[9 November 2007]
All year long, we’ve been treated to a never-ending barrage of Summer of Love tributes, as though ‘67 were in some way a more musically important year than, say, ‘27 or ‘57 or ‘77. Rolling Stone got in on the act, of course, publishing a special issue comprised mostly of vintage reporting. Television and print media spent the whole summer recycling Baby-Boomer nostalgia and coming up with “where are they now?” bits. And the record companies went wild, digging into their archives and releasing things like a live Jefferson Airplane album, the complete works of Moby Grape, and any number of box sets purporting to contain the soundtrack to this most holy year. All of them basically showed nothing new, because as usual all they could license was the Top-40 pop stuff that’s already been forever entombed within the confines of oldies radio and dozens of other cheap multi-disc collections. In much the same way that all the attention heaped on 1967 focused on the music, at the expense of digging into any of the history of the year, most of the music that got yet another victory lap was of the feel-good, safest-of-the-safe variety. “Remember the good old days?” much of it seemed to sing.
Arriving in the fall, however, was the one piece of record-company product that no one but Rhino Records would’ve had the guts or licensing clout to release. Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 neither ignores nor trumpets such major hits as the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or the Youngbloods’ “Get Together”, but allows them to coexist alongside weird and woolly offerings from groups with names like Fifty Foot Hose, Teddy & His Patches, and Public Nuisance. In other words, it demonstrates that it takes a lot of mediocre bands to really put the great ones in perspective. It also proves that although some of the most famous groups were doing some pretty far-out stuff, they certainly weren’t alone.
The notion that there was ever a “San Francisco sound” is pretty clearly debunked here, and we’ll all be better off if this ridiculous idea is laid to rest once and for all. It’s a wonder the scribes have gotten away with babbling on about such a sound for so long, since the bands they often trot out as shining examples thereof, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Santana, the Steve Miller Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, didn’t sound especially similar. Anyone with ears should know that by now. What the compilers of Love Is the Song We Sing nail on the head is that there wasn’t a sound, but an approach to making music that bound the San Francisco acts of the ‘60s. The city provided ample performance venues. The cover of this book-style collection depicts a number of them, from the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland to the Matrix and the Carousel. San Francisco also had an “everything goes” attitude, which influenced local musicians for better and for worse. What’s more, this set digs much, much deeper than the standard San Francisco canon to give some much-needed exposure to the groups that made the city a scene and not just a place that spawned some enduring bands.
Love Is the Song We Sing is divided into four roughly chronological and vaguely thematic discs. The first, “Seismic Rumbles”, covers the origins of the scene in ‘65 and ‘66 (barely dipping into ‘64 and ‘67). The second, “Suburbia”, documents the outlying areas of San Francisco between ‘65 and ‘69. The third and fourth, “Summer of Love” (what else?) and “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music”, feature most of the major players and big songs from ‘66 to ‘70.
One of the defining traits of Rhino’s Nuggets series is that it achieves a balance between the classic, the forgotten, and the never-known-to-begin-with. Lest you think that Love Is the Song We Song does nothing but wallow in the depths of one-shots and curios, rest assured there are some bona fide hit singles here, and roughly a fifth of the set will likely be familiar to casual fans of Bay Area rock. In fact, the box does a fantastic job of easing the nervous listener into the proceedings. We get a sloppy but historically important demo of “Let’s Get Together” from Dino Valenti, the original EP version of “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” from Country Joe & The Fish, and then our first example of one of the great services a Nuggets set provides, namely the recontextualization of a notable pop hit.
In this case it’s “You Were On My Mind”, the We Five smash that hit number three in Billboard in August 1965. After years and years of being relegated to radio, where the buoyancy of the music catches the ear with such tenacity that it’s easy to miss the desperation of the lyric, hearing it as a product of the San Francisco scene is simultaneously educational and fun. Hearing it after two war-and-peace songs may tempt one to interpret it as something other than a lost-love song. Is the singer thinking of someone who’s gone off to Vietnam? Is this an unexpected precursor to Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”, and she’s going to the corner to score? She’s got troubles and worries, and in this context, they’re transferred to us as listeners.
If the We Five song becomes something different (and perhaps more) than we ever thought, then what are we to make of the Charlatans’ “Number One”? Even if it’s sloppy, awkwardly sung, and lyrically amateurish, it’s a great piece of mid-tempo jangle-rock. The enigmatic element of the song comes from its title, which doesn’t appear to mean much of anything (and it could’ve been a working title, since the track wasn’t released until 1982). Most of the lyrics are apparently addressed to a woman, but reinterpreting (over-interpreting?) some of them might shine some light on the title: “You don’t seem to realize the implications”, and “Oh baby, I just know I’m gonna die”, if you stretch their meanings far past any boy-girl concerns, become far more ominous if you consider they might be referring to the singer’s draft number.
