Gentry Bronson standing in front of an upright piano in Tomales Bay, California

Me and the old piano at Nick’s Cove in Tomales Bay, California — Photo by Aida Daay, © 2013 — Used for the back cover of my “Human” album

San Francisco was a gorgeous and gritty city in 1998, but it was changing. Teetering on the edge between punk rock and gentrification. Between the first dot-com explosion and the vestiges of cyberpunk. The floodgates had opened to people with money on their minds, but music and art still thrived in the city by the Bay.

I moved to San Francisco in 1994 and had a love/hate relationship with it, but I was in love with the city then. It was exploding in full color from the murals of the Mission to the graffiti in the Western Addition. I bicycled from the steep streets of Potrero Hill to the windmills at the edge of Golden Gate Park. And I got lost in the dance clubs of the Castro at night, then paddled out in the waves at Kelly’s Cove the next day.

It was my home. Spiraling and electric and filthy and seductive. It was also the inspiration for many of my songs. One of them was Hey Beautiful.

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The story of a song is also the story of the songwriter, and the story of Hey Beautiful began one night in the Upper Haight where I lived at the time.

The neighborhood was haunted by the ghost of Janis Joplin who hovered over the Panhandle and the corner of Haight-Ashbury. The corner that once had been a hippie haven in the late 1960s was now inhabited by a Gap clothing store and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop.

Both businesses were down the street from an old bowling alley that had become the sprawling Amoeba Music record store. And in between, all along Haight Street, there were vintage stores, head shops, dive bars, rustic cafes, cheap taquerias, and the tiny Red Vic Movie House.

Gutter punks lay on flattened cardboard boxes outside most of those businesses begging for change. As I walked to my 1976 pistachio-colored Volvo that Monday night, I walked by a crust punk who had a kitten tied to his wrist with pink yarn.

He leered up at me and asked, “Pet the kitty for a quarter?”

I ignored him as I usually did most of the young panhandlers, found my car, and drove down to the Marina. It was therapy night.

I was sunburned from a day spent at Año Nuevo beach and my back was red and peeling against my driver’s seat. Before my appointment, I wandered into a salon to ask for some soothing lotion. Out bounded a tornado of a woman. Long black hair flying, tight black dress whirling, and knee-high black boots danced to the entrance.

“Hiii!” she exclaimed. “How can I help you?”

“Hi. You have any lotion for a bad sunburn?” I asked.

She looked at me quizzically with a flirtatious sideways grin and said, “Try Walgreens. It’s cheaper.”

Then, she laughed like a dolphin and galloped away back into the salon.

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When I emerged from my therapist’s office an hour later, I was walking to my car and heard a voice yell out, “Hey, Sunburn Boy! Can I buy you a drink?”

I turned and looked across Union Street. There she was. Knee-High Black Boots Girl. Smiling in the street and waiting for my reply.

“Hey, Beautiful,” I said without thinking. “Where we going?”

Her name was Kim, and our brief conversation in the street led to Tanqueray and tonics. Several cocktails in, we made our way back to the Upper Haight, to a few more bars, and then to the Victorian-style house I shared as a rental with three other San Franciscans.

In my bedroom, I played her records. She listened and laughed. She put lipstick on my lips. I joyfully let her do it. And the night quickly became morning.

I didn’t know yet, but my song had begun.

Songs begin this way. They begin in dreams and memories. They begin as experiences, characters, and events. Sometimes they begin as only a title or a phrase. I had the title and the opening lines to the song already without realizing it, but the song stayed dormant in my head until it was ready to be born.

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Kim and I were in a relationship for four years. On and off. Partying and swirling in delirium. Staying up all night to watch the sun come up on Ocean Beach. Carousing the many taverns of North Beach. Stealing away to bathrooms in the middle of the Financial District for secret rendezvous. Then, break-ups and tears and phone calls and mixtapes and getting back together again.

I had stopped writing and playing music at that time, but one twilight evening, we wandered into a hotel bar in Hayes Valley. There was a piano in the lobby, I walked over to it and began to play. As I did, Kim lay across the top of the polished black baby grand. With my inebriated girlfriend lying across the top of the piano, the hotel let me continue playing, and I entertained the room for an hour.

That night, I rediscovered that I could play and I began to write songs again soon afterward.

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I started prolifically songwriting, and Kim entered many of my songs. In 2000, I won a Northern California Songwriters’ Association award for a song she inspired called Don’t Go Home Tonight. But it wasn’t until our love affair was long over that she was the muse for Hey Beautiful.

After the final curtain call to our relationship, I bowed and she curtseyed the last time. We didn’t see each other again, but she would appear on street corners like a ghostly apparition and then be gone. Just a flash. I wondered if she saw me out of the corner of her eye or if she was just a mirage.

It was after my last sighting, two years after we said goodbye, that I sat down and wrote Hey Beautiful.

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It all came out in two hours in an afternoon at my upright piano in 2003. I was in a flow that occurs for songwriters. A river that pours from a mysterious wellspring where creativity bubbles up. When the water runs effortlessly down from the mountain of our imaginations, memories, and experiences, it’s a songwriter’s job to get songs down. If not, the song usually disappears into the ether quickly.

I had scrawled songs on bar napkins, banged them out on computer keyboards, and written them on the backs of menus with crayons. This time, I wrote the song in a spiral notebook with a pen. A long spool of lyrics, scribbled out and rewritten, then laced together with chords that looked like hieroglyphs.

Overhead photo of Gentry Bronson playing an upright piano

Me at the upright piano at Nick’s Cove  — Photo by Aida Daay, © 2013

Hey Beautiful was born, but there was a treacherous journey ahead for the song to evolve from a musical toddler to a full-grown, harmonically arranged adult.

