Musicology, Popular music

San Francisco and the Long 60s

Dr Sarah Hill

When one embarks on a research program, one can never know how long it will take to finish. If one is lucky, a doctorate will take about three years. If one is very lucky, one will get to live with a project for much, much longer than that.

Many years ago, Dr Charles Wilson asked me to participate in a panel session on the historiography of popular music for the 39th annual conference of the RMA, held at Cardiff University in September 2003. Dr Ken Gloag was planning a paper on 1950s nostalgia; Professor David Clarke would be speaking on Elvis and Darmstadt; and I, having recently completed my doctorate on Welsh-language popular music and cultural identity, thought I should take a breather and do something different, so I decided to present a paper on the memory of the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

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I had a fairly clear idea what I wanted to cover in my conference paper, and it mainly had to do with the Grateful Dead. As a native of the Bay Area I was pretty familiar with the legacy of the Dead, and knew a little bit about the history of the 60s. Growing up in Oakland, the place my friends and I would always go to hang out was Berkeley – it had the best record stores, the best coffee shops, the best slices of pizza, and there was always a lot of local color on Telegraph Avenue to absorb as we sat outside Yogurt Park. Every year, for some stretch of days or weeks (or what felt like months), the Grateful Dead would be in residence at one of the local concert halls – the Oakland Auditorium, the Greek Theater, the Coliseum, the Arena – and for however long they were back in town, Berkeley would be positively crawling with hippies. Nothing but tie-dyed t-shirts as far as the eye could see, people selling beads and bedspreads and hippie tchotchkes to pay for their passage to the next stop on the tour, lost-looking stoned persons trying to score tickets. For those of us not attuned to the musical allure of the Grateful Dead, the annual Deadhead invasion was an annoyance, and more than a little bewildering.

So I thought it would be interesting to look into the connection between the Grateful Dead and what I figured was some kind of hippie imprint on the Bay Area. That conference paper was never meant to be anything other than a conference paper, either: it was a little academic sorbet to be enjoyed between courses, between converting my doctoral thesis into a book and whatever The Next Big Thing was going to be. Plus, it would be fun to revisit my youth. So I read some books, listened to some music, and started formulating my ideas.

 

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During this period, in July 2003, I was back home in the Bay Area, and went to see my friend Vicki at her saddlery shop in Point Reyes Station, just north of San Francisco. She was asking what I was working on – figuring it would be an extension of the Welsh pop thing – and I told her I was writing a conference paper on the Grateful Dead. I guarantee you, this is our exact conversation:

Vicki: ‘Oh, wow. You know, one of the Dead was just in the shop a couple of weeks ago.’

Me: ‘Really? Who?’

‘Phil Lesh. He just came by for a hug.’

‘You know Phil Lesh?’

‘Yeah. I knew all those guys.’

‘Say what?’

‘When I was in high school and used to run away from home, I always ran away to the Dead house.’

For all the years I had known Vicki, I had never put her into any kind of social or historical context. I knew she had grown up in San Francisco, and I knew she was older than I, but I never knew that she had hung around the Haight-Ashbury as a teenager in the 1960s, right at the epicentre of the hippie explosion. She told me to let her know if I ever wanted to talk to some of the people she knew back then, and she would introduce us. So then I started feeling that maybe what I was doing wasn’t really just a conference paper. Sure enough, one thing led to another, and in 2005 I was awarded an AHRC small grant to run a little pilot study in the Bay Area: a bit of archival work, some interviews, enough to build a radio documentary at the end of it. And right there was Vicki with her address book.

It should be noted here that everyday life was also happening: I delivered that conference paper in the week between my wedding and my honeymoon; I was awarded the AHRC small grant during my maternity leave from the University of Southampton; the Radio 2 documentary was broadcast just after I joined the School of Music at Cardiff; my second, much larger, AHRC grant was awarded just after my second maternity leave. All the time I was amassing material – interviews, recordings, films, newspaper and magazine clippings, chasing tangents, doing the cultural tourist thing – and all the time I was doing what academics do – teaching, writing, publishing, going to conferences, and having a life.

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Yet there comes a time in every project, no matter how exciting, how complicated, how vital to the furtherance of Western civilization as we know it, when words simply must be put on paper. Earlier this year I was contracted by Bloomsbury to finish writing this hippie book, now called San Francisco and the Long 60s. I have about a year to condense everything into a readable narrative – academic yet engaging, historically accurate yet also preserving the idiosyncratic hippie adherence to specifics of time and place. With the aid of a Cardiff University Research Leave Fellowship I will be spending the next academic year revisiting all of my research and writing the monograph. And there is such enormous pleasure involved: reviewing all those interviews, hearing the voices of interviewees who have passed away, looking over photographs from my field work, listening to some familiar music with critical ears. Some highlights from my long period of research will be lost in translation – I won’t be able to capture on paper the cadence of some hippies’ speech, I can’t usefully describe the pervading aroma of an outdoor celebration in Golden Gate Park – but I can try to be true to the spirit of the project and be honest in recounting the experiences of the people who were generous enough to share their memories with me. I look forward to the next year of writing, and suppose I really ought to thank Dr Wilson formally for setting me off on this long, strange trip all those years ago.

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