November 15, 2009

"San Francisco" (Be Sure to drink some hemlock if you go)

Filed under: Uncategorized — improviz @ 2:30 AM

If you’ve seen any Time/Life ads for the Greatest Hits of the 60’s, you know John Phillips wore some really stupid hats, but we forgive him because of his talented leadership of the Mamas and Papas. However, we must now ask: John, how could you sink to writing this song? Was your acid connection out of town?

Not only is this a bad song, it was complicit in the media’s growing capacity to create “Movements” out of thin air. This song greased the cultural wheels. It was used to sell the “Summer of Love” (god help us) like a dj uses ‘National Retail Appreciation Day’ to flog his appearance at the local Gap. “The Summer of Love, a Voyeuristic Look at the Rise (and Fall) of Youth Culture” might have been created by a consortium of TV networks. Come to think of it-although I believe the conspiracy was purely accidental-it was.

It was perfect. It was SO telegenic, and with a perfect story arc. First, there appeared all the lovely, bra-less creatures and their mellow, thoughtful hip-huggered boy friends, blowing bubbles, airily dancing to The Grateful Dead, feeding each other sprouts. Then, when that began to grow tiresome, the bloom crashed off the rose and it became about the junkies, panhandlers and screaming love babies. This was a perfect news boom and bust cycle; one which our more efficient digital era would have compressed to at most a week, but which at that time, unfolded over a few leisurely months.

So much for complicity, and context. As for the song itself-it’s possible that “San Francisco” might have been marginally less dreadful if it had been given the full John Phillips harmony treatment. However, it was sung in the jejune, aspiringly-sincere voice of Scott ‘Let a Thousand Bad Mustaches Bloom’ McKenzie. Scott was later to torture listeners with “Like An Old Time Movie.”(“You don’t really need me The way that I need you, Don’t come on so groovy”).

San Francisco lyrics:

If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there…

Then, a little bit of psychedelia tossed in during the bridge, accompanied by a dramatic increase in reverb, just to ‘blow your mind’:

“All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
here’s a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion people in motion.”

And if that isn’t enough, it’s all just so damned simpleminded. No matter how the complexities of a given era have been quashed by the American craving for digestible sound bites, the artist owes us more. The emptiness of this song smacks of alien pods falling off trucks, androids coaching Little League and my being forced march to stand for “God Bless America” at a baseball game. Encryptment is way overdue and simple to accomplish: this thing is already a zombie. Viva Woodstock.



  1. Steve,I'm mostly with you on this one. Lyrically, flower-power frisco was handled much better by Zappa's"We're Only In It For The Money"Mr Ed

    Comment by MR Ed — August 22, 2009 @ 9:25 PM

  2. hi Steve! well, this is another wonderfully composed (and well justified) crypt qualifier! though you know i'm all about romance and FLOWER POWER! you might recall, i love wearing flowers in my hair. a thought that occurred to me as i read your words —>> i would LOVE for you to find a way to add a podcast on your blog for each entry that would allow us to hear that voice of yours reading what you write about these unfortunate castaways. you're voice is UNFORGETTABLE! 🙂 it's a cherished gift. i hope you find the will and a way to share it again. much love to you and beautiful z, amy

    Comment by ASK — August 23, 2009 @ 11:26 PM

  3. I was going to rally to McKenzie's defense, but, upon further review, how right you are…it's really depressing to hear that record today…

    Comment by Anonymous — August 24, 2009 @ 12:37 PM

  4. I actually saw McKenzie perform this song live around 1970 or so at a free concert where I also saw Little Feat perform on the eve of their first album. He actually had a good voice and played the 12 string well. The song itself was schlock of the worst kind, recognized as such even then, and Papa John Phillips turns out to have been something of a monster which colors all his work in retrospect.

    Comment by gmoke — December 24, 2009 @ 9:28 PM

  5. Destiny can be cruel. McKenzie's lot will always be tied to this song.

    Comment by Z.R. — December 26, 2009 @ 11:47 PM

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