Underground Lit

The Ephemera of the San Francisco Counter-Culture

by Griffin Nicholson

James N. Doukas, The Electric Tibet: the Chronicles and Sociology of the San Francisco Rock Musicians. Hollywood: Dominion, 1969. Paperback, 192 pgs.

[Cover of Tibet] In 1969, San Francisco's eminent jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason's book on San Francisco rock appeared, perhaps the best book written on the scene in the Sixties. A little known book was rushed into print before Gleason's book came out, doubtless to capitalize on Gleason's advance press. The rival turned out to be one of the least known and most interesting books written on the early years of the San Francisco sound, with the wonderful title Electric Tibet.

By 1968, the San Francisco scene had already achieved international fame and notoriety, both as one of the urban linch-pins of youth culture and the birthing ground of one of the most definable bodies of rock music. That year witnessed the meteoric rise to headliner stature of the last of the first five major bands, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and hard on their heels were a second wave of bands who looked poised to do even greater things, such as Santana.

Doukas was a journalism major at UC Santa Barbara, who decided to write the book at the urging of a professor who said "why don't you do it?" He establishes the context for his interviews with his early comment, "the hippie movement had been blown up and stepped on by the mass media, but I had a feeling that its music was a lot deeper and more complex than people realized." And the rest of the book bears that out.

Though Doukas knows the music and discusses albums and songs in detail, much of the text reads like lightly-edited interview transcript, which is its strength and weakness. Most of what is said will be familiar to fans of the music. There are some interesting variations in some of these anecdotes: it is odd to see some musicians downplaying events that would later become common knowledge--such as the Dead's firing of Pigpen and Bob Weir, or Moby Grape's self-inflicted difficulties. But for the most part, what is presented as quoted material here jibes with other known interview sources, such as Bruce Harrah-Conforth's excerpts in his Ph.D. dissertation "The Rise and Fall of an American Folk Community," or in Joel Selvin's book Summer of Love, which was also built around extensive interviews.

The most unusual interview in the volume is Ron Polte, who lapsed into virtual media silence in the years following; the longest interview is with Chicken Hirsh, the drummer for Country Joe and the Fish, while the band was on tour in Canada. It is a snapshot of the era, replete with Sixties trappings, expressions, and a clear-headed explication of the forces at work on that band and in the scene overall.

In general, Doukas writes well and thoughtfully; there are stylistic problems, perhaps the worst being his habit of dropping spliced-in criticism at the end of quotations that make the preceding seem inevitable. To a large extent, though, this goes with the territory; and if viewed as a sourcebook and not a synthesis or history, I think it looks fairly good. The central narrative value of the work as a whole is that it provides a useful snapshot of the scene in flux, with bands making their break and others breaking up, and all coming to grips with their own involvement in the industry of popular music with all its attendant implications.

If Tibet had been published by a major house, it would have become one of the indispensable titles in every San Francisco rock fan's library; that is, after all, a slender library. As it is, Tibet turns up only on the shelves of the fortunate and the serious collectors. This is a function not of its content, but of its odd publishing history. Dominion was a pornographic book publisher, whose bread-and-butter was the cheap paperback with lurid covers and graphic, suggestive titles. But like many porno publishers in the Sixties, they put out non-porn titles that they in some way believed in, or perhaps hoped would lend a little mainstream respectability. A local rare book dealer in San Francisco, Red House Books, believes that this sort of project was probably the brainchild of one editor, or since Doukas attended Santa Barbara, perhaps he had some personal connection with a sympathetic backer at Dominion who would have seen it through. Unfortunately, Dominion folded years ago and Doukas did not pursue a career

As a result, the book has been very poorly distributed. Copies now fetch ridiculously high prices: $100 and up, depending on condition. The classic, psychedelic cover distorts this even more: many paperback collectors, who want only pristine copies with garish covers, lap this one up.

Despite the flaws, Tibet is a good period piece: some good journalism, with a number of marvelous quotations, informed by a critical desire to see the music as an integral part of what youth culture was still unfolding to be. A good one to keep your eyes peeled for in the bargain bin at your local bookstore. For those feeling flush, Red House Books (P.O. Box 460267, San Francisco, CA, 94146) is the best source for this and other collector-quality counter-culture paperbacks.

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The Man Who Turned On the World

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