Mike Katz and Crispin Kott, self-described “rock and roll soulmates,” have done it again. With the recently published Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area, they’ve captured the magical city’s musical legacy with the same tireless attention to detail, snappy writing and eye-catching graphics utilized to perfection in their previous Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City. We spoke to Crispin and Mike to get the lowdown on the ‘City by the Bay’ to which Tony Bennett donated his heart.
by Alan Bisbort
When many people think of San Francisco and ‘rock and roll,’ the overriding image that comes to mind is the Grateful Dead playing marathon free concerts on The Panhandle or in Golden Gate Park for an audience of acid-soused hippies, noodling barefoot in the grass. Well, yeah, why not? That and the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, psychedelic posters on every wall, underground comix and all that other good trippy stuff.
All of that, of course, is covered, in mind-blowing detail, in Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area (Globe Pequot) by Mike Katz and Crispin Kott. Did you know, for example, that Grace Slick and Jorma Kaukonen were racing their cars one night after a recording session on Doyle Drive and she hit a concrete barrier at 80 mph? (Mike and Crispin knew this! And they included the exact spot of the crash in this guide book!). They offer similarly detailed, annotated listings of all the landmarks, hangouts, residences, recording studios, clubs, and famous events associated with Haight Ashbury, the Acid Tests, the head shops, the entire hippie scene, pre- and post-.
Bay Area music history is about so much more than what was happening in the Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom for a few years in the late ‘60s.
But this book is not a nostalgia guide to the Summer of Love. No, just as they did in their New York City volume, Katz and Kott take a far, far wider view of the area, flashing back to the 1940s when the city’s Fillmore District became known as “the Harlem of the West” and sister-city Oakland was home to a thriving R&B and blues scene, offering interesting details about places where the events, and their major players lived, worked, played, etc. From there, the intrepid tandem move forward through the 1950s with the incredibly vibrant scenes, mostly centered in the North Beach area, associated with the Beat Generation, but including the early days of the standup comics like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, the jazz-accompanied poetry readings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the latter a now deservedly iconic figure in the city’s history, the coffee shops, folk clubs, strip clubs (yes, they include the Condor and Carol Doda, so you know this book sweats the proper details). Then, of course, they hit the 1960s when all hell broke loose in the Bay Area, not just in the Haight, but in Berkeley, Marin County, Sausalito, Palo Alto, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Monterey….yes, yes, all of that amazing confluence of flowering subcultures is included herein.
And yet, while most 1960s nostalgia buffs would stop right there, Mike and Crispin just keep going, to include the Castro District, a launching pad for both Latino music and the Gay community in the City, the latter led by one Sylvester James, Jr., who came to notice performing with the Cockettes and then fronted his own “Hot Band,” to lead the disco charge on the West Coast in the 1970s.
And, last but not least, they cover the punk beat in San Francisco that was, more or less, put on the larger map by the Sex Pistols’ final concert at the Winterland Ballroom on Jan. 14, 1978 (the same stage where, two years earlier, The Band performed their “last waltz”). At that show, the Nuns and the Avengers, two SF punk bands, opened for the Pistols, giving notice to the world that the city had a thriving punk scene of its own, one that had been going on for awhile. After that show, that scene was centered at Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant near the North Beach strip clubs. From there, the gospel was spread in the 1980s to Berkeley (ground zero: 924 Gilman) and other East Bay redoubts of punk and hardcore and whatever else you wanna call it. In short, there ain’t a single dag-blasted scene that occurred within a drone’s range of San Francisco that doesn’t get its props herein. (If there’d been one on Alcatraz, you can bet these boys would be on it).
How the heck did these two guys manage to capture all this in one handsome, 238-page volume, part narrative, part travel guide, part reference book?
Well, we sought them out and asked them just that.
PKM: This is, of course, the second Rock and Roll Explorer Guide you’ve collaborated on. The first being NYC. Which of the two cities were you most familiar with before embarking on these projects?
