see them all—and slowly got drunk while Eastwood dismounted his horse and did what you had never seen him do before: break into song. Remain speechless? Yes. Light a cigarette? Absolutely. Murder someone? Of course. But sing? Never before had he done this. Paint Your Wagon, neither of you knew, was a three-hour musical, and you both just gave it your Friday night.

And one more memory: that same evening, after your decision-making had been affected by show tunes and alcohol, you decided to act on an emerging, urgent impulse: it was time to actually meet Clint Eastwood. Over the years, as you both re-tell the story—or try to, combining your hazy memories to piece it together—neither of you can remember what stopped you from actually boarding a plane. You remember searching for flights and assessing the different prices, but that’s where it had stopped. And it’s ok that it stopped there because neither of you mind revisiting it; all you remember and all you don’t. You think about all of these things as you keep walking and turn right on Castro.

The Castro District was one of the first gay neighborhoods in the country (still the largest, I believe) and there is no mistaking it. I wanted to walk through it so I could pause outside of Harvey Milk’s camera shop, Castro Camera, at 575 Castro. His is an incredible story, one that ended with a tragic assassination inside City Hall. He had been in office for less than a year—a true champion of sexual equality—and a disgruntled ex-colleague of his entered through a window and shot the mayor before he did the same to Milk. The building is no longer a camera shop, though it is a store that pays great homage to its previous tenant. There are photos of him everywhere, headphones connected to televisions, which let you hear him speak, and shirts and mugs and stickers that let you wear slogans about acceptance and tolerance and how nobody should forget the cause his life was most strongly attached to.

Castro District
Castro District

As I stood outside and took a photo of the plaque in the sidewalk cement, a kind older man who worked there came out and shared a little bit of history with me. “Harvey Milk lived in the apartment above,” he said, pointing, “and here is the door that leads upstairs and this is where his ashes are scattered and down there is where he had to move when his landlord raised the rent.” We chatted a while longer about the city and the changes and where things were and where they are and where they’re headed.

I found it nice to feel connected to moments and times I was not around to know myself, so I thanked him and left, heading farther along, down a hill and up another. Unlike any other city I’ve been to, the neighborhoods of San Francisco do the opposite of blend. There is no graceful, easy transition from one to the other; they stack next to each other, their borders stark and definitive and clear. As suddenly as you are in one, you leave and enter another. This happened when I turned left on Haight.

Complexity is a wonderful book, and it explores a branch of science that shares the same name. Author M. Mitchell Waldrop centers his discussion around the gathering of brilliant minds at the Santa Fe Institute and he spends a few hundred pages musing on one question: Why is it that simple systems evolve and grow and combine over time into much more complex ones?Why, he wonders, do forces and ingredients combine into wholes much greater than the sum of their parts? “Everything,” he says, “has its complex subsets: down from countries to cities to neighborhoods to families to individuals to organ systems to organs to cells to DNA; and they layer upon each other to create something their individual elements don’t intuitively add to. There’s a sense of infinite possibility, and in order to really understand it, one had better be alright with varying doses of uncertainty.”

When you stand at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, it’s hard not to apply his thesis. A block farther down Haight and you can see the apartment—a house now appropriately painted red, after one of his best blues tracks—where Jimi Hendrix lived. One of the first albums I ever owned was his live show in 1968 at the Winterland, an old ice rink and music venue closer to Pacific Heights whose walls had listened to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. It’s an apartment block now, quite an unappealing one, and all that marks its existence are the recordings left behind. Just like Hendrix’s recordings, its exceptional rawness coming through the old amplifiers.

Jimi Hendrix onstage at The Winterland, 1968
Jimi Hendrix onstage at The Winterland, 1968

He played quite a few times there, and if you listen to any part of any show, you hear everything you ever need to from him. The best part, though, is how he makes you feel the 60s. As he takes you through covers of Bob Dylan and Cream, and of course a few of his own, all drawn out the way good blues should be—the vocals an afterthought, the guitar on full display, taking twelve minutes to ease and build from start to finish—you think of the audience he was playing to. You think of what they had endured. What they were enduring.

A few months before Hendrix took the stage, Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy soon after in Los Angeles. After the year began with Khe Sanh and the massacre at My Lai, the country had become fond of chanting, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” as the Vietnam War raged on. The President who was elected in a landslide four years earlier would have lost in one if he had run again, so he didn’t. Nixon did and won, and in the next five years, LBJ died, Roe v. Wade was decided (both happened the same day, actually), and the country was betrayed even more by a sitting President. Days after the concert was over, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium at the Olympics in Mexico City and raised black-gloved hands in silent protest—still one of the world’s most incredible photos. It is now a cliché to suggest, but there really is no other way to say it: in 1968, the world was in a state of transition and upheaval. Hendrix played to it night after night.

My favorite moment of that show came after he finished a long, brilliant version of “Red House”—he had already been unable to play one of his songs because he “forgot the words” and he was out of breath and needlessly apologetic (“Sorry that it went kind of slow…”). Then he started talking about how improvised everything had just been and how proud of it he was because of how authentic it made things, and as he continued his ramble, he buried a real truth about life and art and the 60s and writing and baseball and love and racing and everything about how we should live in a much longer, drug-fueled sentence: “…especially trying to play, you know, by feeling…which is the best way…”.

