We’re all about inspiring travel here at Hemispheres, and since most everyone is stuck at home these days, our goal is to help you pick the first place you’re going to go once the global situation improves. I’m doing my part by creating virtual culture trips to different cities—books you should read, songs you should listen to, and movies you should watch to put you in the mind-set of a certain city. First up is San Francisco, where I grew up, where most of my family still lives, and where I really wish I were sitting (on the dock of the Bay) right now. Don’t think of this as a “definitive” or “best of” list; it’s just a few works from the City by the Bay that always take me back there. I hope they transport you as well.
1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
An obvious choice, but Kerouac’s 1957 masterpiece is still a must-read for anyone who fancies a journey to the City by the Bay. Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, crisscrosses the country several times (and makes it as far south as Mexico City) in the novel, but the most joyous prose comes when the author describes hopping through San Francisco’s jazz bars. If you want to read On the Road as Kerouac intended, check out the 50th anniversary “Original Scroll” edition, which transcribes the text from the huge scroll on which he wrote the novel, over the course of just three weeks.
2. San Francisco Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Kerouac might be the Beat generation’s brightest light, but Ferlinghetti, who turned 101 last month, has shone the longest. This pocket-size collection offers a survey of the former San Francisco Poet Laureate’s SF-inspired works. Aside from being a writer, Ferlinghetti is also the owner of the iconic City Lights Bookstore in North Beach.
3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This 1989 novel focuses on the mother-daughter relationships in four Chinese immigrant families in San Francisco. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, and Tan cowrote the screenplay for the 1993 adaptation, which was positively received but was the last contemporary Hollywood film to feature a majority Asian cast until Crazy Rich Asians, 25 years later.
4. Valencia by Michelle Tea
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series offers perhaps the most well-known portrayal of San Francisco’s vibrant LGBTQ+ scene, but I prefer Michelle Tea’s gritty memoir, which details the author’s life in the lesbian community in the late-’90s, pre-gentrification Mission District. Valencia won a 2001 Lambda Literary Award.
5. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit
Want to see San Francisco from a new angle? Solnit’s 2010 book offers 22 of them. This creative take on the concept of an atlas includes that many maps of the seven-mile-by-seven-mile city, drawn by various artists and covering a wide variety of themes: “The Graveyard Shift” enumerates old warehouses and factories and piers, along with the few remaining bars that open at 6 a.m. (I see you, Vesuvio); “Monarchs and Queens” shows butterfly habitats and queer public spaces.
As far as classic noir films go, it’s hard not to choose The Maltese Falcon, which has Bogart, and one of the best closing lines ever (“the stuff that dreams are made of”); plus, there’s an alley downtown named after author Dashiell Hammett. But Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo, makes such beautiful use of San Francisco’s scenery that it’s the first must-watch. Who can forget seeing Kim Novak jump from Fort Point into the Bay, only to be fished out of the water by Jimmy Stewart, all in the shadows of the Golden Gate Bridge?
Everyone knows why this 1968 action film makes the list. Its car chase scene, in which Steve McQueen launches his Mustang up and down the streets of San Francisco in pursuit of a pair of hitmen in a Dodge Charger, is legendary, arguably the greatest in film history. The 10-plus-minute scene took weeks to film, and while San Francisco residents know that the route the chase covers is not geographically possible, that doesn’t stop it from being thrilling. If nothing else, the stunt drivers and cameramen show just how scary it is to drive in SF.
David Fincher went to great lengths to be historically accurate in this moody 2007 film about the Zodiac Killer, who committed a string of murders around the Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s and was never caught. The overhead establishing shots of the city required CGI to recreate the Embarcadero Freeway, which was demolished after it was badly damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The director also shot the 1969 killing of cab driver Paul Stine on a bluescreen stage, using CGI to make the Presidio Heights intersection of Washington and Cherry Streets look like it did back then.
4. Medicine for Melancholy
Before Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins made this lovely black and white film about a young man and woman (played by Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins), wandering around San Francisco the day after a drunken hookup. (Fans of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy will love it.) They visit a number of recognizable sites, from the Museum of the African Diaspora to the dance floor at The Knockout (an old haunt of mine), wrestling with the issues of what it means to be black in both the hipster community and in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco—and this was in 2009, before the full scale of the tech boom had become apparent. While the movie is in some ways a picture of an era, the chemistry between Cenac and Heggins is timeless.
5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
With all due respect to Parasite and the other nominees, this gorgeous, heartfelt film was the best picture of 2019. Lead actor Jimmie Falls plays a fictionalized version of himself, a young black man who’s squatting in—and diligently maintaining—the Victorian house his family once owned in the now-gentrified Fillmore District. (The real-life house, which is beautiful, is actually in the Mission District.) If you want to know why so many San Franciscans both love and hate their city today, this movie should answer most of your questions.
1. “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie
We’ll start the playlist with an obvious one. Scott McKenzie released his flower child anthem, cowritten by John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, on May 13, 1967. The song shot up the charts and in the ensuing months became the defining anthem of the Summer of Love, when hippies flooded the Haight-Ashbury district.
2. “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane
One of the defining bands of the mid-’60s psychedelic rock scene, the Jefferson Airplane (people who were around in the ’60s use “the” when they’re talking about some bands, like Jefferson Airplane and Cream, for whom the definite article didn’t survive for some reason) broke through in 1967 with their smash record Surrealistic Pillow. The album produced two hit singles, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” I love both, but have always kinda favored “Somebody to Love” for the garage rock-y guitars and the heavy vibrato of Grace Slick’s wailed “loooooooooove” on the last chorus.
3. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
The great Otis Redding began writing this song while living on a houseboat in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and finished recording it less than a week before his untimely death, at the age of 26, in December of 1967. It was released a month later, and became iconic both for the singer and the city. (In 1999, BMI said it was the sixth-most performed song on American radio and TV in the 20th century.) It’s one of those songs that manages to be melancholy and soothing at the same time. The lyrics are sad and Redding’s death tragic, and yet you can’t help but smile when you hear that whistling coda.
4. “St. Stephen” by The Grateful Dead
You can’t have a San Francisco playlist without The Dead, and you can’t talk about San Francisco’s music scene without The Fillmore, so let’s go with a live track from a 1969 show there. The band played scores of shows at the Fillmore through the years, and while Jerry Garcia died in 1995, music fans can still catch a concert the historic venue (I saw Bob Weir and Phil Lesh play a surprise show with Jackie Greene in 2012) and check out the awesome gallery of concert posters on the second floor.
5. “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone
San Francisco is, at its heart, a diverse, inclusive place, and who better to represent that than Sly and the Family Stone, America’s first integrated mainstream rock band? We may all be stuck inside right now, but still, as Sly sang on this 1969 chart-topper, “we got to live together.”
“San Francisco” by Michael Marshall (a soulful cover of the hippie classic by the man who sang the hook of the hip-hop anthem “I Got 5 on It”); “Samba Pa Ti” by Santana (can’t have an SF playlist without the Mission District’s own guitar god); “Lights” by Journey (a staple of Giants games at Oracle Park); “3 A.M.” by Sean Hayes (one of my fave indie SF songwriters); “Playaz Club” by Rappin’ 4-Tay (because I had to get the Fillmore District’s best rapper on here.) And for more even more San Francisco songs, check out the full playlist!