Last weekend, a literate friend looked at the sidewalk seven paces south of my doorstep and exclaimed, “That's the Tristero's horn.”
She was looking at a blue silk-screened image, about the size of two fists, depicting a bugle with a plug in it.
“That's the muted bugle. It was the symbol of a secret mail service from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49,” she explained.
Pynchon imagined this as the icon of an ancient, secret counterculture called the Tristero, whose symbol the heroine finds again and again in a San Francisco bar, in chalk on a San Francisco street, on a Chinese herbalist's window, on the back of a bus seat. A central conceit of the novel is to never allow the heroine, nor the reader, to ascertain whether this underground counterculture is genuine or not.
Though I have no idea who painted my doorstep symbol, nor the others that are proliferating in the neighborhoods near Haight and Ashbury streets, the artist truly seems to be onto something: The question of whether or not San Francisco's tapestry of underground countercultures is genuine or counterfeit has been popping up all over the city lately, a phenomenon that's intensified during the past couple of weeks.
The threat of bogusness has always hung over S.F.'s famed countercultures.
Though San Francisco enjoys a tourist reputation as the birthplace of the Beats, the hippies, and other anti-establishment movements, the city's true legacy lies in the seamless way we've reconfigured, commercialized, sanitized, drained, and refilled these once-subversive social currents with meaning, so they might better service aboveground marketing and political aims. In this city, it's the hucksters, not the revolutionaries, who've best profited from San Francisco's reputation for a fertile underground.
It's fitting, therefore, that the sidewalks of this city's most famous counterculture neighborhood have become mysteriously festooned with a symbol representing a possible fiction within a work of fiction, about a possibly phony underground movement, whose outward symbols appear all over San Francisco.
Last week, a hep-acting city supervisor continued a months-long rampage in which he's been putting an official City and County of San Francisco imprimatur on every rebellious social movement he can lay his hands upon — thus, by definition, neutralizing their authenticity.
In another instance, Sony Corp. has been decorating the Mission District with tchotchke-selling images designed to look like underground graffiti. Presumably genuine underground graffitists have counterattacked, defacing the images with artful verbal imagery. The contragraffiti, however, has made the Sony product notorious, serving the corporation's marketing ends. Who's authentic now?
Finally, earlier this year a filmmaker released a documentary chronicling the strenuous efforts of portions of one famed S.F. counterculture movement, the Diggers, to remain genuine in the face of commercialization, co-optation, and corruption.
Whether or not they succeeded, well, that's for the reader to decide.
Last week, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, placed a final tombstone over the once-subversive status enjoyed by urban skateboarders by issuing a government proclamation praising skaters' favorite independent magazine on its 25th anniversary.
“Whereas, in the 1980s, when skateboarding was ignored, shunned and criminalized, and skateboarders' alternative dress and behavior caused them to be ostracized, Thrasher Magazine provided skateboarding youth with alternative role models and a sense of community,” said the proclamation, which, by applying an official City Hall seal to a renegade movement, officially put a stake in skating's status as a form of rebellion.
Mirkarimi's been on a City Hall counterculture-co-optation bender as of late. A few months ago, he feted some Black Panthers with an art show in his office featuring Panther work.
“It was intense stuff — 'Die pigs' and all that, and there were Panthers there who had never been in City Hall,” says Mirkarimi, who's given official city acknowledgment to William S. Burroughs, and is looking for an excuse to officially honor the anarchist bookstore Bound Together on Haight Street.
“They've got to have an anniversary or something coming up,” Mirkarimi says.
Which begs the question: What exactly is anarchy when it's formally congratulated as a matter of civil proclamation?
In another sign that the end of the world of cultural rebellion is nigh, imps playing paddle ball with electronic devices, drawn to look as if they had been applied by an outlaw graffitist, have been appearing on the sides of bodegas, apartment buildings, and the like throughout the Mission during the past month or so. They're part of an ad campaign for a Sony portable game, music, and movie-playing device.
Residents infuriated by this bogus outlaw imagery have responded with real graffiti, crossing the images out with red spray paint and defacing them with terms such as “Fony” and “I'll ride a Brompton bicycle, or I'll teabag a mime, before I'll give Sony Corp. another dime,” in reference to a type of dorky foldable bicycle and a type of oral stimulation.
“The commodification of the practice, the craft, of graffiti, with Sony being the epitome of a huge corporation, that they would hire people to deface property in the Mission, I just think that's outrageous,” says Andy Oglesby, a Mission commercial artist who wrote letters to the mayor and to Supervisor Tom Ammiano suggesting the city sue Sony. So far he's gotten no meaningful response, he says.