A few years later, he left San Francisco to die in London. He was 27, full of barbiturates and officially died of asphyxia, choking on his own vomit.

Less than half a mile from his old apartment is Janis Joplin’s. Her place—the one she moved to after she came and left Austin from Port Arthur, and before she died in Hollywood, also at 27, also from overdosing—is a little bit closer than the house where the Grateful Dead lived and played, and on the other side of the street from the curiously Victorian home that belonged to the Hell’s Angels. Hunter S. Thompson lived nearby and wrote about them. Nearby is where Charles Manson and his “family” lived before they left for notoriety and southern California.

Janis Joplin in San Francisco
Janis Joplin in San Francisco

I was listening to Janis Joplin (it feels somehow incomplete to call her anything but her full name) as I walked, and even as I write, I hear the opening piano that leads into her best song. I suppose you could argue “Little Girl Blue,” (the crawling guitar matched with her searching voice, both backed by Beatles-esque strings is really quite perfect) but the best I can tell, her finest minutes are in “Kozmic Blues”. She took me all the way through Golden Gate Park, and quite fittingly. I think she would have been alright with the green and the flowers that looked so promising beneath the gray, drizzling sky. Her world always seemed to be raining.

If I had to point to a moment of perfection in what she left behind, I would take you to the end of “A Woman Left Lonely” (give me a song that builds any day). Like all her music, it’s so immensely feeling and sad—I mean, what kind of powerlessness leads someone to write, “A woman left lonely is just a victim of a man…”—but dressed up in her indescribably amazing vocals. About three minutes in, when the song is at its most emotional, after she has spent all her time getting you to the place she wants you, she just sings. No words, just voice.

Perhaps it’s easy to say, but sometimes language is too restricting. It stops short of allowing us the ability to say what we want, how we want. It’s why we tap our heart when we tell someone we love them. It’s why we hesitate and use our hands and wander with our eyes when someone asks us why we love someone. Words add to emotion, they don’t replace it.

Pink Floyd had—and solved—a similar problem in the wordlessness of “The Great Gig in the Sky”. And maybe the best example of all is Blind Willie Johnson, the man who was supposedly paid not to sing his gospel blues. When you listen to him hum and groan through “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, you know exactly why. Whether it’s a musician singing about heartache or a generation screaming for something more sensible; very often words just aren’t enough. Some words come close, like when Sal Paradise finally got here, the City By The Bay.

When we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland, it seemed like a matter of minutes before we suddenly reached a height and saw the fabulous white city of San Francisco stretched out ahead of us; her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.

When he published On the Road in 1957, it is surely doubtful that Jack Kerouac knew just where it would lead, but like it or not, it remains (along with Ginsberg’s Howl) the seminal work of the Beat Generation—a generation that took root in San Francisco. Their world centered around a small bookseller and publishing house called City Lights, and if you visit it, walk downstairs. That’s where the questioning world they named and unleashed would sit and meet and read and chat. The Beat Generation really wasn’t as pervasive as its name suggests, but it did logically progress into the rebelliousness that was to come a decade after, and a decade after that.

And as seems to be the case with all of the featured players of this era, in 1969, Kerouac also met an early death. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, he died in Florida, internal bleeding had resulted from cirrhosis of the liver. I have no idea if Janis Joplin read Jack Kerouac or Jack Kerouac ever listened to Janis Joplin, but their connection exists regardless—they both occupied a city of districts and causes, each one spilling into the next: the Beats and the flower-power and the Castro, side-by-side, yelling for identity and justice.

What you have, then, is a small radius brimming with counter-culture.It’s a complex system, a collision of minds and talents, which produced more together than they ever could have separately. And you can walk through it in an afternoon, your feet touching pavement that matters, step after step. These neighborhoods created soundtrack to America’s most famously rebellious series of generations.

There is peace (Scott McKenzie: If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…); love (Janis Joplin: All you ever gotta do is be a good man one time to one woman…); sadness (Jimi Hendrix: Manic depression’s touching my soul, I know what I want, but I just don’t know how to go about getting it…); and loss (Jefferson Airplane: When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies…). Everything you need to know about America in the 60s can be found in things that grew alongside one another in a small part of a small city.

The Piedmont Boutique at Haight & Ashbury
The Piedmont Boutique at Haight & Ashbury

Jorge Luis Borges, the same brilliant writer I sat with at breakfast, sits with me at dinner. And tonight he’s offering me a way to tie all of this together. “In every moment of our life,” he says, “we are weaving and inter-weaving.”

What he gives you with that sentence is an inarguable truth—one of those facts you have to nod at. When it exists only as a set of words, though, it’s incomplete. And so it needs something more.

Maybe it needs a time, or a place, or a story, or some people, or a person. Maybe it needs five good bookshops, or a Clint Eastwood movie, or a gay pioneer, or a now-demolished music hall, or a war with Vietnam, or the apartment of a dead musician, or a long walk through Golden Gate Park, or some good lyrics, or a passing reference to Joe DiMaggio, or maybe even a little Kozmic Blues. And ideally, it needs to take all of these and weave them together, telling the story of a few commingling forces. What it needs is San Francisco.