San Francisco, in Layers and Layers and Layers
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 towards Valencia and the Mission District, past the old ballpark that’s now a grocery store where Joe DiMiaggio roamed centerfield for the Seals—I sling it through a strap in 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 Borges, chatting with him in the margins 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 to use it again to update a list after breakfast when I left “Dog Eared Books” a little further 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 behind. 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 towards 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—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 stops. And it’s ok that it stops there because neither of you mind revisiting it, all you remember and all you don’t.
You think 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 Harvey Milk’s camera shop, “Castro Camera” at 575. His is an incredible story, one that ended with a tragic assassination actually inside City Hall. He had been in office 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 that 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 is most strongly attached to.
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 gave me a little bit of history. 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 find it nice to feel connected to moments and times I was not around to know myself, so I thanked him and left, heading further 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 it 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. 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 further 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 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.
Like Hendrix’s, with his exceptional rawness coming through the old amplifiers. 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 sixties. 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 12-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 ran 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 comes after he finishes 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 now out of breath and needlessly apologetic (“Sorry that it went kind of slow…”). Then he starts 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 continues his ramble, he buries a real truth about life and art and the sixties 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 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.
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, drizzly sky. Her world always seemed 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 has someone 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 it 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, most chilling example of all is Blind Willie Johnson, the man who hummed and groaned his way through “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” 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 get close, like when Sal Paradise finally got to San Francisco.
“It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on 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 resulting 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 that brims with counter-culture. It’s a complex system—a collision of minds and talents—that produced more together than they ever could have done 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 sixties can be found in things that grew alongside each other in a small part of a small city.
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 we are weaving and inter-weaving.”
What he gives you with that sentence is an unarguable 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 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.