I blame it, of course, on Scott McKenzie.
And Alan Whicker.
Now I trust that many readers, notably those of a certain age and transatlantic disposition, will recall that Scott McKenzie was the singer who advised the world in 1967 that, if they were going to San Francisco, they should “be sure to wear some flowers in their hair”. That song alone had a searing impact on an impressionable fourteen year old boy living five and a half thousand miles away.
But Alan Whicker?
In appearance, with his English grammar school upbringing, clipped accent, Saville Row suit, slicked back hair, thick-set glasses and brisk moustache, he was the antithesis of the young people flocking to the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood at the time.
Whicker was an English journalist and broadcaster who forged a career spanning nearly sixty years until his death in 2013. His finest work was Whicker’s World which he presented for thirty years, travelling the world and commenting in an inimitable ironic fashion on society, and interviewing many prominent figures of the time, including the Sultan of Brunei, reputedly the richest man in the world at the time, the Haitian dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier and numerous high profile actors and aristocrats.
His stiff upper-lip style made him the affectionate butt of many comedians, none more memorably than the Monty Python team who delivered a sketch entitled Whicker’s Island, in which a succession of Whickers would walk on and off the screen uttering in his customary hushed tones, the catchphrase “here on Whicker’s Island”.
On 9th September 1967, the day that Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Byrds headlined at the Family Dog and Fillmore Auditorium, two of the emerging and competing concert venues in San Francisco, Whicker broadcast a programme on the BBC entitled Love Generation. The episode was groundbreaking not least for the fact that it showed scenes of drug taking, despite the corporation’s “horror” of the practice, for the first time on British television, notably in 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead house (Phil Lesh and Bob Weir figured prominently). In the light of the recent Mick Jagger drug bust, it was put out very late at night. Among the individuals invited to expound their hippie ideals, emerging music promoter, Chet Helms, outlined his plans for taking music and light show “happenings” to London.
It was an incisive, literate and surprisingly sympathetic piece in which Whicker spoke over footage of the large influx of youth who had hitchhiked from every state to “Hashbury”:
In the States, pot is going middle class and spreading like prohibition liquor as more and more citizens get zonked out of their minds. The drug culture enters the blood stream of American life. Like it or not, we’re living in the stoned age.
Later he was to lament that the:
Summer of Love was a short outburst of happiness that lasted only a few months. When I returned a year later the flowers and the innocence had died.
I was, like the thousands of young people that sought escape from the drabness of middle America, inspired by the message of “tune in, turn on, drop out”, though I hadn’t the means of joining the tribes.
The broadcast also gave my first experience of the Grateful Dead in performance with a beardless Jerry Garcia taking the lead on the Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion). A song title was never more apt.
News bulletins featured scenes of Gray Line tour buses crawling down Haight Street with bemused middle aged, provincial passengers staring at the carnival on the street.
And then there was Scott McKenzie.
Another character with a splendid upper lip growth, it was his song, full title San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), which topped the charts in the UK but not (quite) the US, that so enthralled that fourteen year old boy in what was, despite the emergence of “swinging London”, still a monochrome etched country.
I took to decorating my Beatle mop with an occasional fresh daisy or buttercup. I commandeered my mother’s chocolate and purple paisley print blouse to wear to the home games of my local football team, guaranteeing that I would be bullied as mercilessly on a Saturday afternoon on the terraces as I was already being five days a week at school.
But I didn’t care.
I was a hippie.
My home grown musical diet of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and a dozen other pop groups began to be supplemented by the weird, thrilling sounds of San Francisco. But it would still be another three years before I could get my hands on the music of the Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service (thank you Keith Mason wherever you are), and before I could justifiably claim to be aboard the bus – the magic, not tourist, version.
During those same three years, I became increasingly fascinated by American culture and society. My political awakening was borne more out of opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the blacks in the Deep South, and students at Berkeley and Kent State than with the Rhodesian question or devaluation of the pound in Britain. I chose American history as one of my “A levels” at school and later studied American literature at university.
Underpinning all this was the music – my adoration for the San Franciscan bands was extended to embrace the country and folk rock idioms of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles and, of course, Dylan. I devoured every American film I could, especially those with a counter cultural bias like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Alice’s Restaurant, and read George Jackson, Angela Carter and Tom Wolfe.
Those enthusiasms have endured to this day, though it would take me another quarter of a century before I first gazed adoringly on the Golden Gate Bridge or strolled down the street that had been the epicentre of my cultural life for so long.
But that is another story.
To finish, another of those siren songs that sucked me into a San Francisco state of mind.