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Posts Tagged ‘Joni Mitchell’


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.

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I have never been a great fan of Starbucks on the grounds, pun absolutely intended, that I don’t find their coffee strong enough (perhaps I should order something other than latté in future).  I prefer the more astringent taste found in Caffe Nero or Costa Coffee or, even better, a traditional, independent Italian coffee house, though they are becoming, along with corner bookshops and record stores, increasingly hard to find.

That said, I think Starbucks has more to commend it than its core product.  Firstly, it plays the best music, with a lot of classic jazz and blues and a smattering of folk rock.  As I write this in the large branch in Bluewater (Kent), Bob Marley, is singing Three Little Birds, and we’ve just had Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Ella Fitzgerald’s Paper Moon – a fine playlist in my books.

The company also has a history of selling CDs exclusively from its outlets.  I was lucky enough to stumble across the live One Man Band by James Taylor whilst on a long, lonely road in California a few years back, but sadly missed out on the live Gaslight recording of Dylan because the offer was only available in the US (a long, expensive way to travel for a $10 album, even for Bob).

Then there is the ambience, which is particularly appealing in this branch – massive picture window opening out onto a sparsely populated mall, a casual mix of comfortable armchairs and stiff backed seating, and wooden framed photographs celebrating the coffee making process and posters advertising the latest special offers.

Shelves of packets of tea and coffee, assorted cups and other merchandise are arranged in the corner by a long perspex fronted counter that displays a tantalising array of things to eat, including tuna melt and mature cheddar panini, skinny lemon and poppyseed muffin and roasted chicken with herb mayonnaise sandwich.

I’ll confess that the food in Starbucks is another selling point for me.  My favourite delicacy is the toasted cheese and marmite panini, whilst my wife, who has a decent claim to being a connoisseur on the subject, asserts that the carrot cake is the best anywhere.  This reminds me that, although I usually eschew the (hot) coffee, I cannot resist a coffee flavoured frappuccino, which may actually be the best frozen / cold concoction available in any coffee chain.

With the busy lunch period past, the branch is now half empty.  The muted lighting generated by small, widely dispersed clusters of yellow and blue lamps, the gentle hum of conversation and the unobtrusive yet satisfying music all contribute to a civilised atmosphere.

Opposite me, two new mothers compare breastfeeding strategies, in word rather than deed, which acts as the perfect sleeping pill for their previously irritable daughters.   In the far corner, a gaggle of young shop girls from Zara, Gap and Hollister meet up in their mid afternoon break to slurp strawberries and crème and caramel frappuccinos and relay tales of annoying customers and bossy supervisors, whilst simultaneously maintaining text conversations with their boyfriends.

An elderly couple on an organised coach trip, nibbling at blueberry muffins and sipping “traditional” tea, suspicious of the exoticism of coffee that isn’t instant, bemoan their blistered feet and the cost of everything.  A bald, middle aged man with paunch protruding through ill fitting suit leers over his espresso macchiato at a female employee, and potential lover, young enough to be his daughter yet flattered by his worldly patter (not an entirely civilised scene then).

As my wife approaches (is that solitary slice of carrot cake still available?) I suddenly reflect – I like the ambience, the food, the fairtrade commitment, the music and some of the drinks  – should I not consider rewriting that first sentence?

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