In the streets of San Francisco lurk the legends of my youth, or at least the ghosts of them. Here to film the remarkable dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher, we stayed at a hotel situated a short walk from the City Lights bookstore – the hangout of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Kerouac. As I waited to check out with a book of slide guitarist Ry Cooder’s short stories, a young English chap asked the cashier whether they had a book called ‘On The Road’ by someone called Jack Kerouac?
Jim, our local, Korean-born sound recordist, guided us to a restaurant on Fillmore, the original location of the famous music venue of the West Coast scene: Fillmore West. The venue was run by notorious rock-manager-hard-man, Bill Graham. I used to read about concerts there by The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mountain, Cream and The Allmans in my inky NME while chewing on Maynard’s Wine Gums; a Thursday treat in my teens.
Our hotel was at the bottom of Taylor Street; at its vertiginous hilltop is where Steve McQueen gunned his muscle car in ‘Bullet’ (Directed by Brit, Peter Yates, btw). Frisco was also the scene of The Band’s last ever concerts, at The Winterland Ballroom. If you are ever disconcerted about the state of modern pop you can cheer yourself up by watching Martin Scorsese’s film of these concerts, ‘The Last Waltz’, maybe the best rock documentary ever made. The Winterland is now demolished so no point in asking Jim to make a detour to see it.
For an American town San Francisco has a bohemian vibe unlike other places on the west coast – a short stroll out of the hotel means being accosted by “Veteran here!” panhandlers, prostitutes, drug addicts, the mentally ill or a combination of all. Jim tells us that a few years back the Governor closed the state mental homes and now they populate the streets in a fairly benign way if you don’t mind saying no. Some of these street people look like old hippies wearing faded ‘Deadhead’ T-shirts, straggly beards and faraway eyes – they probably went to some of the concerts I read about in the inky NME. One night Bill Turnley, our NY based cameraman, was offered ‘tricks’ by both male and female hookers on a short walk to get a cold drink. Bill loves SF as he has fond memories of hitchhiking from Indiana to work on a Mexican college friend’s prune ranch after graduating.
But San Francisco is changing as a new elite bohemia has risen up around Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple – the new bohemians drive BMWs and if they have addictions they are expensive and come with even more expensive cures. House prices are on the up, and to an old hippy (sort of) like me, it seems the place might lose the very thing that makes it special.
San Francisco is also home to one of my favourite contemporary rock artists, Chuck Prophet. Prophet is a surviving bohemian of the old kind, a never-really-made-it-big performer and songwriter who relishes his freedom and, that rare thing in an American, his cynicism. Chuck’s last record, ‘Temple Beautiful’, was about the fast-disappearing SF of old: each track documenting incidents, both political and social, from its recent history. Bill tells me about the gay district known as Castro – Chuck’s song ‘Castro Halloween’ is about a vicious attack on an annual gay celebration and also about the gay mayor, Harvey Milk, murdered by a political opponent who managed to legal his way to an innocent verdict.
Chuck is in the UK and Europe this October. If you really like music go and see him – he is also very funny. Chuck’s new recording, ‘Night Surfer’, is another excellent 45 minutes, worth anyone’s money: download, CD or vinyl.
Next stop, Bulgaria.