I commend Oglesby. It has to be difficult to muster outrage for that sort of thing, given that San Francisco is the company town for co-optation of social protest for commercial gain.
The offending ads are for the Sony PlayStation Portable, a more complex competitor to the iPod, made by Apple Corp., another offender in applying profane commercial gloss to the militant past. Apple, as you may recall, plastered San Francisco four years ago with billboards depicting anti-status quo icons Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. The company supposedly wished us to “think different” by purchasing electronic gewgaws.
And counterculture marketing perfected by Bill Graham, by former Esprit de Corp owners Susie and Doug Tompkins, by their legions of San Francisco peers, now infects merchandising worldwide.
Surely, there's somebody out there who's kept it real.
As it happens, the core, original gangsters of San Francisco's hippie counterculture took extraordinary measures to keep from selling out. Members of the Digger movement, which organized the Golden Gate Park Be-Ins that gained national media attention in 1967, actually took steps to keep it real, according to a recent documentary film, Commune, directed by Jonathan Berman.
Many of the Diggers left the co-opted, commercialized, and corrupted San Francisco scene not long after they launched their movement, then struggled mightily to live according to an anti-materialist and anarchist creed. The film, recently featured at this year's edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, chronicles perhaps the most authentic remnant of the 1960s anti-authoritarian ferment that still receives top billing in S.F.'s tour guides. The film documents how members of the 1960s Haight Ashbury Diggers left San Francisco in the 1970s after nationwide media hype, commercialism, heroin, thievery, and psychosis supplanted the Summer of Love.
Described as “street level acid anarchists” by Ken Hoffman in his book Counter Culture Through the Ages, the Diggers organized the Golden Gate Park Be-Ins, published Haight-Ashbury's underground newspaper The Oracle, announced their nonbelief in hoarding possessions by establishing a free store, and gave away free meals in Golden Gate Park.
These weren't the most famous of the 1960s hippie protagonists, the ones who cashed out, such as the Dead, Joplin, Leary, etc. But they were the soul of the San Francisco movement.
According to Hoffman, the Be-In announcement said “a new nation has grown inside the robot flesh of the old,” and “the love generation of Haight Ashbury will join together … to … celebrate and prophesy the epoch of liberation, love, peace, compassion, and unity of mankind.”
After the local ferment soured, Diggers fanned into a diaspora, the most notable of which coalesced onto an isolated plot of land in the Siskiyou Mountains called Black Bear Ranch. Commune describes how the founders scraped money together from donors such as the Doors, the Monkees, and filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, inviting pioneers who wished to live a communal, “free” life on “free land,” escaping the corruption and hypocrisy of commercial society.
The experiment endures. A few years ago an attorney drew up a trust keeping the land in the commune's hands in perpetuity, and residents persist there, living in an adaptation of the original vision.
I have personal recollections of the commune's inhabitants from its founding years, gleaned from my status as the preschool-age son of a sympathetic Methodist pastor in Etna, the town nearest the commune. We once arrived home to find a dozen or so unannounced people bathing, eating, and loitering in our house. They were on a trip into town for, among other things, the feel of soapy warm water on their skin.
“It was like immigrants coming to the East Coast 200 years ago. They had no idea what it would be like going to that ranch. I delivered food there when the snow was crotch deep,” Dad recalls. “I had a lot of people there I liked. But what was most reprehensible for me was they were supposed to be so egalitarian, [but] a few people were carrying so much of the weight. They had people who were organized, and others who liked to smoke dope, and pretend they were farming.”
Just as many, however, were committed, generous idealists.
Dad recalls storing for a year or so an electric typewriter — useless at electricity-free Black Bear — belonging to famous Beat poet Diane di Prima. It seemed like a nice prize until she came to fetch it after her commune stint.
I contacted di Prima, now a San Francisco author, to confirm my father's recollections, which she did.
Also, I wondered if she might share any thoughts about what Black Bear Ranch and the Diggers meant, and whether those years still animate her life, and how a core segment of this city's most famous iconoclastic movement managed to keep it real, without getting co-opted, commercialized, and thrown into question entirely.
Do you have any philosophical insights to share about that period? I asked.
“I'm not going to talk about all that shit. I write books about it,” she explained, thus giving voice better than I ever could to San Francisco countercultural tradition, in which sometimes you have to pay to play, and authenticity may be just a state of mind.