Mike Katz: My family hails from New York, so I would often visit as a child, then spent most of my adult life there learning and absorbing everything I could. Like many, I worked hard to make it my home and become the person I wanted to be, more or less. The roots I put down will not be unearthed easily. San Francisco I knew mostly from reading and popular culture. I had been there a couple of times on business, but never really knew it in a more intimate way. For this new book I gave myself a crash course in its history and culture to give context to the music we were planning to write about. I spent a lot of time researching the geography and uniqueness of the various districts as well, since that would be essential to what we wanted to present.
Crispin Kott: I grew up in and around New York, and I lived in Brooklyn for a long time until last summer. But I’ve also lived in San Francisco twice before, and I’ve visited often since then. So I think New York City was definitely more familiar, but even when I wasn’t living here I spent a lot of time in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. I’ve lived in various cities, but outside of New York this is the only one that’s ever really felt like home.
PKM: I ask because judging from your authors’ bios, you both have been fairly itinerant people, bouncing between coasts like pinballs and occasionally hitting places in between, like Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans. Did you both relocate to the West Coast (Crispin in Oakland, Mike in Monterey) to write this book?
CK: Most of the book was finished before I moved to Oakland last summer (it was originally supposed to come out in June 2020 before the pandemic delayed it by almost a full year), though I spent a lot of time over the past few years doing practical research in the Bay Area because my wife and I would spend a few weeks each summer here. She grew up in Oakland, and we both have lots of friends and family in the area.
MK: I knew I needed to spend a considerable amount of time in California to complete the book, but it also provided a nice change of scenery at a difficult time. My personal and professional life in New York was going nowhere, and as we know, it’s a painful place to struggle. Rather than risk sliding down into Ratso Rizzo-hood, it made more sense to shove my non-essentials into storage and just move. It also made for a softer place to be during COVID, though of course I feel guilty about it. Where will I eventually end up? Who the hell knows.
PKM: Which city, between New York and San Francisco, has retained more of its rock ‘n’ roll past?
MK: San Francisco, probably because the spirit of the ‘60s, through its intersection of music, culture, and politics, continues to influence life and attract people to this day, despite the fact that it has become insanely expensive.
CK: There are remnants in both, but I’d agree that San Francisco probably has the edge. Both cities have not only seen their skylines change over the past 40 or 50 years, but also their affordability, and that inevitably changes the character of a city too. But San Francisco and the Bay Area have managed to hang onto enough of the outlaw, antiestablishment vibe that you can almost look over your shoulder and spot the past.
PKM: I knew all about the 1960s stuff, but I was surprised to learn about San Francisco’s blues and jazz scenes and the whole “Harlem of the West” thing (which I first learned about right here on PKM through Richie Unterberger’s great article). What surprised you most about the Bay Area’s musical legacy?
MK: You may know all about the ‘60s, but many do not, and have less appreciation for how revolutionary it was, both musically and culturally, particularly as it recedes into history and mythology. Unfortunately, a lot of musical history is written as though each period or scene happened independently of everything else, which is never the case. All of these moments in time and musical developments are part of a kind of continuum, and that includes the expansion of Black culture that occurred in the Fillmore as a result of World War II and the forced removal of Japanese citizens. Had Charles Sullivan not established the Fillmore Auditorium as a top flight Black entertainment venue in the ‘40s, it would not have become Bill Graham’s legendary home of the San Francisco sound in the ‘60s. These kinds of connections were what surprised me the most and were a lot of fun to research.
CK: I wouldn’t say this surprised me necessarily, but Bay Area music history is about so much more than what was happening in the Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom for a few years in the late ‘60s. That stuff was incredibly important, but San Francisco’s imprint on music and culture didn’t start with that scene and it didn’t end there either. And I hope we’re doing our part to clear that up with the book.
