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Rich Unterberger brings rare rock flicks to the Haight 

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
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On a foggy Wednesday night last month, 60 rock fans crowded onto folding chairs, plastic blocks, and floor mats in the basement of the itty bitty Park Branch Library in the Haight. The audience paid little attention to the long table set with juice and coffee, keeping its focus on a big screen where local music historian - Traci Vogel was projecting select Summer of Love clips. For two hours, Unterberger cracked open a window to the past, airing an unadulterated view of a world that's become snowed with nostalgia hype and poor excuses for repackaging tie-dye. In this dank room, there was no swirly lettered fanfare. Instead, Unterberger's rare 1967 footage showed the fantastic (The Beatles recording "All You Need is Love" in a rock royalty bash, with Keith Moon and Mick Jagger included in the revelry) to the bizarre (a Pink Floyd interview with Austrian musicologist Hans Keller, who acted personally insulted at the volume of the band, and repeatedly asked Syd Barrett only about why his band was so impolitely loud).

My favorite bits from these 20 clips shed light on the schism between straight, older society and the hippie youth back then. I take for granted that mainstream society is by now fairly used to kids who pierce the odd body part or tangle their locks into hairstyle statements. In the '60s, weirdness wasn't tolerated, let alone understood by the older generation. In a 1967 CBS documentary The Hippie Temptation, a reporter discusses the Grateful Dead and its following like he's poking at a dangerous cannibal tribe with a long stick. His condescension is so extreme it's hilarious. He generalizes the hippie genus as a group that rarely has the capacity to work, and he asks viewers of his subjects, "What are we to make of these grotesqueries?"

"There seemed to be a huge divide between how people presenting [television coverage] looked at it and how the people participating in it viewed themselves," says Unterberger of the hippie movement. "The [Grateful Dead] is playing in the park and everyone is looking like they're having a really good time. They're not killing people or shooting people. It's almost wholesome in a way, and then you have a guy sitting there saying, 'This is awful.'"

Unterberger isn't showing old rock movies to relive some golden memories. At 45 years old, the Philadelphia native is too young to have caught Big Brother & the Holding Company or Moby Grape the first time around. But since the age of 8, he has been intensely curious about the history behind the music he loves. Eight thousand records later, the collector spends his days researching his latest rock history project. He's written six music books, on subjects ranging from '60s folk and eccentric '60s visionaries to, most impressively — or obsessively — a 300,000-word tome on unreleased Beatles footage called The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film. His work has led him to collect rare film snippets, of which he estimates he possesses "a few hundred DVDs and VHS tapes," and which he curates for public display every other month at the Page Street library.

The Wednesday evening showcases are always free and generally fairly participatory. Unterberger plays a couple of clips at a time and adds whatever insight he's learned about either the footage or the band itself. He also invites questions and comments from the audience. "If you watch this stuff on YouTube, you don't get the context from me or any comparable expert," he says. "I try to present the events very informally, though, so it's not like a college course or a lecture." He adds that there's a real hunger for seeing movies on a big screen, without the distractions of home computer viewing. "People who go to my shows like to see stuff all at once that they would not know to look for. It's a communal thing," he says. His presentations are announced through his personal mailing list and that of the libraries around the Bay Area where he hosts his rock 'n' roll screenings. "It's amazing that I'm doing 25 events a year like this right now, because I was one of those kids in school who never raised their hand and was really shy," he says. "But you learn to do this if you're really passionate."

Unterberger generally steers clear of theme nights, but his next screening continues the idea of the previous one: on Oct. 17 he'll present "Indian Summer of Love." At the request of a Page Street librarian, he's spent this season focused on material that dovetails with the Summer of Love 40th anniversary, even as he shares his cynicism with the ways it has thus far been packaged for the public.

"There would be interest in the 40th anniversary whether it was tied to CDs and movies or not," he says, "but I think the reason that there are CD compilations coming out now is that there is some realization that the music industry is in trouble. So many people are downloading or exchanging files and even if they waited a couple of more years there might not be as big a market for the box set of the 40th anniversary. It gives record labels an excuse to hang something on when they want to sell something all over again." He adds that if you're into a band, you should pick up the music regardless of how much time has passed. "Why should it matter if it was 15 years ago or 20 years ago, why do you have to wait for them to put it out for the 20th anniversary edition?" he asks. "But it seems to be how a lot of marketers think."

On a recent visit to the Haight, the Oakland resident describes where the Jefferson Airplane house used to be, over on the Fulton side of Golden Gate Park. He adds that singer Grace Slick was in another act called the Great Society before she was in Jefferson Airplane. Unterberger pegs that early act as the "most interesting San Francisco group that not many people know about" for the ways in which it borrowed from Middle Eastern and Indian music, as well as free jazz. But alas, the group split before someone could visually record them. "They were a great group, very different from Jefferson Airplane," he says, "but unfortunately there's no film footage." And with that, Unterberger heads off to the downtown library to research his next book. This one will be on a band that released a groundbreaking record in 1967 but that, he laments, remains uncelebrated in all the Summer of Love sentiment — the Velvet Underground.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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