This is not an obituary for Scott McKenzie who died yesterday at the age of 73. It’s a reflection on a song he sang (written by John Phillips) and the place it held in my life and the Sixties culture that changed me forever.
Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” got a lot of shit for being perceived as cashing in on the counter culture. It was slammed as a corny hymn to hippiedom that had about as much to do with hippies as Maynard G. Krebs had to do with Jack Kerouac. The song was an enormous hit in 1967 and I remember hearing it on the radio at least a half dozen times a day. And loving it.
As much as McKenzie’s credibility as an ambassador to the Summer of Love was under fire by the hipster elite, there was no question that his song managed, in its lightly psychedelic way, to capture the moment when flowers became children and vibrations were good, good, good, good. There were other songs that caught or helped create the zeitgeist that summer (at least for me): “Purple Haze,” Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues,” and “San Franciscan Nights.” In the silly but hooky “Nights,” Eric Burdon actually made McKenzie’s song seem relatively sophisticated. But many of us chose to make the “establishment” the target of our criticism, not pop songs. And there simply was no arguing with Hendrix or Blue Cheer’s psychedelic bona fides or the good intentions of the slightly dazed and confused McKenzie and Burdon. It was a time in which all of us were having trouble getting a handle on what was happening, which is exactly as it should have been. Sometimes confusion is a good thing - it opens you up.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter to me whether “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” had the Better Heads and Gardens seal of approval. Anything that promised a groovy vibe somewhere other than where I was at became a destination point on my karmic map. I took my directions from wherever I could get them. Hell, my introduction to the hippie scene came via an article in a copy of Life magazine that I found sitting on my father’s desk. Living in the South in the Sixties, I was so hungry for a mind-altering experience that a series of photos in Life simulating the effects of LSD took the place of Playboy centerfolds as titillation in my psychedelically deprived reality. If there was one major recruiting vehicle for the Love Army, it was Life magazine. I recall two or three issues that helped make my mind up for me. I was definitely going to San Francisco…and yes, I would wear a fucking flower in my hair.
As it turns out, I ended up in Los Angeles. Blame it on the bossa nova or the go-with-the-flow nature of hitchhiking, I did not arrive in San Francisco as planned. I got a lift in Virginia from a trucker who took me to St. Louis where I stood by the side of the freeway for hours until a guy in a Rambler who chain-smoked Lucky Strikes offered me a ride to Vegas. I was so desperate, I took it. From Vegas, a bunch of rich kids from Pacific Palisades took me to L.A. I lasted a few weeks in the City Of Angels before I got busted for being a vagrant and was sent back home, where I lasted a mere few weeks.
While my mother was thankful to have me safely ensconced in suburbia. My father didn’t speak to me. The only time he recognized my presence was when he came into my bedroom and destroyed my record player while I was playing Country Joe And The Fish’s “Fish Cheer.” See, songs do make a difference. Dad was a Navy man and my choice in music drove him into pathological fits. He couldn’t take my hippie shit anymore and I couldn’t handle his anger. It took 20 years for us to finally come to understand each other and when we did it was a very beautiful thing. But in 1967, our relationship had hit the breaking point. The Summer of Love was not all flowers and love-ins. I left again.
When I finally arrived in the Haight Ashbury in 1968, love’s season had passed and the neighborhood was gradually becoming a cattle yard for runaways. Tourist busses clogged the streets and sightseers were everywhere. Kids with no money were spare changing and ripping off weekend hippies by selling them bogus drugs (gooey black incense passed for opium, aspirin dotted with food coloring for LSD-25). I stood on a corner and proudly sold “The San Francisco Oracle,” an underground newspaper/literary mag that distilled and focused the hippie scene, culturally and spiritually, while adorned with beautiful psychedelic cover art. Waving the “Oracle” in the air was like proclaiming my allegiance to something…I’m still not quite sure what. A new season was upon us: The Autumn Of Cosmic Blue Balls. When love comes to a screeching halt, the blowback hurts.
But I managed to keep positive. I avoided the clutter and craziness by spending most of my time in Golden Gate park reading books of poetry that I’d stolen from City Lights Bookstore in North Beach (merci, Monsieur Ferlinghetti). Technicians of the sacred like Phillip Lamantia, Jack Spicer and Michael McClure threaded their way into my consciousness like serpents whispering dark, luminous incantations into my inner mind’s ear. I learned to listen and in listening I learned.
At night I lost myself in music. It was a great time to be in love with rock ‘n’ roll and San Francisco was the center of a sonic electronic mandala. I basked in the psychedelia wafting through the Matrix and The Fillmore where Traffic, Incredible String Band, Eric Burdon and War, It’s A Beautiful Day, Albert King, The Dead, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Country Joe and The Fish, The Airplane and Quicksilver elevated the collective kundalini of a generation of young, cosmically stunned hipsters.