PKM: The audiences for those jazz and blues shows in the Fillmore District were “mixed”—black and white—weren’t they? The Bay Area was ahead of the curve in that department. Not just in San Francisco but in Oakland, too, which you don’t overlook in your book.
MK: How mixed the audiences were depended somewhat on the venues and the performers. Well known artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, or Marvin Gaye certainly attracted plenty of white patrons to the area. The Primalon Ballroom (which no longer exists) was also a kind of nexus of music and Beat culture. Bop City attracted jazz aficionados and celebs in a tiny, after-hours informal setting. Yes, San Francisco was ahead of the curve in that regard, but the Fillmore district was, in some ways, a kind of island in what was still a politically conservative city. By the late ‘60s that community had been mostly expunged through redevelopment. The Black entertainment scene in West Oakland predated the one in San Francisco by a couple of decades and was probably just as historically significant, if not more so. It is less well known today, probably because it catered to a predominantly Black audience and community. It, too, was largely destroyed through civic redevelopment.
PKM: The book opens with my personal favorite neighborhood, North Beach, with everything from the Beat history included, hungry i, City Lights Bookstore, the Condor. In the rush to turn every corner of the city into a haven for billionaires, has San Francisco paid proper homage to the Beats and its many other pockets of the bohemian past?
MK: I think so, generally speaking. Despite redevelopment (a much used word here), North Beach still retains some of its grittiness, at least to my eyes. Long time residents would probably disagree, though! City Lights and the Beat Museum both showcase that generation through its writing, which is, after all, the important thing. Various other places call attention to that era without being ridiculous. Certainly the Beats themselves would have been horrified by some commodified tourist attraction. It’s an interesting question, though. How does a city pay proper respect to its various forms of outlaw culture? It’s an unresolved issue.
CK: North Beach still feels like North Beach, especially if you hit Vesuvio, as Joel Gion suggested in our foreword; and City Lights, which is somehow both classic and current because what they’ve always meant and what they’ve always stood for is still so relevant now. The Condor is still there, as are most of the buildings from the bohemian past. It’s one of the neighborhoods that’s retained as much as possible what made it so unique and inspiring so many years ago.
It’s an interesting question, though. How does a city pay proper respect to its various forms of outlaw culture? It’s an unresolved issue.
PKM: When I was working on a book about the poster artists of the Bay Area, it struck me that the scenes there, at least at their peaks in the 1950s-1960s, seemed to overlap and interweave, more so than in New York. Did you get that sense when you were compiling the entries for this book?
MK: I fully agree, though I’d resist the comparison to New York. San Francisco is a smaller city and the unique intertwining of music, art, literature, and politics was more visibly pronounced and obvious to the public, as well as the rest of the nation during that time, no question.
What we do try to get at, without being too arcane, are the unique qualities that San Francisco had to make it all possible.
CK: The San Francisco punk scene was very interconnected in the late ‘70s, especially because it was clearly “us-against-the-world,” and that also included the previous generation’s form of rebellion. And then in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that happened with the East Bay punk scene, which coalesced around 924 Gilman Street, but also in loads of DIY spots in warehouses. But back to the ‘60s: Skip Spence was the original drummer in Jefferson Airplane before Moby Grape, and later members of the Grateful Dead played on pretty much everyone’s albums. And the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and to a lesser degree Big Brother and the Holding Company tried – and mostly failed – to turn the Carousel Ballroom into a de facto artist-run venue in the first half of 1968 before Bill Graham took it over and turned it into the Fillmore West.
PKM: I was fascinated to learn about Penelope Houston and the SF Punk Archive. Where is it housed? PKM readers want to know: What’s in the archive?
CK: The SF Punk Archive is part of the SF History Center of the San Francisco Public Library located in the main branch on Larkin Street. That part of the library is currently only open to researchers by appointment because of COVID, but it’s ordinarily available to researchers and the general public. The SF Punk Archive is a collection of photos, audio and visual recordings (all formats, with the exception of some reel-to-reel), oral histories, original ephemera (flyers, posters, concert tickets), manuscripts, published materials (articles, books, zines), t-shirts and smaller realia.
