If a city is lucky, someone has sung a song about it. If a city is really lucky, someone has sung a song so evocative that millions of Americans hear it and think, “I haven’t lived until I go there.”
San Francisco has two such songs: Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”
Taken together, these songs contain the essence of the generation gap that defined the 1960s and forged the culture wars that still play out in American politics. And, as is often the case with such cultural touchstones, they have been adorned with legends that don’t quite comport with reality.
Bennett may represent a ring-a-ding, “Mad Men” old guard, while McKenzie sang the song of young hippies eager to expel their parents’ ancient attitudes toward sex and propriety. But Bennett put his song on the charts just five years before McKenzie hit the studio.
In fact, Tony Bennett was born just 13 years before McKenzie, who spent most of his adult life in Virginia and Southern California — and who died last weekend.
But McKenzie’s effect on San Francisco shouldn’t be understated. Along with Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, McKenzie created the soundtrack for the Summer of Love, that moment that defined San Francisco as the epicenter of 1960s counterculture.
McKenzie’s song, and the Haight-Ashbury scene it evoked, may have been all too easily ridiculed as populated by naive, patchouli-stinking flower children. With its lyrics about “gentle people” and “love-ins,” the song embodied all the most facile caricatures of the era.
But for millions of young Americans, McKenzie, who died Saturday at the age of 73, helped create the legend of San Francisco as a place where you could escape your small-town life and reinvent yourself. You could be gay or lesbian and live in the Castro. You could start a punk band and live in the Lower Haight. You could don a fedora, drink martinis and board with four other retro-Bennett hipsters in a Mission walk-up.
San Francisco has always had something of a boomtown vibe, but McKenzie helped make The City’s bohemian reputation an endless self-fulfilling prophecy. Legions of young, smart, interesting misfits flocked to San Francisco, merely because they heard it was the place to go.
Although The City is now a little too expensive for the freaks who used to define it, San Francisco still lures in the creative and the weird. Today, they make websites and social media platforms, or crowd-sourced art happenings that boggle the mind.
McKenzie never really produced much after “San Francisco.” He led a quiet life, far away from the scene he celebrated for just over three minutes. But he helped create a fictional city of artists, writers, nomads and oddities. And that fiction birthed a real city. Everyone who has ever arrived on its shores, dreaming of an interesting life, owes him a debt.