Getting acquainted with San Francisco through the work of authors and filmmakers will provide an extra dimension to your trip and perhaps some added excitement when you happen upon a location you recognize from a favorite cinematic moment or literary passage. San Francisco’s own Chronicle Books publishes a great variety of material on the city, for children, cooks, art and architecture students, and readers of memoirs and fiction. One of Chronicle’s best books to stimulate your interest and curiosity is “San Francisco Stories: Great Writers on the City,” edited by John Miller. This collection of short pieces covers the personal and the political as recalled by acclaimed authors including Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, and Amy Tan. To find out about a smaller, more intimate city, check out “Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco in the ’20s and ’30s,” by former journalist and San Francisco native Jerry Flamm (published by Chronicle Books).
One of the more famous and beloved pieces of modern fiction based in San Francisco is Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”(published by Perennial). If you’ve seen the miniseries, and especially if you haven’t, this is a must-read for a leisurely afternoon—or bring it with you on the plane. Maupin’s 1970s soap opera covers the residents of 28 Barbary Lane (Macondry Lane on Russian Hill was the inspiration), melding sex, drugs, and growing self-awareness with enormous warmth and humor.
A work of fiction featuring San Francisco during the gold rush is “Daughter of Fortune,” by acclaimed novelist and Marin County resident Isabel Allende (published by HarperTorch). Allende’s depiction of life in California during the mid–19th century is vividly described and is one of the novel’s strengths.
As one of the loveliest spots on the planet, San Francisco has been a favorite of location scouts since the beginning of the film industry. Hundreds of movies and television shows have been shot or placed in San Francisco, making the hills and bridges among the most recognized of backgrounds. It may be difficult to locate at your local video store, but the 1936 Clark Gable/Jeanette MacDonald romance, “San Francisco,” is lauded for its dramatic reenactment of the 1906 earthquake and for MacDonald’s rendition of the song of the same name. “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective story, with Humphrey Bogart starring as Sam Spade, includes shots of the Bay Bridge, the Ferry Building, and Burrit Alley (above the Stockton Tunnel). John’s Grill, mentioned in the novel, continues to flog its association with Hammett’s hero from its location at 63 Ellis Street (btw. Stockton and Powell sts.).
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, is admittedly an obvious choice on the list of great San Francisco films, but it’s always worth viewing. Stewart plays a former detective hired to tail the wife of an old college friend, but the woman’s identity is less than clear-cut. In the meantime, Stewart becomes obsessed with his prey as they make their way around the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fort Point, Mission Dolores, and the detective’s apartment at 900 Lombard Street. The city also fared well in the 1968 thriller “Bullitt,” starring a young Steve McQueen. Along with the hair-raising car chase over many hills, you’ll see the Bay Bridge from a recognizable point on the Embarcadero, Mason Street heading north next to the Fairmont Hotel, the front of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Grace Cathedral, and the fairly unchanged Enrico’s Sidewalk Café.
For a change of pace and no tragic law-enforcement characters, screen the romantic comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Along with being very funny, it’s got one of cinema’s all-time classic car chase scenes, with shots of Lombard Street, Chinatown, and Alta Plaza Park in Pacific Heights. If you have kids to rev up, the 1993 comedy “Mrs. Doubtfire,” starring Sally Field and the city’s favorite son, Robin Williams, shows San Francisco under blue skies and cable cars with plenty of room. The house where the character’s estranged wife and children live is located in Pacific Heights at 2640 Steiner Street (at Broadway St.), in case you care to gawk.
Finally, “24 Hours on Craigslist” is a documentary that covers a day in the life of the Internet community bulletin-board phenom. The filmmaker posted an ad on Craigslist, followed up with a handful of volunteers—an Ethel Merman impersonator seeking a Led Zeppelin cover band; a couple looking for others to join a support group for diabetic cats; a single, older woman needing a sperm donor—and sent film crews to cover their stories. Unlike other films that show the physical splendors of San Francisco, “24 Hours on Craigslist” will give you a sense of the city’s psyche, or at least offer an explanation of why non–San Franciscans think the place is populated with . . . um . . . unusual types.
Sounds of the '60s
During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco was the place to be for anyone who eschewed the conventional American lifestyle. From moody beatniks to political firebrands, the city was a vortex for poets, writers, actors, and a bewildering assortment of free thinkers and activists. Drawn by the city's already liberal views on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, thousands of the country's youth—including some of America's most talented musicians—headed west to join the party. What culminated in the 1960s was San Francisco's hat trick of rock legends: It was able to lay claim to three of the rock era's most influential bands—the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane.