As I did with nearly all my new material, I tried out the song as a solo tune at a handful of shows. The opening piano riff flowed out with ease, but I was still forcing the verses and learning to let them breathe.

Then, I tried it out with my band, the Night Watchmen, but it was too fast. I was trying to be some combination of Billy Joel and Ben Folds, but I wasn’t being me. The song hadn’t found its musical home yet, and I hadn’t found the voice it needed.

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In 2004, my good friend and Night Watchmen bassist, John, committed suicide. I fell into a deep depression but continued to prolifically write songs. To get out some of my emotions and capture that period, I booked a studio and recorded seventeen songs in one long session.

Those live recordings with just voice and piano became my solo album Homeand one of the songs on the record was the first version of Hey Beautiful. It was raw and it was real. After the album’s release, the song was a stand-out but it needed a band.

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After John died, the Night Watchmen were left with just drummer, Alex, and me. We wanted to finish the record we were working on with John, so we found upright bassist, Adam. With the new jazz-infused incarnation of the band, we finished the album and Rain Come Down was released in 2005.

The record included a new version of Hey Beautiful, but the song sounded empty and hollow to me. There were now two versions of the song and neither one was produced like I hoped. Hey Beautiful would remain a constant in my solo sets, but it yearned to be produced properly.

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Even though the song hadn’t been recorded the way I wanted yet, it was a fan favorite. When my solo career took off in 2006, I started touring in the U.S. and Europe, and Hey Beautiful was part of nearly every concert I performed.

I started to realize that it was more than a song about Kim or a love song about two people. It was a song about San Francisco. A city that had left me literally bleeding and beaten in the street more than once. Where I had fallen in love multiple times. A city that had given me musical wings again. A city I loved, feared, despised, and felt completely at home in despite the bruises and scars that happened there.

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Years passed, I wrote many more songs, made more records, and spent more time away from the Bay Area. I toured in Europe at least once a year, and I went to the Yucatán in Mexico often to work, write, and recover from the frenetic pace of musical life. I moved to Marin and then to Sonoma County and went to the city less.

By 2013, San Francisco and the entire Bay Area felt culturally gutted. Emptied of color and vibrancy. The rollicking romance, beautiful debauchery, and artistic abundance were gone, and my love affair with the city and the Bay was at its end.

The last album I’d make in the Bay Area would be my near-double album, Human, and it almost killed me. I was burned out and broken-hearted. With no gas left in my gas tank, I was living on nightmares, cheap wine, and frayed nerves.

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Even though I was in the middle of free fall, the band and guest musicians who played and sang on Human were excellent, and I loved the songs I’d written and arranged for the record. One of the songs was my third attempt at Hey Beautiful, which I’d decided to turn into a duet.

We tracked the bass, drums, acoustic guitar, and piano for the song in five live takes at A Room with a View Studio. I did my lead vocals later, settling into a groove that almost felt country. Next came the female vocal.

Valentina did a wonderful job singing the backup and solo vocals on Stay All NightShoeboxes, and Anytime You Can Find a Human, but her performance on Hey Beautiful sounded too much like a character in a musical. Even though I knew it didn’t work, I was ready to move on and I unconsciously knew that was a bad decision.

One night, I got a call from the engineer, Jamie. It was 3:00 am and he sounded high.

“Gentry, man. You awake?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah, dude. I answered the phone,” I said.

“Hey, man. Check it out. I was listening to Hey Beautiful and I think we need to re-track the female vocal.”

“But we’re almost done, man.”

“Yeah, but I know this 23-year-old singer. I just worked with her on her first EP. She’s the one.”

Reluctantly, I agreed to book Emily Rath to try out her version of Hey Beautiful.

A few days later in the studio, Emily and I were briefly introduced. She went into the vocal booth and warmed up. Jamie hit record, cued her in, and she started singing. Emily sang only three takes. We wanted to be sure we got it, but mostly, it was for posterity. She had it the first time.

I paid Emily and she walked out of the studio. It was the first and last we ever saw of each other. In those few hours, Emily and my voice came together and the story in the song came to life. It was as close as I’d come to recording the song the way it deserved to be heard.

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My Human album was released in June 2013. I left the Bay Area six months later.

I promoted my new album with shows in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera and the U.S. Southwest. Then, I did a tour in Europe performing over twenty concert dates. It was a grueling tour, but Hey Beautiful was in every set, pouring from my fingers and out of my mouth like an old friend.

In November 2014, I performed in my hometown: Granite City, Minnesota. It was one of the last concerts I would do for many years. That night, Hey Beautiful finally sounded like what I wanted when I wrote it. It rose out of me and the other five musicians on stage and resonated like a ray of musical moonlight.

The song had finally grown up.

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As soon as I wrote Hey Beautiful, I didn’t own it anymore. It was alive in the world and it was no longer mine. Songs belong to the people who hear them. I’m merely the songwriter; an echo in the song’s past.

It’s a song about saying goodbye. It’s about possibilities and wondering what might have been. It’s about the trials and tribulations of love. It’s about letting go. And it’s about starting over.

I left San Francisco ten years ago and it’s no longer a city I love or hate, but it’s a place I keep with me. The city is a songbook filled with memories and ghosts, and I carry them with me in melodies that float through my head.

Songs often say the words we don’t know how to say. I understand now that the lyrics I wrote in Hey Beautiful are what I couldn’t say when I left:

“I’ll see you when the light comes across your face
In the memories I can’t erase
I’ll see you around”

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Watch the November 2014 performance of Hey Beautiful in my hometown at Pioneer Place on Fifth Theater here: