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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Wolfe’


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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San Francisco can claim more than its share of personalities who have changed the course of society and popular culture, and Carol Ann Doda ranks high on that list.

She was born on 29 August 1937 in Solano County, California, and grew up in Napa.  Her parents divorced when she was three. She dropped out of school and became a cocktail waitress and lounge entertainer at aged 14.

Described as a “lovely, busty and curvaceous blonde bombshell” she achieved fame, or notoriety depending upon your point of view, on 19 June 1964 at the Condor Club at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in North Beachby dancing in a topless swimsuit, the first recognised entertainer of the era to do so, and spawning similar exhibitionism across the country. In fact, within 48 hours, the neighbouring bars had also gone topless, and at one point, 28 clubs along the Broadway strip were advertising bare-breasted dancers.

Her act, which she performed twelve times nightly, “began with a grand piano lowered from the ceiling by hydraulic motors;  Doda would be atop the piano dancing.  She descended from a hole in the ceiling.  She go-go danced the Swim to a rock and roll combo headed by Bobby Freeman as her piano settled on the stage.  From the waist up Doda emulated aquatic movements like the Australian crawl.  She also performed the Twist, the Frug and the Watusi“, all dances familiar to those of us growing up in the sixties.

She later spent $20,000 on enhancing her bust size from 34B to 44DD through a total of 44 (“just a coincidence” she said) direct silicone injections (now illegal because the plastic tends to migrate), earning her breasts the nickname of “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco”.  She had them insured for $1.5 million with Lloyd’s of London, but never had recourse to claim on it. In his 1968 book, The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe referred to them as “two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture – viscera spigot – great blown-up aureate morning glories”.

Such was her popularity that delegates from the 1964 Republican National Convention flocked to see her and, four years later, she was given a film role as Sally Silicone in Head, created by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, and featuring The Monkees.  She appeared in another six films. The U.S.S. Kittyhawk aircraft carrier named her Pinup Girl of the Year and she even received a Business Person of the Year award from Harvard.

Doda created a further seismic impact in the entertainment industry on 3 September 1969 by dancing completely naked at the Condor, though she was obliged to reinstate the bottom part of her costume in 1972 after the California alcoholic beverages commission prohibited nude dancing in establishments that served alcohol.

She explained that “even in liberal San Francisco, what I did was technically a crime. The cops raided. The owner and I ended up in the slammer. I was back slamming on stage in two shakes of a stripper’s tail”.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in October 2011 Doda stated that she only caused a scandal “about a year and a half after I started, because the cops came in and said no more bottomless unless  you move the tables back 5 feet. I had to explain to the people we can’t do bottomless and topless because the health department folks are afraid our pubic hairs will jump into your drinks”.

As a witness during the trial of two completely naked dancers at the pink pussy Kat in Orangevale, California, arrested for “indecent exposure and lewd and dissolute conduct”, she performed to live song and dance numbers and a 17 minute movie entitled Guru You, at the Chuck Landis Largo Club in Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, which was set up as a temporary courtroom. Cross-examined by a deputy district attorney, Carol, dressed in a red miniskirt with blue piping and beige boots, explained that her act, rather than being pornographic in itself, represented a a satire on it, “to show people the humourous side of sex”.

She also became a spokesperson for Channel 36, now known as KGSC-TV, in San Jose when, filmed from the waist up and wearing clothes, she’d intone “you’re watching the perfect 36” (there was no channel 44 at the time).

Doda returned to dancing at the Condor three times a night in 1982, at the age of 45, performing to blues, ragtime and rock ‘n’ roll, dressed “in a gold gown, traditional elbow-length gloves, and a diaphanous-wraparound.  Her clothing was removed until she wore only a G-string and the wraparound.  In the final portion she was attired in only the wraparound.  Her small body looked slimmer without clothes which was emphasised by the dwarfing effect of her breasts”.

Despite the notoriety she earned by being the first dancer to break the topless / bottomless taboos in the U.S., her act was rarely regarded as sleazy.  As she herself said: “I always just wanted to give people a good time, have fun.  Nothing really dirty – just fun”.

Larry Inla, who spent most of 1966 playing in a band called Stark Naked and the Car Thieves at the Galaxy, a couple of blocks from the Condor, reiterates this point, recalling that, thanks in no small part (sic) to Carol, “it was a fantastic place at an incredible time” and that the “ambience was more naughty-but-nice, in a sophisticated European city kind of way, not a sleazy, dirty kind of way”.

Retiring from stripping later in her mid forties (“you can’t go on stripping forever”), she formed her own rock band, the Lucky Stiffs, with whom she played for several years.

Doda now runs the highly respectable “Carol Doda’s Champagne and Lace Lingerie Boutique” in a pretty courtyard at 1850 Union Street in Cow Hollow, which she opened after San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, who was a clear fan, announced in the paper that she was going to do so. She specialises in “plus” sizes and waits on customers personally. She takes particular pride in being recommended by Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sacs, Neiman-Marcus and bridal stores who can’t cater for larger sizes.

Well into the new millennium, she has continued to put ten years of voice training to good effect by singing, whilst fully clothed, club standards like All of Me  at a variety of North Beach clubs, including Amante’s and Enrico’s Supper Club. In late 2011, at the age of 74, she was still performing at Gino and Carlo’s Bar on Green Street in North Beach, where she had been for around twelve years.

And finally, in a city with high foodie credentials, she has been truly immortalised in having a gourmet hamburger named after her at Bill’s Place at 2315 Clement at 24th in the Outer Richmond! Unsurprisingly, it consists of “two third of a pound plus hamburger patties served side by side on a sesame seed bun, each patty topped with an olive and full garnish on the side”.

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