IT WAS THE summer of 1967. The song was "If You're Going to San Francisco Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair." The singer was Scott McKenzie, at the height of a startling but soon-to-be-burned-out fame. His song was a beacon, drawing young people to San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury. The record sold 5 million copies.
Whatever McKenzie wanted it seemed he could have as he sang that year at the Monterey Pop Festival, the first-its-kind, pre-Woodstock convocation. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Grateful Dead were there. They seemed to relish it. But McKenzie recoiled from fame.
"It was kind of frightening in a way," he said. "Thousands and thousands of young people. It was a collective, frenetic desire, looking for some thing, and they didn't know what."
McKenzie says he didn't know what he wanted either. "I was always in the right place at the right time, but I didn't know what to do with it." He said he turned down the opportunity to sing "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." By that time, he already was on a "downhill trip," he said."All I wanted I got, but I didn't want it."
He grew up in Montreat, N.C., home of Billy Graham, and delivered telegrams as a boy. "Billy Graham was the only one who ever got a telegram. I can remember always trudging half way up a mountain."
He began his climb as a singer in the Washington area. His mother moved to Alexandria after his father died and he began singing in local clubs, many of them obscure and now gone. But he met John Phillips, who was to form the Mamas and Papas. They performed together as The Journeymen. "We played at a lot of Southeastern colleges. It seemed if some place couldn't afford the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary, they'd get us."
McKenzie said he made no effort to become part of the Mamas and Papas when the group was formed. "I was trying to see if I could do something by myself. And I didn't think I could take that much pressure."
Two years passed until he hit on the idea of San Francisco and flowers. He said some have accused him of capitalizing on the concept of "flower power," but he claims the song preceded the notion. "At the festival, kids were handing out flowers to cops, and they were wearing them on their helmets and putting them on their aerials."
All of this "frightened" McKenzie. He turned down television appearances and an airline commercial. "They wanted me to get off a plane in San Francisco with flowers, " he said. "I though I would be prostituting myself. What a stupid move that was, Oh, well."
He went to Europe with the Mamas and Papas, but a tour never materialized. "I came back to Los Angeles and promptly had a nervous breakdown," he said. "I lost 1968."
His money and royalty checks dwindled. He described himself as "trying to find oblivion. I certainly was not a prude when it came to drugs. I guss I used more than was wise. I think in 1968 and 1969 I probably took more pills than I ever did. I kind of stabilized in 1969."
This was when he moved into a commune in St. Thomas. Among those he lived with were a Vietnam veteran who recalled hearing McKenzie's famous song during a break in a battle, and a writer and close friend whom McKenzie said "always felt he was an otter, and still does. That's his magical form. He decided I was a dwarf. I'm average size, about 5.10."
McKenzie sought out and secured still more obscurity in the Mohave desert where he lived for three years. He was married for a time - he said he wasn't sure precisely when. Finally, he called a friend in Virginia Beach who had "found himself." McKenzie arrived in Virginia Beach in March 1973 and there he still is.
He had a "crisis" last year, but some good has come out of that. He now does volunteer work at a mental health clinic. "I talk to people, I listen to people." He said he's happy in that work.
But he's still plagued by a "neurotic perfectionism. If I wrote the definitive song of all time, I'd find something wrong with it." For two years he worked on a song, and this one he liked. Then he heard Jimmy Buffett sing "Margaritaville" and it was depressingly similar to his.
"That's the story of life," he said.