San Francisco Redux: The Sixties Trip, Two and Three Decades later

Reviews by Griffin Nicholson

The Infinite Summer of Love, Taxim Records, 1994. (Am Dobben3, D-27330 Asendorf, Germany.)

Monkey Medicine, LegendMusic, 1994. (16, Rue Deguerry 75011, Paris, France.)

As is often the case in rock music history, the legend of the San Francisco music scene in the 1960s has been retold so many times it verges on hackneyed. And what is still lacking, three decades and millions of words later, is a sound, sensible, clear-headed explication of all the sounds that made up the scene and the various forces that created them and, in most cases, destroyed them.

Until then, there is no substitute for serious listening. And readers who have wondered what all the fuss was about, but couldn't quite fathom it from the banality of the music their local hit station told them was representative, should pickup these disks -- but for different reasons. Recorded twenty years after the heyday of the Haight, Monkey Medicine will introduce you to some of the best blues the scene ever produced. The work of two Sixties stalwarts, Nick Gravenites and John Cipollina, Monkey Medicine was recorded in a Hamburg studio after the pair's European club tour in 1982. Cipollina was one of the signature guitar stylists of the San Francisco sound, responsible for the shimmering leads of Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the four major bands in the City along with the Dead, the Airplane, and Big Brother & the Holding Company, Janis Joplin's first band. Gravenites was a major player in a scene where competitive chops were still very much a part of the musicians' circuit. Born in Chicago and honed on club playing alongside truly towering blues greats, Gravenites emigrated to the City in the mid-Sixties to get away from the ruthlessness and violence of the scene in Chicago, part of the great wave of Chicago emigres to San Francisco that included Steve Miller and Ron Polte, manager of Quicksilver Messenger Service and several other bands. Though rarely a frontman, Gravenites was a fixture on the ballroom and club circuit in the City, arranging songs, sitting in, producing and guesting on albums. He even provided songs for a number of musicians, especially Janis Joplin, who died before she could complete the vocal for one of his signature tunes, Buried Alive in the Blues. It appears as an instrumental on her final album, Pearl, and is treated on Monkey Medicine to a roaring, throaty rendition.

One of the best tracks on the album is the Quicksilver classic, Pride of Man, on which Nick's vocals fit perfectly, Cipollina's signature guitar leads showing them off beautifully; this is classic San Francisco psychedelia, with its heavy blues underpinnings and rippling, vibrato-laden guitar, suggesting Eastern influence while wrapping the whole, hard-driving mass in layers of filigree. Bad Luck Baby is probably the strongest cut, trenchant, powerful, and a transcendent blues that exemplifies the San Francisco blues style. What emerges from Monkey Medicine is a solid indication of where the San Francisco sound was heading before it splintered into balkanized factions, most of whom subsequently sank.

What the scene achieved in that short amount of time, however, was an eclectic, wide-ranging and remarkably solid body of work. The range and power of the scene are well-represented in The Infinite Summer of Love, a title which made me groan and to which I only reluctantly granted listening space. But a surprising listen, and a quirky, excellent set of renditions that shed a great deal of light on the material they present. Some of the grizzled old guard are represented, like Ron Nagle of the early scene's Mystery Trend, who turns in a thoroughly modern, avant-garde performance of Please Come Back, not surprising for those who know his Durocs work, but a reminder that many of the less-famed musicians from the scene continue to grow and record vital music. Some cuts are deeply faithful to the originals, perhaps most disappointing being Toys in the Attic's White Bird, which is a perfectly executed cover of the original; ample musicianship, impeccable production, and nothing added to the song whatsoever that the original didn't establish. The Cave Gods' Plastic Fantastic Lover is appropriately snarling, angry and alienated; Henry Kaiser's Get High does the Sons of Champlin proud.

There are less impressive tracks here, but many will continue to reveal elements in subsequent listenings -- and you maybe surprised one day to find yourself liking the strangely powerful interpretation of the Dead's The Golden Road, treated here to a post-hip-hop, neo-Beat punked-up groove, courtesy of The Beast. Whoever said education should be easy?

Thanks to Mike Somavilla of Crest of the Wave Productions for information about these discs. Interested fans should contact Crest of the Wave Productions at P.O. Box 425593, San Francisco, CA, 94142.

Copyright 1995
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