San Francisco’s Musical Legacy Remembered

Greg Gaar’s photo archive, now available online, documents the city’s rock & roll history.

Jello Biafra, lead singer of San Francisco punk band the Dead Kennedys, stands onstage buck naked — save for a pair of engineer boots — illuminated by the glare of a spotlight. The legendary Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead smokes a joint, blissing out in Golden Gate Park. “Renée the dancer,” a figure well-known to hardcore concertgoers in the city’s hippie scene, bends backward like a contortionist, eyes closed, barefoot, long-haired.

It’s hard to choose a favorite among San Francisco photojournalist and diehard environmentalist Greg Gaar’s extraordinary collection of 1,114 concert photos — taken between 1972 and 1989 at venues across the Bay Area — through which icons of the city’s eclectic and vibrant music history live on.

Patti Smith. Photo courtesy of Greg Gaar

Gaar’s collection was recently made available to the public through the historic photograph archive, OpenSFHistory.org, which is run by the Western Neighborhoods Project, a community history nonprofit. 

“People are losing their minds,” says Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the project. “Deadheads, in particular, they’re going nuts.” 

Unlike many of the tens of thousands of historic San Francisco photographs scanned on OpenSFHistory’s website, Meldahl says, Gaar’s photographs capture experiences that a lot of San Francisco residents are old enough to remember. 

The sheer size of the collection itself is impressive, and it brings a lot of stars up close and personal. But it’s the man behind the camera that’s at the heart of these images.

“What makes this archive unique is Greg,” Meldahl says, when asked about the significance of the photographs. “This is a man that loves San Francisco and is always in the right place at the right time.”

The following interview with Gaar has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m 22, born and raised in San Francisco, and looking through these photographs, I see a place I hardly recognize.

I’m 72, so half a century older than you. It’s not as it was when I was a kid. I go downtown and I hardly recognize it. There’s more people, more cars, more congestion. It’s like rats in a cage. If you’re not mentally ill now, you’re not normal.

Creative people used to be able to live affordably in he city in the early ’70s. I lived in the Haight-Ashbury with three roommates in a big Queen Anne Victorian from 1896, and we each paid $50 rent per month. If you wanted to be an artist, or play Frisbee in the park, or sit in the sun and smoke pot all day, you could do it with that rent.

Now, you basically have to be a wealthy person to live in San Francisco. The only reason I can stay is because I inherited the family home. 

Did you ever think about leaving?

No, I’m not going to leave San Francisco. I’m too bonded to the city. I was even named after a 49er, Garland Gregory. I went to all the 49er games. 

I think I’m so attached to this place because I was in the Navy for four years, and I got very homesick. I managed to survive, but I wanted to make up for lost time in the city. Right when I got out, I went to Glen Canyon and collaged one of the rocks down there. Looking back, it’s such a stupid thing to do. 

When did you start shooting?

I used my parents’ box camera for a while in the mid-’60s. In the Navy, I had an Instamatic. I took quite a few pictures of Bangkok, of the boiler room where I worked. When I got out of the Navy, I went to City College on the GI Bill and took the entire photography curriculum. I became a real hardcore photojournalist, wandering the streets of San Francisco with my camera. 

You think the rock and roll pictures are intense? I took pictures of people getting shot to death, drownings at the beach, people getting beat up, a lot of homeless people in South of Market after it was demolished for Moscone Center. I’ve got 20,000 images of San Francisco. Those photos are going up on OpenHistorySF soon, too.

The Rolling Stones. Photo courtesy of Greg Gaar

How did you get into the rock and roll, and then the punk, scenes?

I was a big fan, I started shooting concerts in ’73. I was into the San Francisco sound, any music that came out of San Francisco during the Summer of Love—the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service. 

I had a button machine so I could make buttons out of my photographs and sell them, just to make enough money so I could get into the show. 

The first punk band I saw was the Sex Pistols at Winterland. Then there were all the local bands, the Avengers, the Nuns. To me, punk was the real rock and roll. It was incredibly loud, very offensive, talking about social injustice, about sex, teenage alcoholics. I just loved it. I was old to be going to those shows, I was 40, there with all the kids with safety pins in their noses. I was the old guy.

Why did you decide to house all these photos on OpenSFHistory.org?

I still have the negatives. When I die, they can have them—I won’t give a shit at that point. In 2012, I had open heart surgery. And after I got out, I realized I’ve got this incredible collection of stuff and I’ve got to get it to somebody who will take care of them. 

Jerry Garcia. Photo courtesy of Greg Gaar

Can you talk about some of your favorite photographs in the collection? 

There’s one I keep on my mantle and it’s one of my favorites, Peter Townshend, lead guitarist from the Who, leaping in the air at the Oakland Coliseum on October 10, 1976, when they played with the Grateful Dead. That was a great show. 

And of course the photos of Jerry Garcia up close and personal. He was really a normal guy. He’d talk about going to Balboa High, I’d talk about going to Lowell. His riffs just took you way out into the cosmos and then brought you back to earth again. 

It’s bittersweet to go through these photos of carefree masses of bodies at a time when concerts and clubs are shut down and many people feel very isolated and the world feels in crisis.

Well, I can’t believe that we’re going to be in these dark ages forever. And, you know, after the influenza epidemic of 1918, eventually we got into the roaring ’20s. The Jazz Age.

You’re hopeful for a renaissance?

Yeah, but I’m not going to the shows anymore. I enjoy music from my home now, I don’t have to be in the crowds. And I can hardly hear since my hearing is so bad from going to all those shows.

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