Monday, September 5, 2011

Flogging Bohemia Back To Life

     During the spring of 1972, I used to sit in my upstairs bedroom at my parents’ house and muse on the idea, wouldn't it be so nice if I could go and get in on the next big center of Bohemia? Where might that happen to be? St. Louis? Philadelphia? New Orleans? Minneapolis?

     It was obvious to myself and friends that the Haight-Ashbury and SF weren’t what they used to be, if even they ever had been. Scott MacKenzie’s silly song had made certain of that. One morning, in the winter of 1970, my best friend and I walked from Hunter’s Point, across the entire city, ending up at the Great Highway. On our way we passed through the Haight.

     If there had ever been a “flower power renaissance” there, it certainly didn’t show it. Wan, sad faces we’d encounter, vacant storefronts, dog shit and decay were the legacy of the Summer of Love. No, it sure wasn’t happening  here, Mr. Jones.

     But to look at  the Haight now, you’d wonder, if it weren’t somehow now stuck between the two extremes. A very vocal mercantile class had come along and filled the street with ‘head shops.” Half of them dedicated to the sale of Arabian nargilehs, over-priced bongs, and low-cost cartons of discount cigarettes. The rest seeming to be up-scale, up-cost eateries, The Gap, or varying extremes of neighborhood food marts. There’s a couple of bars or three that have ridden out the storm, still at their same locations.  But on a weekend, it takes on the character of an old grey lady reliving better days, as crowds of younger tourists pack the sidewalks and shop at the numerous nostalgia hawkers.

     Bohemia never really recovered, in San Francisco. The recording industry, which had actually given it the biggest impetus toward the title of “capital of the world” in the year between June 1967 and July 1968, had dried up and fled by mid-1973. In its place had come high end real estate development. Flats that had been available at reasonable rates were jacked up past the affordable limits of young wallets. In their place, came families with secure incomes, and even money to burn.

     A strange continuity however lingered, in an uneasy alliance between (some of the) older hippies and the younger new wave and punk crowd, in North Beach. If the hippies had had the Avalon, the punks now had the Mabuhay Gardens. Certain people liked to best insert themselves wherever they might, and for them, the shouting matches between the  Jerry Garcia Dead Heads, lined up at the Stone across the street, and the punk rockers lined up outside the Mabuhay on Broadway, could be humorous to observe.

     I know of at least one older cat that tried to bridge the gap between the beats, the Hippies, and the Punks. A refugee of the old Minneapolis folk scene that gave the world Bob Dylan, he rested on his laurels as “the guy that turned on Bob to weed & Woody Guthrie.” We are even still friends, (of a sort). And he’s still flying his freak flag.

     But that’s a problem, for me. For one thing, the hippie scene in the city never got much done. The punks would probably agree on that. After all, if the hippies really “won” their revolution, why are we still arguing over whether or not  pot should even be illegal? And that horrid little Scott MacKenzie song, I know of not a single other Native San Franciscan who even likes it. Other songs actually caught the mood of the era a lot better (to name but three- Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison, 8:05 by Moby Grape, and San Franciscan Nights by Eric Burdon and the Animals).

     Because, on and on they came, the teenage nomads, drawn by the promise of “gentle people with flowers in their hair.” The flowers in the graying ponytails of the aging hippies had long faded. The kids are of a younger, tougher, meaner and more streetwise generation, and the sidewalks often littered with smack and meth syringes. The kids sell 1/8th ounce bags of weed for $60 at the same spot hippie dealers sold full ounces for $5 or $10. You can tell that certain values have not survived the cut.

     Bohemia, as such, never made a reappearance at least in the USA. There was no second wave, after the acid movement of the late 1960’s. There was no other breakout, anywhere else in the country. Instead, San Francisco stood holding up its freak flag for so long, it became the icon  of a now moribund spirit. The Grateful Dead- it’s well-argued- carried it on the road with them, everywhere they went, and as Garcia once said “Nobody's ever understood us but us. And we just kept on playing.” And meanwhile, the values of the dominant culture, it may be argued, not only re-emerged barely dented, but co-opted even the GD into a “safe escape” for those with a yen to experience ‘a hippy trip.”

     I’ve often said, you can beat a dead horse to water but you can’t make it think. Which is why I feel any efforts to bring back a Bohemian spirit (in the USA at least) are genuinely doomed. I really doubt that a good dream can be flogged back to life, when two generations past, you can see that it was barely taken seriously to begin with.


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