I was crashing at a pad on Waller street right off Haight. The place was being rented by a high school friend of mine and draft dodger named Willy. Willy was a year older than me and had made it to the Haight a year before I did. There were at least a couple of dozen young runaways crashing at Willy’s place. One was this beautiful blonde girl with sad eyes from Reno, Nevada whose name I cannot recall (Reno will do). She had escaped a white trash background and had made it to San Francisco with a flower in her hair. The Haight had become a refuge for a lot of kids who were coming from some serious dysfunctional and abusive families. Not all of us were on a quest to find ourselves. Some of us were on the run from bad shit back home, comin’ to the Haight to get away from hate. Reno was one of those. She was sexually precocious and I can imagine the kind of attention she was getting from the predators back at the old trailer park in Reno. But, she had a sparkling quality about her that belied the sadness in her eyes. And I fell in love.
Reno was hooked up with Willy. But, back then, sexual relationships weren’t exactly binding. There was a lot of sharing going on. Because I was tight with Willy, I had my own “room”: a large walk in closet with enough space for a mattress. I covered the mattress with some groovy looking fabric from India and I decorated the walls with black light posters and called it home.
One night Willy needed his “space” and locked himself in the bathroom. I heard Reno crying outside the bathroom door and whimpering Willy’s name over and over again. Saint that I am, I went to console her. She was standing at the door completely naked, pale skin, long blonde hair, and small perfect breasts with nipples that looked like cherry flavored Jujubes. I threw my arms around her, lifted her off her feet and took her to my hippie hideaway. The black light posters were blazing day-glo, incense was burning, a candle lit. I gently lay on her on the mattress and proceeded to clumsily (and to an outside observer probably comically) lose my virginity. It was over before the hugeness of the moment even had a chance to sink in. Reno got out of bed, didn’t even look at me, and returned to the wailing wall of the bathroom door. I lay still, staring at the flicker of candle shadows dancing on the closet’s ceiling. I felt abandoned, vulnerable, but also deeply refreshed on some spiritual level. There’s really nothing like putting your dick in another human being for the first time…at least not for a 16-year-old guy who considered women the most mysterious and divine creatures in an ever-expanding Universe that was suddenly expanding really fast.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll had pried me loose from the waterboard of Catholicism and I felt free, free at last! And I had the evidence to prove it. A few weeks after fucking Reno my pubes started to itch like crazy and I was pissing fire. Reno had given me both the crabs and the clap. A bottle of A-200 and some penicillin quickly got me back to normal. Thanks to Reno I experienced the crash course in the both the upside and downside of the sexual revolution. Even in the era of free love, there was no free lunch. But compared to today when sex can kill you, those were innocent times.
On Monday nights Stephen Gaskin, an ex- Marine and former teacher at San Francisco State College turned spiritual teacher gave lectures on spirituality at the Straight Theater. His style was irreverent, plain spoken and often remarkably insightful. 100s of people gathered for ‘The Monday Night Class”. Here’s a quote from Stephen’s website describing what was going on at those gatherings: “The glue that held us [the Monday Night Class, also known as the ‘Astral Continental Congress’] together was a belief in the moral imperative toward altruism that was implied by the telepathic spiritual communion we experienced together. Every decent thing accomplished over the years by the people of Monday Night Class came from those simple Hippy values. It was the basis for our belief in Spirit, nonviolence, collectivity, and social activism.” While Gaskin was an entertaining and possessed of a guru-like lucidity, he also had a massive ego. I was later exposed to that ego one night when he had a showdown with Alan Watts at Alan’s houseboat in Sausalito. It was “The Shootout At The OM Corral.” I’ll tell you about that later.
I remember going to the Straight Theater at midnight to see a screening of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. The movie was projected on the ceiling of the theater and a couple of hundred stoned freaks lay on our backs on the floor and watched the film flickering on the ceiling. Despite all of our serious spiritual and political passions, hippies did have a sense of humor.
Yes, I went to San Francisco with a flower in my hair and Scott Mackenzie may not have been the vehicle that got me there but he certainly helped grease the wheels. There was a beautiful kind of hopefulness in his song that captured the moment when we (kids in the Sixties) really believed change was imminent and we were going to herald it in. We weren’t sure what it was (Mr. Jones wasn’t the only one) but we were eager to find out.
All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion people in motion
We were definitely in motion and the vibes were definitely strange, good strange. But as far as having any explanations…well we didn’t. We were learning and part of that learning process meant not needing explanations for awhile. We had had the world explained to us by people who hadn’t really lived in the world wholly and fully. In claustrophobic classrooms and soul-deadening churches, men of learning and of the cloth had regurgitated the same old shit for hundreds of years and we had stopped listening, the words had become dull and uninspiring. We needed fresh air. We needed to feel our bodies, to dance and fuck. We needed to get out of the dead zone and we did. And without us, the old guard staggered and withered. The new flesh had escaped their dominion, to celebrate itself in the golden streets of San Francisco. And in significant ways that strange vibration still endures and some of us still wear a metaphoric flower in our hair, you may not see it, but it’s there.