The Grateful Dead -- Easily the most influential band to be spawned from the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, the Grateful Dead was San Francisco's own music guru. Described as the “house band for the famous acid tests that transformed the City by the Bay into one endless freak-out,” the Dead's music was played simultaneously on so many stereo systems (and at such high volumes) that the group almost seemed to have set the tone for one enormous, citywide jam session.
Though the group disbanded in 1995 after the death of its charismatic lead vocalist, Jerry Garcia, the group's devoted fans had already elevated the Grateful Dead to cult empire status. Tie-dyed “Deadheads” (many of whom followed the band on tour for decades) can still be found tripping within the Haight, reminiscing about the good old days when the group never traveled with a sound system weighing less than 23 tons. In fact, more than any other band produced during the 1960s, the Grateful Dead were best appreciated during live concerts, partly because of the love-in mood that frequently percolated through the acidic audiences. Many rock critics remember with nostalgia that the band's most cerebral and psychedelic music was produced in the 1960s in San Francisco, but in the 1980s and 1990s, permutations of their themes were marketed in repetitive, less threatening forms that delighted their aficionados and often baffled or bored virtually everyone else.
For better or for worse, the Grateful Dead was a musical benchmark, expressing in new ways the mood of San Francisco during one of its drug-infused and most creatively fertile periods. But the days of the Dancing Bear and peanut butter sandwiches will never be quite over: Working from a proven formula, thousands of bands around the world continue to propagate the Dead's rhythmical standards, and several of the band’s original members still tour in various incarnations.
But reading about the Grateful Dead is like dancing to architecture: If you're looking for an album whose title best expresses the changing artistic premises of San Francisco and the ironies of the pop culture that developed here, look for its award-winning retrospective “What a Long Strange Trip It's Been” at any of the city's record stores.
Big Brother & the Holding Company and Janis Joplin -- The wide-open moral and musical landscape of San Francisco was almost unnervingly fertile during the 1960s. Despite competition from endless numbers of less talented singers, Texas-born Janis Joplin formulated much of her vocal technique before audiences in San Francisco. Her breakthrough style was first acknowledged at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967. Audiences reached out to embrace a singer whose rasping, gravely, shrieking voice expressed the generational angst of thousands of onlookers. “Billboard”magazine characterized her sound as composed of equal portions of honey, Southern Comfort, and gall. She was backed up during her earliest years by Big Brother & the Holding Company, a group she eventually outgrew.
Warned by specialists that her vocal technique would ruin her larynx before she was 30, Janis wailed, gasped, growled, and staggered over a blues repertoire judged as the most raw and vivid ever performed. Promoters frantically struggled to market (and protect) Janis and her voice for future artistic endeavors but, alas, her talent was simply too huge for her to handle, the time and place too destructive for her raw-edged psyche. Her style is best described as “the desperate blues,” partly because it never attained the emotional nonchalance of such other blues singers as Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday.
Parts of Janis's life were the subject of such lurid books as “Going Down with Janis,”and stories of her substance abuse, sexual escapades, and general raunchiness litter the emotional landscape of modern-day San Francisco. The star died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, a tragedy still mourned by her thousands of fans, who continue to refer to her by her nickname, “Pearl.” Contemporary photographs taken shortly before her death show a ravaged body and a face partially concealed behind aviator's goggles, long hair, and a tough but brittle facade. Described as omnisexual—and completely comfortable with both male and female partners—she once (unexpectedly) announced to a group of nightclub guests her evaluation of the sexual performance of two of the era's most visible male icons: Joe Namath (not particularly memorable) and Dick Cavett (absolutely fantastic). The audience (like audiences in concert halls around California) drank in the anecdotes that followed as “Gospel According to Janis.”
Jefferson Airplane -- In the San Francisco suburbs of the late 1960s, hundreds of suburban bands dreamed of attaining stardom. Of the few that succeeded, none expressed the love-in ethic of that time in San Francisco better than the soaring vocals and ferocious guitar-playing of Jefferson Airplane. Singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin—as well as bass guitar player Jack Casady—were considered at the top of their profession by their peers and highly melodic even by orchestral standards. Most importantly, all members of the band, especially Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen, were songwriters. Their fertile mix of musical styles and creative energies led to songs that still reverberate in the minds of anyone who owned an AM radio during the late 1960s. The intense and lonely songs such as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” became the musical anthems of at least one summer, as American youth emerged into a highly psychedelic kind of consciousness within the creatively catalytic setting of San Francisco.
Although in 1989 the group reassembled its scattered members for a swan song as Jefferson Starship, the output was considered a banal repetition of earlier themes, and the energy of those long-faded summers of San Francisco in the late 1960s was never recovered. But despite its decline in its later years, Jefferson Airplane is still considered a band inextricably linked to the Bay Area's historic and epoch-changing Summer of Love.
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