June 4: The Oregon legacy of poet Joaquin Miller

SAN FRANCISCO — I missed the Summer of Love.

I graduated from high school in 1967, five months after Timothy Leary called upon 30,000 young people gathered at Golden Gate Park to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

That was in January. By June, more than 100,000 “hippies,” some of them my classmates who were enthralled by Leary’s “Human Be-In,” arrived in the City by the Bay with flowers in their hair. They camped in Golden Gate Park or shared quarters in the adjacent Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, inspired by acid-rock bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

I didn’t make it to San Francisco until the following summer, after my freshman year in college. A University of Oregon classmate invited me to visit for a week. We spent our days in the city, mingling with the hippies in the Haight and the beatniks on Columbus Avenue. Specific memories blur.

But I have never forgotten the week’s highlight: Watching Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, perform “Piece of My Heart” and other “Cheap Thrills” at the Winterland Auditorium.

This was revolutionary, a life-changing moment. Certainly, the San Francisco Sound had long since migrated to Eugene, but listening to music on a home stereo or FM radio (back then, it was too radical for AM) couldn’t be compared to the live experience of watching through a haze of marijuana smoke as Joplin screamed the blues.

Over the years, I saw other Summer of Love bands perform — the Dead and the Airplane among them — but I never saw Joplin sing again. Two years later, at age 27, she died of a heroin overdose.

Summer of Love

I returned to those days of yesteryear earlier this month: I visited San Francisco as it began celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, whose impact on subsequent American culture far outlasted those few months. Golden Gate Park’s de Young Museum, one of the two outstanding Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is mounting an exhibition of the art and fashion of that era. On its gallery walls, I discovered the actual silk-screened poster from that Joplin concert.

To be honest, the exhibit itself was a little disappointing. There just wasn’t enough music, which had been the medium that drove the summer’s magic bus. The first several galleries displayed text, photos, posters, pins and period clothing, but not even the audio tour buds played the Charlatans nor Quicksilver Messenger Service for visitors who studied these bands’ black-and-white portraits.

It wasn’t until the last room of the tour, just before the Summer of Love gift shop, that visitors could plunge themselves into musical memories.

Even here, relaxing into shag-covered beanbags strewn across the floor as a liquid light show added psychedelic motion to plain white walls, little excitement was evoked by listening to “Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

But that one June 1968 poster, with Joplin’s face hiding behind oversized glasses to promote shows at the Fillmore and Winterland, provided all the reminiscence I needed. I had searched the walls, hung with dozens of late ’60s posters, until I found it. “Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco: Big Brother and the Holding Company!” it read, also naming the supporting acts — England’s soulful Foundations and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, whose leader, I recall, presented himself in a flaming robe as “the god of hellfire!”

Modern art

Art may be public, but it’s also very personal. Each of us responds differently to any individual piece of visual art, whether classic or impressionist. The same is true of performance art and culinary art. San Francisco has plenty of it all, and the city’s rebellious spirit encourages each person to behold those works in their own, individual way.

Combining food and art is something that the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) does exceptionally well. Reopening a year ago following three years of redevelopment, the museum has added one of the city’s most adventurous and highly acclaimed new restaurants to its ground floor.

In Situ, the brainchild of James Beard Award-winning chef Corey Lee, features recipes from a world of acclaimed chefs — 80 in all, typically 20 at a time. He’s currently featuring 11 chefs from five European countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) plus Brazil, Canada, Japan, Turkey, two from Washington and two from California.

Served in a minimalist atmosphere, the menu ranges from such simple dishes as caramelized carrot soup ($7) to complex plates like “The Voyage from the Indies” ($36), a wild John Dory fish served with cabbage, turmeric and a mango-apple compote, from French-Breton chef Olivier Roellinger. All are marvelously rendered by chef de cuisine Brandon Rogers.

The best time to visit In Situ, I’m convinced, is at midday with a reservation. That will enable an extended visit, at either end of the meal, to SFMoMA’s seven floors of exhibits. Look for works by Gauguin, Magritte, Matisse, Picasso, Rivera and Kahlo, along with Pollock, Rothko and Warhol. There’s also a great photography gallery, featuring Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and Alfred Stieglitz.

No art can be as modern, of course, as what is just being painted. And while there is street art throughout the city’s Mission District, nowhere is it as concentrated as in Clarion Alley, Balmy Alley and adjacent lanes from 17th to 25th from Mission to Valencia streets. Beginning in the mid-1980s, walls, fences and doors have been painted in vivid colors, often as social justice and political statements, by an artists’ collective.

More museums

A greater selection of classic and international art is on display at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The de Young, where the Summer of Love exhibition is continuing through Aug. 20, features 10 galleries of American art of the 18th through 20th centuries, along with more traditional arts of Latin America, Africa and Oceania. It also has a 144-foot observation tower that affords a central view across the entire Bay Area at no additional charge beyond museum admission.

The Legion of Honor, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge at Lincoln Park in the northwest part of the city, specializes in yet earlier art, from pre-Christian Greek and Roman sculpture to European and British art of the 1600s to 1800s. Think Rembrandt, Degas, Gainsborough. It is currently beginning a summer exhibit on the medical mysteries of ancient Egyptian mummies, while continuing a show on the work of Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer, whose sculpture — oddly juxtaposed with pieces from the permanent collection — has been termed as “subversive” by some critics.

