Greg Gaar’s photographs tell the story of San Francisco – specifically the wild, vibrant music scene between the late 1960s and 1980s, when the city’s live music culture developed in strange and revolutionary ways. Gaar’s photographs are an encyclopedic record of San Francisco’s musical history: Jerry Garcia, the Who, the Rolling Stones for Bob Dylan, the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and David Bowie were among his subjects.
More than 1,000 of them, taken between 1972 and 1989, are now part of Open SF History – an already excellent archive of the city’s photographic history. (Gaar also volunteers for the organization, a program offered by the Western Neighborhoods Project.) Here we spoke to the lifelong SF resident about growing up in a changing city – and what it was like to be a photographer the record to become its music icons.
InsideHook: You are a native of San Franciscan. How did you see how the city has changed over the years?
Greg Gaar: It’s hard to take you know I don’t even recognize downtown anymore – I’ve been walking downtown all the time just to walk down Market Street and go to the stores. Now so much of Lower Market has been demolished to make way for these faceless skyscrapers.
Then there is the lack of affordability. When I lived in Haight-Ashbury my rent was $ 50 a month. The entire apartment between me and three roommates was $ 200. We paid $ 50 each so we could be artists on the side. To live in San Francisco you have to be able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. It doesn’t give you the freedom you could have if your rent were cheap, which affects your creativity.
Greg Gaar Photography
Do you think it’s possible to be an artist in San Francisco now?
I can be very creative because I inherited the house I live in. When my parents died, my brother and sister wanted to sell the property we grew up on and I said, “No way, man. I am tied to this house. “Right now I’m sitting on the front stairs looking at Mount San Bruno and City College. My entire garden is made up of native San Francisco plants that I propagated from seeds. This is my true love now – habitat restoration. It is the best that you can do to repair the damage we have done to the planet. Once they are established I don’t have to water them anymore as native plants are adapted to the environmental conditions they are native to and then support the native butterflies, birds, bees and wildlife.
The story goes on
I have a feeling you are speaking and in all of these cases is the blossoming of the arts scene, the blossoming of music in San Francisco, the blossoming of native species and how threatened they are …
Much of this today resembles all of the world’s major cities – especially in the United States. In the 1950s, people fled to the suburbs to escape, and now they’re coming back because they don’t like to commute. When I grew up in this neighborhood in the 1960s, it was mostly an African American neighborhood. The richest blacks in San Francisco lived here, and many of them were very famous – Abe Woodson of the 49ers or Calvin Simmons, who eventually became the conductor of the Oakland Symphony, Carlton Goodlett – the street where City Hall is located, Goodlett Street is named after him. It was really great to grow up in this neighborhood. We just enjoyed each other.
Does the San Francisco you see in your photos exist today? They seem to show a freedom and self-indulgence and a world that may no longer exist here.
Back then you knocked with me [the bands]. The joints are passed around. I feel very privileged to be able to go backstage and meet Jerry Garcia – he’s almost seen as God now, but not then.
When I first saw the Grateful Dead they were playing on the Panhandle in January 1967. Back then I was driving my scooter to Haight-Ashbury – it was rough back then. I would drive over Twin Peaks and then come down to Haight-Ashbury on Ashbury Street. The Grateful Dead would be sitting on the front steps of 710 Ashbury, where they lived. On hot days, they sprayed cars with a water hose as the car drove by. And since I was on a scooter, they sprayed me with water. Back then they were just a garage band. The scene was just very local. They would see Janis Joplin shopping on Haight Street.
Greg Gaar Photography
When did everything change?
The Monterey Pop Festival on June 67 – with the documentary that was shot about it, everyone could see how great Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin were. It was then that Jimi Hendrix became famous when he set fire to his guitar on stage. Monterey Pop made many of the local bands famous.
I am very happy to see the San Francisco bands and the hippie bands, the Summer of Love bands. Over time, I also became a fan of local punk rock bands in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was one of the older people who went to those punk shows – most of the people there were teenagers or in their early twenties.
The reason I got into punk was because I had a button machine. I would make buttons from Jerry Garcia smoking a joint and then I would try to sell the buttons outside of Winterland, where the Grateful Dead were. Then Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead confiscated my photos and buttons for sale outside the concert hall. I had to go back to Winterland the next day claiming I would get my lawyer to get my photos back. I didn’t even have a lawyer, but they returned the stuff to me and said, never sell that stuff outside of winter land again. After that I was just disaffected – I was a fan and all I wanted to do was go to a concert.
Over time, the Grateful Dead just said, “Hey, we let people sell what they want to sell outside of our concert.” So I was one of the early people who actually sold things on a show just to get enough money to get in.
What did you do with this wave of punk bands that followed the hippies?
I went to the show when the Sex Pistols came to Winterland. It seemed like Bill Graham – or as I called them, the Bill Graham Goon Squad – was yelling at people when they were dancing in the aisle. They didn’t know how to deal with the punks because the punks looked kind of scary. The punk scene allowed people who had been wimps to appear scary. I’ve seen the Sex Pistols with the nuns and the Avengers. And I said, “This should really be rock and roll.”
There were many different punk clubs all over San Francisco. My favorite was the Tenderloin called The Sound of Music – everyone called it the S&M Club.
You could be right at the front and stand right on the stage and take photos right there. Some of the bands got famous, some didn’t – but you were at the forefront.
Do you have a favorite music photo?
The one I’ve printed the most is Jerry Garcia smoking a joint. After all, he was Captain Trips. When you spoke to him, he was a very down to earth guy. We talked about how he went to Balboa High School and I went to Lowell’s.
One of my favorite pictures is that of Peter Townsend jumping in the air at a concert in Oakland on October 10, 1976. I got him really high in the air and you could see the whole band.
I know you are giving slideshow presentations on the history of San Francisco.
I always do the slideshows when asked – I can’t do them online because I do them the old way, with a slide projector and 35mm slides. I do slide shows about the history of the Golden Gate Park, the history of the Haight, the history of the Castro. the story of Mount Davidson.
How would people find out about you if they wanted to attend one?
That is her problem. I will not advertise it. Whoever sponsors the presentation, it’s up to them to do the promotion.
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