San Francisco

Bay city roller

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

Without much hair in which to wear flowers, all these years on from the Summer of Love, I have come to San Francisco ready to acknowledge if not actually obey. Scott McKenzie's old hit will stay in my head for days, although it will have to compete with a score of other songs celebrating the city by the bay.


In a corner room of the venerable Fairmont Hotel, atop Nob Hill, as the sun sets on an eventful day poking around Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore District, the Presidio, Pacific Heights, Chinatown and the Tenderloin, I look down the tram line to Union Square on one side and Fisherman's Wharf on the other, while being visited by the words of The Animals' lead singer, Eric Burdon: 'Old child, young child feel alright on a warm San Franciscan night.'


Last week, I bounced about Las Vegas to Elvis' Viva Las Vegas and the South Side of Chicago to any number of blues standards. But what is driving me up and down the streets and around the watery environs of San Francisco - perhaps the most engaging of all American cities - are the songs that were planted in my (then hirsute) cranium when the place was a byword for the stretching of all envelopes.


Having ventured back after a long absence and fearing its brashness might have been diluted, I hit the streets seeking the cultural touchstones that have been making visitors feel all right since Burdon made the city his home in the late 1960s. They are in place largely as I left them, along with the array of charismatic characters and assertive attitudes that render the northern Californian metropolis irresistible.


Like New York, there are songs that celebrate the city from the canons of all musical forms - and there have been almost since it was established in 1776, when the great Franciscan missionary to California, Fray Junipero Serra, built the Mission Dolores, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, on a site a little south of the present City Hall. When, in July 1846, Captain John B. Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth took possession of the tiny hamlet of trappers and whalers in the name of the people of the United States, it became an integral part of the history of America's western seaboard and a muse and lure for the creatively inclined.


Almost every American city or state has an official song, often cemented in statute books. Georgia's is, not surprisingly, Hoagy Carmichael's Georgia by Ray Charles. But the bay city has two, crooner Tony Bennett's signature tune I Left My Heart In San Francisco was first. Then, in 1984, the city adopted a second. This induction harkened back to the 1936 MGM disaster musical San Francisco. Clark Gable, as Blackie Norton, 'made with the sweet talk' to Jeanette MacDonald, as Mary Blake, in the Barbary Coast's mythical Paradise Saloon. At the movie's premiere, some of the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake became ill during the extraordinary quake sequence and left the theatre. Folks are made of sterner stuff these days and the film is shown without incident every April 18 at the Castro Theatre to mark the disaster. And when a plucky MacDonald stands among the rubble and intones, 'San Francisco open your golden gates!' all present sing along.


Like Seattle, San Francisco has a wild, rambunctious past linked to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s; perhaps that accounts for its unshakeable sense of self-identity. No American city looks like it and none feels like it. It has the sort of physical appeal that travel guides like to call quaint. Its urban composition is imprinted upon us whether we realise it or not, making a visit, first or repeat, an exercise in overt and subliminal recognition. The city has been the setting for more memorable movie scenes than can be recounted, including the classic car chase in Bullitt up and down hills where residents still put bricks behind their rear wheels when parking, swathes of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and slabs of Dirty Harry.


By the time Otis Redding headed for the Frisco Bay to sit on his legendary dock, it was the end point of the western world's most heavily trodden pilgrimage trail, particularly for the young. In 1963, San Francisco was the hippest, hottest most evocative city in the world and the people that mattered were flooding in - to look, to live, to luxuriate in its atmosphere.


The city became a magnet for those who sought a truly alternative lifestyle and for a relatively short time, before buses began ferrying in gawking tourists to the Haight-Ashbury area to marvel at hippies, 'heads' and wanderers, it really was a brave new world.


Then, in the early 70s, gay men began buying cheap houses in Eureka Valley, giving birth to the Castro district, which is now a thriving centre of restaurants, nightlife, shopping and accommodation. Nearby Mount Davidson is the highest point in the city, at 286 metres, offering sweeping views of the bay (when it's not blanketed by fog).


A stroll down Haight Street reveals more tattoo parlours and lingerie salons than head shops but there


is an engaging piece of street theatre by a man behind the frame of a television set. At the end, by Golden Gate Park, where tear gas once broke up riots and more than a few rampant young protesters procreated productively beneath the bushes, there is the cavernous Amoeba Records store, which is worth a day of your stay.


Not that one needs to go looking for music; it is with you every moment you're in the city by the bay. The songs keep coming at you, a constant celebration. Let's Go to San Francisco by the Flower Pot Men, We Built This City by Starship, Lights by Journey, San Francisco (You've Got Me) by the Village People, San Francisco Days by Chris Isaak, San Francisco by Vanessa Carlton and San Francisco Bay Blues by ... well, just about everybody (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton included). It's more than your head may be able to handle.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Muni (the San Francisco Municipal Railway) operates a mass-transit system throughout the city. Its Metro Streetcars travel underground downtown and on the streets in outlying neighbourhoods. The Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason Street, Nob Hill (tel: 415 772 5000; www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco) is the writer's hotel of choice. See www.sfgate.com/traveler/guide, cityguide.aol.com/sanfrancisco or sanfrancisco.about.com for more information.