I’m a particular fan of the Asian Art Museum, which faces San Francisco City Hall on the Civic Center plaza. Its principal exhibits, which take up the entire and third floors, can take hours to explore. They begin with the art of India and the Muslim Mideast, then wind through Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, China, Korea and Japan, covering more than 25 centuries of history.

Temporary exhibits include pieces recently excavated from royal tombs of China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). And not to be outdone by the de Young during this Summer of Love, a “Flower Power” exhibit will start on June 24 and continue through September. Displays of painted porcelain, textiles and scrolls will feature everything from blooming lotuses to falling cherry blossoms in a variety of Asian cultures.

Performance venues

Theater takes all different forms in San Francisco, as well.

One of the best-known venues is the Curran Theatre, a presence in the Theater District (just west of Union Square) since 1922. Over the years, it has hosted more pre-Broadway engagements than any other theater in the city, including “Peter Pan” (1954), “Oliver!” (1962), “Gigi” (1973) and, more recently, “Wicked” (2003). And national Broadway tours have also found a home at the Curran, including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables” and “Jersey Boys.” During a 16-month renovation that concluded in January of this year, the theater presented a series of nontraditional works titled “Under Construction,” during which audience members sat on the stage itself.

For decades now, I’ve been making semi-regular visits to “Beach Blanket Babylon,” an ongoing production at Club Fugazi in the North Beach neighborhood. Now in its 44th year, this boisterous 90-minute musical keeps the same story line — Snow White, searching for true love — but a cast of characters that change according to the political and cultural triggers of the era. This production featured the Trumps, the Obamas and the Clintons, of course, as well as Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, Caitlyn Jenner, Madonna and the King himself: Elvis Presley. (Outside the theater, I saw a woman wearing this T-shirt in the spirit of the show: “Liberté! Egalité! Beyoncé!”)

On the inside cover of the “BBB” program was an enigmatic advertisement for another show that we may not otherwise have discovered. Our spontaneous decision to book tickets for the following night turned out to be one of the best choices of our San Francisco visit. “The Speakeasy” sent us into an underground, Prohibition-era bar, an illegal casino and a vaudeville cabaret — in other words, my kind of place.

In fact, this was immersion theater at its best. My evening companion and I immediately became a part of a drama, unfolding around us, that extended through the Roaring Twenties, from the end of World War I to the start of the Great Depression. We were seated amidst 35 actors, young and old, mobsters and chorus girls, gamblers and bartenders, some of them lamenting the loss of a loved one, others looking for romance or a big financial score. It was the kind of show you want to see over and over again.

Dining discoveries

Art and theater feed the soul, but they don’t nourish the physical body. In San Francisco, there’s never a problem finding somewhere interesting to eat. And I found several restaurants, new and old, to tempt me.

I was most impressed with Le Colonial, whose address on Cosmo Place might mislead the best of city searchers. For nearly 20 years, this French-Vietnamese restaurant has been at home on an urban courtyard, 2½ blocks west of Union Square, that once housed the legendary Trader Vic’s. The mood is that of Saigon during its French colonial era (palm fronds, rattan furniture, ceiling fans), and the food is exquisite: Sea bass steamed in banana leaves with sweet-potato noodles, rack of lamb marinated in hoisin sauce and served with haricots verts.

Chambers eat + drink has a curious location, between Union Square and the Civic Center in a renovated, retro-style hotel-motel at the edge of the gritty Tenderloin district. Its publicity says bands like Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers hang out here when they’re in town, and indeed, this restaurant’s décor is dominated by library shelves of old stereo records. The tapas-inspired menu is driven by dishes like crispy pork belly (with fig confit and black lentils) and yellowfin tuna tartare (with lime-coconut milk and avocado puree).

The Dorian, in the heart of the Marina District, is much more than the neighborhood dive bar it may first appear to be. While its whiskey drinks are indeed a highlight, its well-executed menu features a killer entrée of Maine diver scallops with grapes, walnuts, sweet potatoes and vanilla cream. And for those who really want to indulge, the $32 Dorian burger is topped with foie gras torchon and truffled cheese.

San Francisco seafood lovers know very well that Fisherman’s Wharf is the go-to destination for freshly caught fish entrees. Halfway out Pier 39, the Pier Market Seafood Restaurant offers a garlic-roasted whole Dungeness crab, easily big enough to feed two when coupled with a salad.

For lunch, Barcha is a bright and breezy new cafe, just south of Market Street between SFMoMA and the Embarcadero, with excellent salads and small plates of the Greek-Turkish variety. At the month-old Kagawa-ya Udon Noodle Company, on Market near the Civic Center, diners can watch as Asian chefs make their own noodles for multiple varieties of seasoned soups.

The Presidio Social Club, meanwhile, is a throwback to the era when this beautiful national parkland, beside the Golden Gate, was a military reservation. Once a barracks, built in 1903, its lunch and dinner menus offer such classics as macaroni and cheese and liver and onions, but also contemporary dishes like a vegan roast with coconut curry and quinoa.

It may have been hard to find a meal like that 50 years ago, but it’s apropos for the new edition of the Summer of Love.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com .

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