All the elements that would eventually end the Sixties movement for social change came together in San Francisco in the summer of 1967, the so-called Summer of Love. It was a media event with all the hoopla and tawdry spectacle the media brings to everything it touches.
A little background. By 1967 variations of the acid test were being held in scruffy ballrooms around San Francisco with bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape and the Jefferson Airplane, playing acid rock. It cost only a couple of dollars to get into a performance and with a cheap tab of acid you could get high for twelve hours.
“There was the lights, there was the music, there was the fluorescent chart, and the strobe light … You would just walk in and start dancing with people. No hellos, no good-byes, no ‘what do you do,’ no names … You’d go and you’d take some acid, and you’d just fly …”
It all began with the Beats. When North Beach got run over by strip joints and tourists in the early Sixties, the Beats fled to the Haight Ashbury on the edge of the Golden Gate panhandle. Rents in old Victorian homes were incredibly cheap. Bohemians tried to live out their values in a mutually sustaining community. They wanted to live the life that movement workers were struggling to bring about. The message of the Beats, “Start living the life you hope to create.”
“Life is and should be ecstasy,” they said. “Being alive should be a joy. And it’s a drag for most people.” Author Michael Rossman, said, “People found themselves huddling together not simply because they were alienated, but also because there was a positive core of not only values but of people who shared those values and a landscape where it might be possible to live those values out in life more fully, not as a private act, but as a communal act.”
Life in the Haight depended both on a rejection of material values and on the availability of cheap material goods. America’s post war consumer machine produced such abundance that it made quantities of perfectly good older stuff, not yet considered antiques, obsolete. People gave it away for practically nothing. Beats in the Haight were living in abandoned Victorian mansions furnished with velvet drapes and over-stuffed sofas in a style called “San Francisco Piss Elegant.”
“People have no idea how cheap it was to get stuff at the thrift stores,” poet Lenore Kendal told me. “ I mean you could get anything you wanted for a nickel, a penny, nothing. That makes you feel good, you know? Life is easy. So it was possible to exist and give everything away.”
At the heart of the experiment in the Haight were a group of anarchists who took their name from a communal farming group active in England in the 17th Century, the Diggers. The Diggers burst onto the scene after they gave out free food in the panhandle. The food had been stolen, borrowed, ripped off, loaned and cooked in huge ash cans. Free food was understandably popular.
The Diggers created a free store that blew people’s minds. It was well stocked and you could swing from one side of the room to the other on a big swing with red velvet ropes. Diggers organized regular street cleaning happenings, with musicians and picnics to create a sense of community and social responsibility among the Haight residents.
Lenore Kendal told me, “I think there was tremendous honesty in the first Haight Ashbury days, it was honestly open and honestly loving. That was what made everybody so happy. That’s what attracted people’s attention.”
Word of the extraordinary scene in the Haight Ashbury with its open drug use fascinated the media and word quickly got around. Straight people came to look and were outraged. The kids had a different take. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the thinly disguised “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant, where you could get anything you wanted, and the Jefferson Airplane’s hit White Rabbit, all glamorized drug use.
A dreadful song by Scott McKenzie was played more than any of them. It advised American kids to wear flowers in their hair if they were going to San Francisco, During the Spring of 1967, newspaper and magazine writers, television and movie crews, sociologists and celebrities, all came and carried word about the Haight to every corner of the world. In an international poll taken in 1967, more people had heard of the Haight Ashbury than had heard of San Francisco. Some reporters predicted that 200,000 high school and college kids from all over the United States would pour into San Francisco for a Summer of Love. This, of course, caught the attention of entrepreneurs.
“I picked up the paper in the Spring and it said 200,000 people, hippies, whatever, are expected to be in the Haight Ashbury, and I thought, oh boy, if I could get a dollar out of each of them.”
Hippie culture started being marketed.
“There’s a new record store in the Haight called the New Geology Rock Shop. Zanadu has a lot of new things going on … they’re on a campaign to cover their ceiling, floor and all their walls with threads. They’ve got purple, green and orange paisley outfits for sale and shirts of things like purple satin and gigantic paisley velveteen pillows and a full selection of bell bottom slacks … hey, we’re an hour past the full moon, Katie…” Those are excerpts from a San Francisco commercial radio station in 1967.
Radicals who still soldiered on in the Movement distrusted the drug culture, but they couldn’t ignore 200,000 young people either. Dope smoking, acid dropping hippies disdained politics, but were more than happy to draw movement organizers into their new world. Both sides of the cultural divide decided to kick off the summer with a huge gathering in Golden Gate Park. It was a precursor of the future for the political left. The event would not be a demonstration nor a rally but a Human Be-In.
Planning the event was frustrating for movement organizers.
“We kept saying, ‘Who’s going to speak at the event.” And they would look at us smile and say, ‘No speakers. No words. Just communication…’ One of us was in a suite and tie. He demanded that the Be-In have a list of demands that go to the government, because it’s a waste of time to bring 20,000 people together and to make no demands on the government. So we agreed to demand the end of the war.”
It was the Hippies only concession. The event was scheduled to take place on the day a new California law banning LSD went into effect … the summer solstice, June 21st, 1967.
Just after dawn, bright-eyed kids met in Golden Gate Park, dressed in loose clothes covered with beads, moving in a haze of marijuana, sandalwood and patchouli oil, trying to explain to straight reporters what it was all about.
“I live in the strawberry fields, and it’s a communa, and every morning is beautiful, because nobody has any of these materialistic values.”
“You know, I really think the goal in life is to be happy. And you can gain happiness from a lot of sources, and hopefully you can gain it from within your own self. But this is just a gathering of people who like to be happy. Who like to ‘BE’.”
“That’s why I’m here. To love and be loved. To get away from all the fakeness. You don’t have to be someone you aren’t. You can just be yourself.”
Allen Ginzberg, Neal Cassidy, other surviving Beatniks, Berkeley politicos, Ken Kesey in disguise (on the run from two drug charges) and Tim Leary who repeated his advice, “The message is very simple. It can said in six words. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.”
Within a few weeks tour busses started working their way down Haight Street.
“My boss used to say, ‘Don’t take the people to the Haight Ashbury,’ and the people would come on the buses with Haight Ashbury on Time Magazine, on Newsweek, and all these national magazines and they’d say, ‘Hey driver, are we going to Haight Ashbury? And the people were amazed, they were awed, they just couldn’t believe in their wildest expectations, that this was actually coming off.”