San Francisco is dead. Everyone says so. Everyone’s wrong.
Out-of-state publications love to decry the state of the City by the Bay, from the spiraling cost of living to the endemic homelessness the city seems powerless to address. Natives grumble that the influx of tech workers has driven them from their neighborhoods and replaced authenticity with artifice. Among non-tech transplants, conversations steer towards when — not if — they plan to leave the Bay Area.
A common theme emerges: The city has become too expensive for the music scene and bohemian culture that once attracted as many to its rolling hills as tech does now.
San Francisco, once a haven to freaks and outcasts with nowhere left to go, is now seen as the poster child for late capitalist decadence.
Yet an attempt to write San Francisco’s musical obituary would be premature. The music of San Francisco has not so much moved out as it has retreated inward. In the garages of Ingleside and the living rooms of the Sunset, San Francisco’s new generation of rock culture thrives.
The DIY world of the house show has unintentionally found itself the haven of rock music in San Francisco. One might be drawn to the distortion-drenched surf pop of Mint, the bluesy garage rock of the Turnouts, the fuzzy fuck-off punk of Buzzed Lightbeer, or likely all three. These sounds aren’t new, and in fact, are sometimes deliberately vintage; the era of streaming has given everyone a lifetime’s worth of musical knowledge. The music is both steeped in history and rooted in modern DIY production. People come for the music but stay for the camaraderie.
The cast of characters is innumerable: musicians, artists, students, multi-hyphenates, often literally jostling shoulders. They talk about what they’ve done, what they plan to do, veganism, art, and astrology. The music is always the ultimate focus of the night. The music transports people. When that melody reverberates through the garage, the outside world ceases to exist, replaced by one of pure movement and sound, and color.
Somewhere between a scene and a movement lies a generation. This generation is not as nihilistic as the Beats of North Beach and not as bohemian as the hippies of the Haight. The basest commonality is pure, unadulterated love of music.
Beyond that: restless ineffable energy, an earned wrath towards the status quo, and a looming sense that the world is ending sooner rather than later. There is a spirit of radical tolerance that stands in stark and purposeful opposition to an increasingly cruel nation.
In other words, this newest band of freaks and outcasts is as spiritually at home in the Paris of the West as the countercultures of decades past. San Francisco is dead. Long live San Francisco.
This essay was originally published in The Bold Italic circa 2019 and has been migrated here in light of that publication’s new ownership. Though the text remains the same, several photos have been updated.
San Francisco photographer and writer, reporting on culture, city life, and politics.