It’s this sort of subtlety that makes the heavy-handedness of later work by the Jefferson Airplane, whose “Mexico” is an explicit attack on U.S. drug policy (and whose “We Can Be Together”, sadly not included here, featured the humorless line, “We are forces of chaos and anarchy!”), seem obvious and hollow, even if they clearly weren’t on musical autopilot. But the difference between 1967 and 1970 was real. It’s why Rhino packaged Love Is the Song We Sing in a mostly black book. Even though flower power and loving your neighbor (and everyone else’s) was on the agenda, there was all kinds of ugly stuff going on, too, details that get washed over or euphemistically compressed with an utterance of “revolution” in today’s TV specials and “All the Hits You Remember!” collections. Who wants to get nostalgic for hard drugs and paranoia?
But the title of the box is depicted in a holographic rainbow of color, like the glimmer of joy and hope that certain pockets of time and space must’ve been for the people of San Francisco, and even if there is thankfully a shortage of “peace, love, dope” to be found within Love Is the Song We Sing, the spirit of freedom and adventurousness permeates the whole thing. It’s a Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” might be a metaphor for all kinds of things, likely unpleasant ones, or it might be literally about a white bird. And it might reek of self-importance and portentousness, but there’s not much that sounds quite like it, with its male and female harmonies, hypnotically soaring violin, and enough musical shifts to make its six-minute length no cause for concern. And the wonderfully named Kak, purveyors of “Lemonaide Kid”, manages to make something truly beautiful out of a repetitive country-influenced guitar lick and sleepy percussion, again for well over five minutes. Both of these songs have somewhat otherworldly qualities, and their combination of beauty and creepiness sums up the scene that spawned them.
If Love Is the Song We Sing more accurately captures the mood and music of the times than most similar collections, it should also be applauded for minimizing the attention paid to the “jam band” ethos that San Francisco bands, particularly the Grateful Dead, get an awful lot of credit for starting. Even if the Dead, Quicksilver and, to a lesser extent, the Airplane noodled away precious quantities of stage time, their records didn’t always reflect this. The compilers of this set chose the longer numbers wisely, for the most part, such that Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and Country Joe’s groundbreaking “Section 43” overshadow more tedious material like Quicksilver’s “Who Do You Love”. The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”, long considered the crown jewel of that group’s catalogue due to its ability to serve as a launching pad for 45-minute sonic journeys, is included here in its rare single form. It provides fine evidence of the possibilities the most musically experimental group of the San Francisco scene could find in a two-and-a-half-minute record, managing to be unpredictable and mysterious without being tiresome.
And anyway, it’s not like extended workouts were the bread and butter of the whole scene. Groups like the Sons of Champlin, the Generation, the Loading Zone, and Mother Earth were part of a soul-influenced movement. The Charlatans and Quicksilver (and the Dead, for that matter) worked with folk, blues and country music. Moby Grape and the Beau Brummels did very different things with folk-rock. Garage bands like the immortal Count Five, Syndicate of Sound, the Mojo Men, and the Chocolate Watchband perfected Yardbirds riffs and punkish attitude. And Blue Cheer may or may not have invented heavy metal. All of these folks are here, too, and they occupy a much greater portion of the picture than many historians would want us to believe.
Not only was San Francisco a musical melting pot, but then-in-vogue free-love practices seemed to extend to musical partnerships, and Love Is the Song We Sing documents the inbreeding that took place. Sly Stewart’s influence is on full display, especially on the first disc, as he produced cuts by the Charlatans, the Warlocks, the Beau Brummels, the Vejtables, and the Great! Society. He co wrote and produced “She’s My Baby” for the Mojo Men, to which he also contributed key instrumental and vocal parts. By the time Sly & The Family Stone’s first single, “Underdog”, appears, he was into a whole new bag. Not as well-known but still pretty darn interesting is Gary Lee Yoder, who appears as a member of the Oxford Circle, Kak, and Blue Cheer, running the gamut from garage rave-up to pastoral groove and winding up with a basic piano- and guitar-driven rock song. And there’s always Grace Slick, who gets several nods here as a member of both the Great Society and the Jefferson Airplane. The booklet also contains photos that demonstrate the interconnectedness of the San Francisco groups, the camaraderie and fellowship that existed at least for a while.
San Francisco in the late ‘60s is one of the most highly mythologized places and times in rock history, and not without reason. The area spawned at least a half dozen top-tier bands, and figures like Jerry Garcia, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick became icons. Steve Miller wound up being one of the biggest pop acts of the ‘70s, and Carlos Santana, of all people, found a new life as a collaborator with younger pop figures in the late ‘90s, a role which he continues to play. The Dead soldiered on in various permutations after Garcia’s death twelve years ago, and they remain one of the biggest moneymaking groups in the industry. But it’s the music these folks recorded in the late ‘60s that serves as their legacy, and some of their best work can be found on Love Is the Song We Sing. For the first time, the musical and attitudinal highs and lows of the Bay Area scene are on full, accurate, and coherent display. Forty years was a long time to wait.