Every year on this day I think of this song:
P.S. I took this photo several years ago on a hilltop outside of Amherst at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
I’ve spent a total of five weeks in the San Francisco area during the last year, and I’ve managed to visit the city itself only four or five times. Briefly put, I’ve only glimpsed the city; I haven’t really seen it.
I’ve seen — or sensed — some of the problems people have with what venerable journalist Herb Caen called Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Most of all, it’s too expensive to live there — real-estate values are beyond the reach of even the relatively affluent, thanks in large part to the dot-com companies like Google and Apple. What’s more, the San Francisco celebrated in Scott MacKenzie’s song is long-gone — if it ever really existed….George Harrison of The Beatles took one look at the Haight and got the hell out of there, and after one glorious summer the place became a hellhole filled with homeless, strung-out teens with wilted flowers in their hair.
But, still, there’s something about San Francisco and California. I’ve joined the other tourists and taken a ride on the city’s famed cable cars, all the while humming the Rice-A-Roni theme song. I’ve walked along the waterfront, looking out at Alcatraz or up at the suspension bridge to Oakland. I’ve stood on the steps where Mario Savio jump-started the Free Speech movement in Berkeley — although I’ve seen Berkeley’s bums, young and old, who are but a sad echo of the old counter-culture. I’ve crossed the Golden Gate and visited John Muir’s redwoods. I’ve sipped coffee at a café in North Beach. I’ve huddled with the ghosts of the Beats in the poetry section upstairs at City Lights. I’ve looked out at the Pacific — and, while I can’t explain the difference, I have no doubt that there’s something very non-Atlantic about the Pacific.
I’ve driven along the coastal highway to Big Sur. I’ve never seen any place so beautiful in my entire life, and I found myself wishing I could travel back forty years and have a fling with beautiful Joni Mitchell, or travel back fifty years and get drunk with Jack Kerouac, or travel back sixty years and talk about Rimbaud and Celine and Anais Nin with Henry Miller, or travel back more than eighty years and spend idle hours sloshing through the tidal flats at Monterey with John Steinbeck — and witnessing the awful oppression of the farm workers at Salinas.
I think what it amounts to is that I’ve seen enough of San Francisco and the California coast to know that at the very least I’d like to see more. And I certainly will. I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco — but I did leave a little piece of it. After all, how could I ever forget — and how could I ever be unchanged after reading it — the quote at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in the town of Big Sur: “It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen!”
There were two more this week – former First Lady Nancy Reagan and legendary Beatles producer George Martin. Mrs. Reagan, I didn’t like, but I was still impressed by the array of people who showed up for her funeral, including President and Mrs. Bush, Rosalyn Carter, Michele Obama, and even Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer. As for George Martin, I’d long thought of him as a genius – the man who lifted to greatness such songs as “Yesterday,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but I all of think of this week was 1) OK, I was just starting high school when The Beatles split up, but still 2) George Martin was 90 years old? 90?!
Friends and I have talked about which celebrity deaths would be front-page news and probably the lead story in The New York Times. I’m talking about folks who die of old age, not your John Lennon and Princess Diana-types who die suddenly and way before their times. I’d say the Pope and Queen Elizabeth and Fidel Castro and the Dalai Lama, for sure, and all of the former presidents — Carter, Bush, Bush and Clinton.
After that, it’s a mish-mosh of names, possibly consigned to the bottom of the front page, some of them possibly “above the fold:” Muhammad Ali, Little Richard, Warren Buffett, Chuck Berry, Willie Mays, David Rockefeller, Kirk Douglas, I.M. Pei., Billy Graham, Dick van Dyke, Dan Rather, Hank Aaron, Doris Day, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Betty White, Barbara Bush, Ralph Branca, Gloria Vanderbilt, Hugh Hefner, the other Pope who’s still alive, Tony Bennett, Sidney Poitier, Jerry Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Neil Simon…You get the idea….There are dozens and dozens more.
But I’m at the age when the deaths of ordinary, run-of-the-mill celebrities – sometimes even “celebrities” in quotes – have made me very aware of the passage of time. George Martin was one of those. But I was also just a little disturbed to learn of the deaths of Pat Harrington, the handyman from “One Day at a Time;” David Bowie, of course, but also Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, both of the Airplane; Frank Gifford; E.L. Doctorow; Leonard Nimoy; Leslie Gore; and, oh my God, Abe Vigoda, and Donna Douglas, who played Ellie Mae on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and even – how could it be? – Yvonne Craig, the original Batgirl on TV.
Part of this, I suppose, is that I’m afflicted with baby boomer syndrome. When Roger Daltrey sang “Hope I die before I get old,” I guarantee you that he didn’t think he’d ever really get old. The youth culture really started with my generation, and now my generation is getting old. We used to read the birth announcements, the graduation announcements, the help-wanted ads, the wedding announcements. Now, just like our mothers and fathers before us, we read the obituaries, and shudder just a little when we realize the people our age – and younger – can and will die. Which is a real bummer.
I have been to 21 states.
#California, of course, where I’m heading now to see beautiful little Abbie (Oh, and my daughter and son-in-law too)
#All six in New England
#New York (where I grew up) and New Jersey (where I live)
#Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri
#And now — Texas! OK, it’s only a two-hour layover on my way to a week’s stay in California, but I’ve still got this urge to sing ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ and shout ‘Ya-hoo!’ or ‘giddyup!’ or even ‘Remember the Alamo!’
But I just remembered. This is the state that elected Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, and where the governor ordered the National Guard to follow the Army around because he thought the government might just be planning to round up all the Texans and have FEMA lock them up in empty Wal-Marts.
Thank God it’s only two hours! Remember the Alamo!
P.S. Sam the Sham was from Dallas, Texas.