Dancin’ in a Ring Around the Sun

Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970
Varrious Artists Boxed Set

I hesitate to write about music. In part that’s because I know others do a far better job of it than I ever will. It’s also in large part because I am skeptical of treating commercial products as though they  belonged among the great art works of western civilization. At least one group of Swedes disagrees with me on the latter point.

But I am teaching a graduate school course this semester and I better understand now the demands on an ethical educator’s time. On the one hand, I’m better read and more current in my discipline than I have ever been. On the other, the time for non-marketing reading has shrunk considerably.

And so, this trove of would-be treasures serves as fodder for the rumination at hand.

Before there was music there were books. That’s actually not true. My mother, a mid-20th century stay-at-home mom, played records and sang along as she went about her housework. So there was always music; it’s just rock ‘n’ roll that was forbidden. So my first rebel models were writers.

Before the bands.
Neil Cassady and Jack Kerouac.

My initial literary passions were reserved for The Beat Generation. That crowd had a ‘local’ branch and arguably was rooted at Columbia University. Yet there absolutely was a West Coast contingent, centered in San Francisco. If there hadn’t been there would never have been a reason for Sal Paradise, let alone his creator, to hit the blacktop with his thumb  out.

So I made room in my parochial mind and followed a meandering path that eventually came to Ken Kesey. Enter hippies, and music and politics. I’m instinctively a radical egalitarian with a deep libertarian streak, so you can see the appeal of the whole soup that was brewing by the Bay in the late 60s.

Now would be a good time to note that such a view could only belong to a blinkered teenager.

Reality, though, is a bit more complex. The more I read and the more I listened the more the cartoons were replaced by a deeper understanding. Yet, like Classic Comics, the history written by the winners is the one best known.

The epicentric corner. Extra points if you recognize these two.

This 4-disc boxed set is a successful attempt to set that historical record straight, produced by Alec Palao, one of those archivist-enthusiasts who manages to make a living in and around the music business.  Here he undertakes the task of presenting an alternative history of rock music in the Bay Area from just post-Beatles 1965 through, roughly, just post-Altamont1970.

The tale we usually hear is a folk scene that discovers LSD, turns on, detunes and freaks out exploding in a mad Summer of Love that kicks off the ‘true’ 60s which proceed apace with an era that ends, badly, between the horrors at the Motor Speedway and Kent State a few months later. In the received version, all we have left is the music to remind us of how we lost our way and have to get back to the Garden.

Palao casts a wider net, encompassing the entire Bay Area. And while the Summer of Love gets a whole disc to itself (how could it not? a producer needs to move product to keep working so the commercial nod is to be expected), the other three offer a more complete picture.

Moving from “Seismic Rumbles,” in the wake of the Beatles US debut, to “Suburbia” then past the aforementioned summer, the set ends, like the decade’s fans itself, with a confused, self-centered look at “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music.”

Not the look you usually associate with San Francisco in the 1960s. Palo Alto’s Count V in 1966.  Still Stanford’s greatest contribution.

To be clear, the problem isn’t the music. Before getting there, though, the package bears mention. I rarely spend time on the arcana stuffed into box sets, preferring to get to the music. Here the box is a book that contains three essays, enough gorgeous photography to make you miss the mess and extensive production notes for each song.

The whole thing is clad in blue-silver type on matte black ink with period lettering and etchings of the city’s infamous ballrooms. From a packaging perspective it’s all about the scene in town. No doubt another wise commercial move.

The liner notes, too, stand out.  Someone got Jann Wenner to allow use of Rolling Stone‘s graphic standards so it feels instantly familiar and appropriate.

The more extensive essays are penned by Ben Fong-Torres, one of my early guides into music, and Gene Scarlatti, another early RS contributor. The discs themselves are almost an afterthought that slip into the inside back cover.

Après ça le déluge.
The beginning of the end of an era. Altamont Motor Speedway, the day after, December 7, 1969.
Photo copyright Beth Bagby. No infringement intended.

Fong-Torres sets the tone with his essay entitled “The San Francisco Sound (actually there wasn’t one…)” the most important part of which is the title. The received history is far too narrow in terms of the bands allowed mention. Both he and Scarlatti try to correct that even as the art in the margins pounds away at reinforcing our visual associations with the period.

The music should really speak for itself and there’s a link to it on Spotify at the end of this post. So I’ll just ramble at random for a bit. I love garage, and there’s plenty of  homegrown, Beatles-inspired guitar band music here. Thankfully it outnumbers the folkies and its always fun to run into The Beau Brummels and Count Five.

I’ve also always loved the lesser bands, first and foremost Quicksilver Messenger Service. They’re here, with a short version of Bo Diddley‘s ‘Who Do You Love?,’ their preferred vehicle for attempting a moon shot. The majors are here, too–Jefferson AirplaneGrateful Dead, Santana–but I prefer the undercard.

Could the true genius behind the Bay area scene be this hirsute gent? Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone: Prince before Prince and, amazingly, still alive.

Dino Valenti, a transplant  from New York, looms large as a songwriter and singer, band member and solo act. Mike Bloomfield with his Electric Flag and Steve Miller represent the Chicago expats, deeply rooted in the electric blues of the industrial heartland.

It’s a bit of a blast in this context to be able to hear the Dead’s first single as a great garage tune with an odd intro and outro tacked on to make it fit the sound being sought. Or to hear their jam master, Dark Star, as a 3-minute single with an odd, acoustic jazz guitar break in the middle.

I’m about to turn you over to the tunes. First, though, something that emerges from a close reading of the individual track notes. A recurring name listed as the producer of many of these tracks is Sylvester Stewart. He’s represented here, too, with his own band, Sly & The Family Stone, pioneers in so many ways.

Enough from me. Happy listening.

 

 

 

 

 

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