San Francisco

In 1987 I was living in southern Germany, in an area close to the Bodensee, which the English call the Lake of Constance. It is an interesting area belonging to the Swabian people, one of the Germanic tribes that straddle the Swiss border. The sentence structure in the dialect is the same as is used in English, unlike the construction of High German developed by academics in the 16th and 17th Centuries to reform German along the lines of the classical languages of Greek and Latin. This same sentence structure, as English, is found in Swedish also, showing the academics were wrong in their reconstruction of the language and that the thought rested in the head and not the heart of the people.

However while I lived there I listened to a Swiss radio station which was playing a lot of music from the 1960s. The Animals, the Byrds, and I don’t know what else. It was a refreshing inspiration from my youth and a welcome sound to fall upon the ears. I noticed how strong some of the songs were. The House of the Rising Sun, San Francisco, the Eve of Destruction and others. Songs which caused me to stop and turn my head to listen more closely.

I had found, when I was 14 and away on cadet camp in Dorset, that every time the first notes of Mr Tambourine Man played there was a pause in the air. It was like an alarm call. Everything stopped to pay closer attention – at least so it seemed to me. Perhaps it was just me but I have no way of knowing. I just recall a difference occurred in the ambience as soon as that tune was played, and over the summer it was played a lot.

Hearing these old songs again in ’87, as vital as when I heard them first, I came to the conclusion that they must have been overlighted by a given master, or inspiration, to capture that something intangible. Other versions of the songs which had not become famous just didn’t have the same power, for example the Eve of Destruction that was recorded in two forms. One had the sound of a motorbike revving up at the beginning giving it that sense of imminence, like a pamphleteer making his declaration for all to hear. This was the version that was released as a single. I came across the album by Barry Maguire and bought it. I was enormously let down to find the version of this seminal song was not the one made popular so long ago. It had no bikes at the beginning. It felt weak and impotent.

I reflected on what it was these songs carried that made them stand out and why was San Francisco so significant. Not only Scott McKenzie’s song, with the flowers in your hair, but also Eric Burden’s San Francisco Nights where walls move and minds do too. What was it about Puff the magic dragon? Well that bit was simple, the magic dragon was of course Opium. These songs stood out from the Rock and Roll of the early days. ‘Wake up little Susie, Wake up’. They were lyrical. They told stories. Where do you go to my lovely? A tale of poverty and deception as a homeless girl climbs the heights of fashionable Paris, Rome and London.

It was the height of the Vietnam war, (the one the Vietnamese call the American War), so when Maguire sang “You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting, you don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re toting, and even the Jordan river has bodies floatin’. But you tell me, over and over and over again, my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of Destruction.” it struck a chord.

Meanwhile Donovan sang of colours, and Dylan told us that the Times were changing, advising senators and statesmen to get out of the way because the first one’s now will later be last. Even the Rolling Stones came in with Their Satanic Majesties Request ‘Painting colours everywhere she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow’ while the Beatles dreamed of tangerine trees and Marmalade skies. Something was undeniably happening.

Then the penny dropped -San Francisco was St Francis of Assisi, the bands were the Animals, the Byrds, the Beatles, people sang about hearing the grass grow. It was nature crying out to humanity ‘wake up from your insanity’.

So we find ourselves today on the brink of World War Three, with the same protagonists making the same old claims in their imperial strikes at democracy to suppress the voice of the people, in their own lands and that of their neighbours, while making untoward threats of power. It is the classic stance of the bully. The power bereft personality that has backed itself into a corner and demands to be recognised. The spoiled child crying I want I want, and You will. I can only say hey my friend do you now believe we are on the Eve of Destruction?

And add that ‘war is not the answer because it only reflects in the human kingdom what that same kingdom is carrying on against the strength of Life on this planet.’ The best thing that will come from this catastrophe in Ukraine is that Europe will be weaned off oil and gas. Meanwhile the cost of food basics hopefully will cause a glut in the palm oil market enough to stop the forest clearances making way for plantations of monocultures to feed us all on crackly pops and salty snacks, while Orang-utans look for somewhere else to live.

So I stand with Saint Francis and ask with Yusuf – where do the children play-ay-ay oh oh? In polluted seas while mega-billionaires strive to escape the planet, and the mess they have made of it, in an attempt at glory. Space is not like the great plains – somewhere to be conquered by steam and the latest technologies. It may have escaped the notice of those ambitious for ‘space travel’ that these regions are not inhabited by human beings. Could be there’s a reason for that.

Author: Keith Armstrong

Dance teacher, writer, film-maker, educationalist, enthusiast.