Knee-Deep in the Hoopla

Paisley swirls sell, but where is the soul of San Francisco?

Shortly before her fatal heroin overdose, rock goddess Janis Joplin winked and caterwauled through her last recorded single, "Mercedes Benz." First and last verse: "Oh Lord, won't you buy me, a Mercedes Benz/My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends/Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends/So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz." This was a joke, of course, for Janis—a spitball in the face of privilege, cribbed from the ethos of fellow hippies like the Merry Pranksters and their Frisco-based traveling band, the Grateful Dead.

But it was also a marketing campaign waiting to happen. In 1995, Joplin's sister Laura sold the song to the German luxury-automobile company, who promptly put it to work hawking Mercedes. When questioned about the ethics of selling what was essentially a protest song to its villains, Laura Joplin replied, "I thought it was such a hoot. To me it was an honor...I thought it was fun."

Take another little piece of my heart, indeed.

Janis Jopin, as "the gorgeous hippie bombshell she wasn't"
Bob Seidemann, courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Janis Jopin, as "the gorgeous hippie bombshell she wasn't"

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' new exhibit, "San Francisco Psychedelic," which opened February 10 and runs for the next four months, similarly shrugs off the only time in recent history when conscience came calling in America. Rather than delving into the complex, ambiguous implications of the Summer of Love, the show strives for Laura Joplin-brand fun—hot pink and chartreuse pepper the galleries; a listening area features Jerry Garcia's geetar licks, Moby Grape's dull if earnest harmonies, and Joplin's transcendent howl; Clear Channel's Cities 97 (Whaaa?) signed on for sponsorship. The photographic portion displays several dozen staged shots of bands, some album covers, and a rather token seven photos of the Haight-Ashbury "experience."

"San Francisco Psychedelic" fails on two levels. First, there's nothing actually fun about it, a letdown that matters only because it's trying to be fun. More importantly, it generates little insight about the Bay area scene or psychedelia. Rather than evoking a time during which a revolution of conscience seemed at least remotely possible—an objective that couldn't be more relevant today—the exhibit languishes in frivolity. It's at once too exclusive (focused squarely on bands, many of them mediocre) and too democratic (Hip rock show comes to capital-A art museum! Marketing and Events departments swear they'll hit this one out of the park!).

One wonders where to rest the blame. I suspect the real problem isn't so much the curator as a recent willingness to grant king-of-the-castle status to marketing concepts with appropriate glamour and easy kitsch (see also: Walker Art Center Regis Dialogues, Osmo conducts ABBA, and Gatsby at the Guthrie). A third-rate exhibit, "San Francisco Psychedelic" enjoys the support of a first-rate marketing campaign. Bob Siedemann's shot of Janis Joplin, looking like the gorgeous hippie bombshell she wasn't (she was sexy, yes, but in a John Wayne plays Tennessee Williams heroine kind of way), is its perfect, and perfectly corrupt, central image. Trotted out into myriad promotional avenues, Siedemann's stunning photograph, with all its pathos and pain, transforms into yet another tawdry pitch.

Of course, Janis drove a Porsche and boasted that Southern Comfort sent her significant sums of money for (apparently voluntary) endorsements. The boundaries of integrity are rarely obvious. But she didn't receive public funding or a comfy desk job that netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, either. She put her soul on display, and suffered the consequences. To search for that soul, and the collection of souls that made up late-'60s San Francisco, skip "San Francisco Psychedelic" and rent Festival Express, pull up a grainy "White Rabbit" on YouTube, lie shuddering (there's no other way) while you listen to Big Brother & The Holding Co. cover Gershwin's "Summertime." Hell, get stoned and drop the needle onto some Dead if you have to. Because it would be an awful shame if the '60s didn't mean more than this, man.

 
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