The archive is comprised of material relating to punk and its outlying cultures from Northern California covering the years between 1975-1995, and it’s housed in temperature and humidity-controlled locked stacks to preserve it. The archive is still curated by Penelope Houston, who worked in the SF History Center and Special Collections at the SFPL until she retired in July 2020. And they’ve continued receiving materials, even during the pandemic. It’s impossible to understate just how important this archive is, not just to Northern California punk history, but to the greater history of San Francisco and the Bay Area itself.
Women At Work / Season II / Ep. 9 / Penelope Houston – Punk Archivist
And I’d like to add here that Penelope Houston was so generous with her time and memories in helping us put together the San Francisco Punk chapter of the book. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without her help. She’s awesome.
PKM: The photographs are great in both of your guides. While both of you took them, Mike seems to have taken the lion’s share. On the strength of the photos here, and on your Instagram feed, Mike, you should get a job as an architectural historian. Or maybe you already do that on the side?
MK: I’m available! This concept of tying history to specific places has always fascinated me, and it’s one of the main reasons we did the books in this way. Visiting the places where all this great music happened not only humanizes the people who made it but also provides a greater appreciation for their achievements, in my view. As for the photography, San Francisco is a phenomenal subject and must be seen in person to be properly appreciated, but I hope we’ve given people at least a taste, or a crumb, of its beauty. Since I live in Monterey, logistics made it tough to shoot everything I wanted to, but Crispin was able to hit several key locations, and our friends Andi Sumpter and Amy Chase were real troopers tracking down some other important places we needed.
CK: Mike took all the photos in the New York book, and I think maybe that was the original plan for this one as well because he’s got such a great eye. But I spent several days in the summer of 2018 doing research in and around San Francisco, and some of the photos I took turned out better than I expected, and some of those are in the book. I shot two houses in Palo Alto where Grace Slick grew up right after tracking them down in old telephone books in a branch of the Palo Alto Public Library, and that sort of instant gratification while doing research is a nice treat.
San Francisco and the Bay Area have managed to hang onto enough of the outlaw, antiestablishment vibe that you can almost look over your shoulder and spot the past.
PKM: Before embarking on either of these books, did you have a template in mind for how they would be designed? They are quite handsome, like an art book, but sturdy, too, like a travel guide. Was this Globe Pequot’s doing, since they are a travel book publisher, too?
CK: We spent a few years working on the proposal for our first book, the Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City, and we always knew we’d want photos and ephemera in a travel-style book. And at one point a friend of ours who’s a really talented book designer, Alvaro Villanueva, worked up a few great ideas based on our Velvet Underground chapter. And we hoped to be able to work with Alvaro on the actual book, but as we started getting interest from various publishers it became clear that they wanted to handle the design themselves. We actually had a deal with MTV Books first, but not long after we signed the contract, the imprint shut down. That happened quickly enough that they never even put a sample cover together.
So I think we were lucky to land with Globe Pequot, because they have a great design team. We gave them photos and ephemera along with the ordered manuscript, and they did a terrific job with it. Mike was particularly involved in the photo stuff, letting them know where each image should go in the narrative, and we both offered feedback on various drafts. But we’re very fortunate to have worked with them on these books.
MK: We submitted the first book to Globe Pequot because yes, they are a strong travel publisher, but we didn’t have specific demands for how it should look. I have to credit Rick Rinehart, who acquired the first book and determined that it should be full color. The production designer, Kristen Mellitt, along with our first editor Katie O’Dell determined the look and the template, which has only improved with the San Francisco book. Of course, Crispin and I made everyone crazy, including our editor on this one, Amy Lyons. Give us an inch and we become total control freaks. That said, we tried very hard to make a book that was nice to look at but also portable and affordable. Hopefully it’s something that works for both the armchair traveler and the urban explorer.