In 1966, Steve Miller was a young Texas blues guitarist who flipped a coin to see if he’d drive his Volkswagen Bus east to New York or west to a city he kept hearing about.
“There was a pulse about it, as if you could put an ear to a railroad track and all you’d hear was, ‘San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco,” he says.
The 23-year-old pulled into town on a sunny afternoon and went to the fabled Fillmore West just in time to catch Grace Slick being appointed the new lead singer of one of the city’s hippest bands, Jefferson Airplane.
“It was such a cool, small scene, with everyone involved in music and posters and light shows and writing,” recalls Miller, 79. “The group of people who started this thing were idealistic in a period of time that wasn’t cynical. It was all about the art.”
Anyone curious about those halcyon San Francisco days, sandwiched as they were between the Beatniks and Altamont, now has a vivid new guide, “San Francisco Sounds: A Place In Time” a two-part documentary that concludes Aug. 27 on MGM+.
Pairing revelatory archival footage with insightful musician voice-overs, the documentary artfully dissects the evolution, heyday and ultimate demise of a roughly four-year scene, from 1965 through 1969, that often is referred to by the compressed moniker, the Summer of Love.
Miller is one such guide, along with audio clips from some living (Slick, Mickey Hart) but mostly deceased icons including Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin. They all provide reflections on the joys and schisms that resulted from a wholly organic and quasi-utopian gathering that ultimately, in Miller’s view, was ruined by drugs and money.
“There was a dark side, sure, but there was so much beauty,” he says.
‘Oh those Sunday afternoons’: Jam sessions with the Dead, Janis and Santana
Most of that came courtesy of the almost inconceivably diverse mix of talent that was drawn to the city, specifically the now famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets.
“Oh those Sunday afternoon jam sessions and shows, there was just music going all the time,” Miller recalls with a giddy laugh. “There was Big Brother and the Holding Company, and their singer, Janis. There was the Grateful Dead, John Handy, John Lee Hooker, Santana, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who could play three wind instruments at the same time. It was just an incredible scene that didn’t exist anywhere else.”
There were also bands who at the time seemed destined for immortality, but now only diehards may remember, groups such as The Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Moby Grape. There were politically minded theater troupes, too, such as one led by future acting star, Peter Coyote. But, mostly it was about the music.
Orchestrating that magic and mayhem were producers Chet Helms and Bill Graham, both circus masters par excellence who knew how to drum up an audience with now-collectible posters and hold them with extravagant proto-light shows.
Of the two, Graham, who died in 1991 in a helicopter crash after returning from a Huey Lewis concert, became the most famous, both revered and feared.
Graham was known for launching Santana, championing the Grateful Dead and, memorably, making sure his concerts introduced young hippies to legends such as Miles Davis and Etta James. He was also a cantankerous businessman who, as the documentary makes clear, could be vicious when crossed.
“Bill was a believer, whether you liked him or not,” says Miller. “I liked him and I didn’t, because he was so disagreeable to work with. There’d be a sold out show, and yet he’d be out front aruguing with some hippie about something. But you can’t deny his huge role in all of what happened in San Francisco.”
Miller on Jimi Hendrix: ‘He looked like Eartha Kitt’
Miller remembers the scene getting so globally hot around 1968 that suddenly a steady stream of legendary bands made sure to make pitstops in a city often dubbed Baghdad by the Bay.
“I remember (Eric Clapton and) Cream showing up and they played for 1,000 people for two weeks, same with other English bands like the Moody Blues,” he says. “And then there was Jimi.”
Hendrix had made a big splash at the nearby Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he physically assaulted his amplifier and lit his Fender Stratocaster on fire. Asked about his first impression of the new American guitar sensation, Miller chuckles.
“I thought he looked like (the actress) Eartha Kitt, that’s what I thought,” he says.
“But man, he was cool as could be,” he continues. “I had seen guitar showmen growing up in Texas, guys like T-Bone Walker taught me how to play with the guitar behind my head. I’d seen people do what Jimi was now doing, but he simply astounded everyone. He was so powerful.”
The alchemy that was going on in San Francisco ultimately fueled the rise of new bands less anchored to psychedelia and folk rock, bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and the irrepressible Sly and the Family Stone. Local radio station KSAN, with its pioneering female DJ Dusty Street, pumped out the hits, which seemed to be never ending.
Where bands once shared the wealth, soon competition and drugs poisoned the scene
But as with most things, the dream did end. Rather, as part two of “San Francisco Sounds” makes clear, it was shattered. What had begun as an experimental lifestyle among young friends who wanted to counter the horrors of the Vietnam War and societal racism with a more egalitarian world view became a victim of its own success.
Bands that had once shared resources, equipment and lovers now were competing for recording contracts, airplay and fame.
A street scene that saw most doors left unlocked became rife with drug-fueled crime. If they didn’t leave the region entirely, many bands moved north over the Golden Gate Bridge to escape the mayhem, which was punctuated by the haunting and unsolved Zodiac killer murders.
As for Miller, he eventually left as well, moving to Oregon, but not before scoring a huge hit with his 1973 album “The Joker,” which found him playing huge arenas and courting exhaustion.
“I remember coming off stage at some coliseum somewhere and handing my guitar to my roadie and saying ‘I don’t care if I never do this again,’” says Miller, who in fact still tours to this day.
Miller, a 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, confesses he was never quite as happy as when he made that decision to point his old van towards San Francisco back in 1966. Although those were lean years – he actually lived in that Volkswagen – they also were filled with experimentation, growth, hope and joy.
“I think about those times constantly,” he says softly. “For me, it was nothing short of a renaissance.”