Was in San Francisco this past week, one of my favorite cities. Along with Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong it has the most beautiful natural setting of any city in the world, in my opinion. And the light is unlike any city. I don’t know if it’s an effect caused by being so close to, or hemmed in by, the sea, or if it’s some other combination of factors. But it’s distinctive. The city also possesses a certain grace. The mix of mission style, beaux-arts, and modernist architecture is generally pleasing. The hills, the bridges, the history, the sourdough bread, all combine to make something unique. Every time I leave, I wish I could stay.
My first images of San Francisco came from the film “Bullitt” which I saw on television as a kid. Steve McQueen’s (Detective Frank Bullitt’s) city was cool, period. The Mustang that he drove, of course, was as much of a star as the actor. I remember my father telling me how he saw the film debut in London, and the management announcing to the audience in advance that it would be halting the film approximately at its mid point for applause. No one understood what they were talking about. Then they watched the car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco and in the hills outside the city. No one had ever seen anything like it before, because no one had ever filmed anything like it before. In my ten-year-old mind it placed Steve McQueen up in the rarefied air inhabited by only Bruce Lee and Sean Connery. The fact that he only was behind the wheel for part of the chase sequence hasn’t diminished the King of Cool’s place there.
Later, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s disturbing film “Vertigo” with its depiction of San Francisco in the Fifties. I think no film has ever captured the elegance and chic of the city as beautifully as Hitchcock’s did: Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio & the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mark, and Lombard Street. The film’s slow, frankly creepy, pace builds to a romantic and psychologically devastating climax and San Francisco and its environs are as much a character in the film as those played by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. I’ll never forget it.
When I visited San Francisco in 2001, I had my brother practically trace the route of “Vertigo’s” scene sequence. He was patient with me. This time he saved a special treat: the site overlooking the old Sutro Baths with the Pacific, in all its vastness, beyond. What a view! I recommend the coffee at Louis’, which has the best view.
This morning I had the radio on, and Steve Perry was wearing his heart on his sleeve belting out “Lights” with his band Journey. The song, recorded in 1978, is perhaps the most heartfelt paen to San Francisco ever written. If not as famous as Tony Bennett’s rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or the Summer of Love’s anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by John Phillips, the song Perry and bandmate Neal Schon wrote, to me, says “San Francisco” on a deeper, more emotional level. Though they never refer to it explicitly, the “City by the Bay” is unmistakable in their lyrics.