Dead Line

I fell in love with San Francisco rock & roll thanks to a Herb Greene photo

It was Grace Slick’s eyes, staring out from the cover of the posthumous live album by her erstwhile combo, the Great! Society. Like some psychedelic siren, the bottomless well of her gaze pulled me in and I was hooked. A short while later, the sartorial elegance displayed by the Jefferson Airplane on the Surrealistic Pillow jacket had my friends and I scouring London’s flea markets for a striped shirt that had to be exactly like the one Jorma Kaukonen sported. With no emotional or nostalgic ties to the psychedelic era, our post-punk generation couldn’t help but view these images, and the accompanying music, as glimpses of a faraway, magical time and place. Innocent, tentative, but with a distinct gleam in the eye that indicated something was happening here, Mr Jones. Did we think that was cool? Boy, did we ever.

The immense iconographic significance of Herb Greene’s work can never be truly ascertained. To hundreds of thousands of people across the world since the mid-1960s, it is Herb’s photos that embody the San Francisco of that era. What numbered probably less than a couple of dozen of folkies, ex-beatniks and other itinerant personages, suddenly became via his lens, the court of some kind of hip, modern Camelot. The myths, legends and heady air of early psychedelia seem intimately woven into each of Greene’s portraits, like a celluloid tapestry. The youthful Warlocks captured running amok on Ocean Beach, quickly to mutate into the darker, more knowing Grateful Dead, caught by Herb hanging on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in a presage of acid-punk hip. Janis Joplin, resplendent in thrift-store chic, the battle-weary lines around the eyes belying her fresh-face grin. The Charlatans in the porch on Pine Street, all dressed up yet so nonchalantly posed in trepidation of the new frontier. Herb Greene thrust them all into rock royalty before anyone had heard a note.

His is probably the first rock portraiture to avoid the slick Bruno’s Of Hollywood airbrushed stereotype that had gone previously. Technically, Herb’s eye for detail is unparalleled. All his pictures have an indefinable texture. Images frozen in time like a turn-of-the-century daguerreotype and yet so real, one could almost run your hands over the rough background of his Baker Street apartment wall; appropriately covered in hieroglyphs, as if to imply the timeless quality of the subject matter it frames.

The music broadcast the message, the posters and art said a lot, but Herb’s photos were the first to give the nascent San Francisco rock scene a class and an intelligence that rock & roll had yet to achieve for itself, anywhere. It is significant that his best, and best-known, photos are from the halcyon days of 1966 and 1967, before the generics of tie-dye, “free love” and rampant drug abuse, before the media hype and the over-inflated egos and internecine bickering took over and destroyed everything. Greene’s street scenes of the early Haight Ashbury, his juxtaposition of the area’s original inhabitants with their new bright-eyed neighbors, make for some intriguing social documentary, as do the almost heartbreaking snapshots of young mid-America in pursuit of the dream on the streets of San Francisco.

“We were all post-adolescents playing at Cowboys and Indians” remembers the photographer. It may well have seemed like a game at the time, but Herb Greene captured an amazing, never to be repeated cultural moment and brought it to the rest of the world with a skill and passion that all rock photography has had to be measured by since.


Alec Palao
Ace Records UK
1300 Liberty Street
El Cerrito, CA 94530-2311
Fax 510.232.5625