Happy summer, everybody. Today's post focuses on the quintessential song of the season, 1967's homage to the Summer of Love - Scott McKenzie's San Francisco.
It's hard for people to relate to now, perhaps, but at one time hippies were everywhere. I was one of them, and although I wasn't in San Francisco, this song seemed to reflect the zeitgeist of that time - a freewheeling kind of existence that took on many different forms but, no matter who or where you were, was a natural reaction to the increasingly worrisome and warmongering "Establishment."
McKenzie and Papa John Phillips were old friends from when they lived outside Washington, D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia. McKenzie wasn't interested in being part of the band that became the Mamas and the Papas, but he did agree to sing the uplifting song Papa John wrote, basically as a promotional tool for the Monterey International Pop Festival that Phillips and producer Lou Adler were spearheading to kick off the summer.
As with so many things, once a cultural ethos is commercialized, it's corrupted and in truth, the pilgrimage so many strangers subsequently made to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie world, did lead to a degradation of the life locals had basked in before it was elevated to the world stage. An interesting perspective on all this is in the San Francisco Sound chapter of Rock and Roll: A Social History by Paul Friedlander.
But the song had an extraordinary ability to mirror the emotions of various segments of society around the world. It became not only a freedom song in Soviet-oppressed Eastern European countries, but also a homecoming song to Vietnam vets arriving back home through San Francisco from 1967 on. McKenzie sang San Francisco in Washington in 2002 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 20th anniversary tribute to the more than 58,000 men and women who died fighting that "war" and the millions more who served and lived to tell the tale.
In a 1995 interview, McKenzie talked about how the song unexpectedly resonated with so many different groups of young people worldwide, especially our own soldiers.
"For Vietnam vets, it was what kept them going, in a lot of ways, for years, dreaming of coming home," McKenzie said. "They still come up to me. I carry a Bronze Star that a vet gave me, a combat patch that a vet gave me. I've talked to two POWs who told me how much it meant to them ... maybe some people our age don't know it either, realize that, whether we intended to be that much a part of what was happening - I didn't. I didn't have any idea I was gonna sing a song that would mean that much to anybody. But I did. That music is in the hearts of millions of people all over the world, and it represents freedom and dying for freedom, or doing what they thought was right and now they think it's wrong."