If you can remember the ’60s and are looking for a challenge, try explaining to a 20-year-old how it happened that on Oct. 21, 1967 more than 50,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. and tried to levitate the Pentagon. Or that 10,000 at the San Francisco “Human Be-In” cheered when LSD guru Timothy Leary advised them to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Or that a performer named Donovan packed concert halls singing, “Electrical banana is gonna be a sudden craze/ Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase.”
Those events, and more, happened during 1967, the heart of which came to be known as The Summer of Love. On Easter Sunday, 10,000 attended New York’s Central Park Be-In. In June, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In July, Jimi Hendrix literally lit up the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival. In August, East met West when the Beatles visited Indian holy man Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and promptly renounced drugs. And throughout the summer a gaudy army of innocents, charlatans, runaways, activists, weasels, entrepreneurs, free-lovers and would-be free-lovers descended upon the newly ordained mecca of hippiedom, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
Everything wasn’t lovey-dovey, to be sure: Riots killed 40 in Detroit in July and the Vietnam War raged unabated. Taken together, the events of 1967 helped shape the identity of a generation. Herewith a look at the cultural explosion that occurred 20 years ago, with commentary by some of the people who made it happen.
I think the ’60s had to do with beat. Every so often the beat gets stronger, and then it slacks off. This beat started thousands of years ago when somebody got the idea, “Hey, instead of shooting this guy with an arrow, I think I’ll try to make a friend out of him. “In the ’60s there was really a strong beat, and there are certain songs that really sum it up. “Come on people now, smile on your brother”—every time I hear that, I think, “Now you’re talking. That’s exciting.”
Now it’s like looking out into the desert and seeing the shadow of a great dance going on. The dancers are gone, but the shadows are still moving around. When I see friends from that time, well, we’re like soldiers who were in a really successful campaign. We wear these invisible ribbons, and we always grin when we see them on each others’ chests. Have I given up on the spirit of that time? Ya never quits da mob.
Ken Kesey, 51, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
We were like Jim and Tammy in a way, fundamentalist hippies on a mission. We were into drugs and against the establishment, and we had a real zeal for changing the world. Of course, I don’t want to make too much of all this. One reason the ’60s scene happened, as John Lennon said, was that it was a great way to meet girls.
It was the San Francisco Be-In, the Gathering of the Tribes that January in Golden Gate Park, that changed the way we looked at ourselves. Before, there seemed to be about 20 of us, our friends and their friends. Suddenly there were thousands of people, and we felt this tremendous strength in numbers. No one was trying to do any damage to anyone else, and there was a real sense that we all coexisted in as near perfect harmony as human beings are capable of.
Could it happen again? Why would you want it to? It’s like the first time you make love—you’ll never forget it, but you don’t want to keep repeating the same experience. The point is, that whole generation still holds to those values. We haven’t grown up, despite the best efforts of our elders. We’re stuck at that time in our lives when things really mattered, and I, for one, am proud to be there.
Paul Kantner, 45, co-founder of the Jefferson Airplane
Until the be-in there was a certain amount of tension between the serious political activists over in Berkeley and the people in the Haight. The Haight people distrusted the people from the Free Speech Movement because they always seemed to bring with them the spirit of fear and confrontation. And the activists thought the hippies were just a bunch of spoiled kids who were permanently spaced out. So we had a powwow—the January Human Be-In—and decided to work together.
It was after that fusion that we came up with the idea of exorcising the Pentagon, the most feared symbol of what had gone wrong with America. Eventually the idea evolved into levitating the Pentagon to exorcise it. From that point on, the two elements of politics and the psychedelic walked hand in hand.
Albert Cohen, 47, founder of The Oracle, the Haight’s leading underground newspaper, and co-organizer of the Golden Gate Park be-ins
In the name of the generative power of Priapus, In the name of the totality, we call upon the demons of the Pentagon to rid themselves of the cancerous tumors of the war generals, all the secretaries and soldiers who don’t know what they’re doing, all the intrigue, bureaucracy and hatred, all the spewing coupled with prostate cancer in the deathbed. Every Pentagon general lying alone at night with a tortured psyche and an image of death in his brain, every general, every general lying alone, every general lying alone. Out, Demons, out! Out, Demons, out!
Part of the chant to levitate the Pentagon, done by Fugs’s founder Ed Sanders at the October 1967 Washington, D.C. rally of 50,000 antiwar protesters
The Love Rally here on Easter Sunday was a beautiful thing. All the uptightness in everyone was gone. No need for words…people just standing together—loving each other—doing their own thing. No one could believe it was really happening. But for New York the love rally ended at sundown.
…please, please could someone, would someone, take the time to write me and tell me the right things so I won’t be afraid to come to San Francisco. Please…something concrete—a name, address—something to come to. I need direction and I think maybe I could give a lot if someone would help me…or even better, need my help. Thank you.
Letter from a young New York woman to The Oracle
If you can remember the ’60s, then you probably weren’t there.
Comedian Robin Williams
During The Summer of Love I was living in Millbrook, N.Y., conducting systematic experiments with various psychedelic drugs, primarily acid. I think the signal event of that period was the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. With that one album, it was clear that something absolutely new was happening with young people.
The legacy of that time, the ripples of what happened that summer, are still being felt all around us. Humanism, individualism, letting it all hang out…these are principles being taught in Harvard Business School today. And look at Russia. If glasnost isn’t an expression of the openness of the ’60s, I don’t know what is.
Of course, all this is just my opinion. The great thing about the ’60s was that everyone could have their own opinion.
LSD guru Timothy Leary, 60
The whole operation was big and very sophisticated. We worked simultaneously with six overhead projectors, 12 synchronized slide projectors, all sorts of spotlights, four 16-and 18-mm film projectors and a kaleidoscopic projector. What we were doing was exciting and original, and all you have to do is look at some of the techniques in film and television today to see the impact we had. But we were never paid as much as the lowest action the bill. It was a labor of love, but even back then that wasn’t always enough.
Ben Van Meter, creator of the concert light shows at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom; now a Bay Area landscape contractor and screenwriter
I’m not so sure I’d want to go back to those times again. They were great, but life moves on, and if you don’t move with it you get left only with memories. The old band is trying to get back together again, though. You’d be surprised how many people want to hear that music played by the same people. We’re even looking for a female vocalist. We’re not trying to find a new Janis Joplin; that’d be impossible. We just want to do the old stuff for the people who still enjoy it.
Singer-bassist Peter Albin, 43, of Big Brother and the Holding Company; currently with a ’60s revival band called the Dinosaurs
One need not always wait for all conditions favorable to revolution to be present; the insurrection itself can create them.
From Guerrilla Warfare: a Method by Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, who was killed by Bolivian troops in October 1967
We made a right-hand turn into the Sheep Meadow, and the place was virtually exploding with people and colors and life. It was multicolored—MULTICOLORED in capital letters. There were magicians, people dressed as clowns, five or six groups of Hare Krishnas singing, yogis, musicians. It was unbelievable. What happened that summer was in the air for a couple of years. America was electrified, and we were all breathing it.
Artist Peter Max, 48, recalling New York’s Central Park Be-In on Easter Sunday 1967 Wild Thing heralded Jimi’s arrival on the acid rock moonscape with a genuinely boggling fusion of space-guitar flash, blues funk, pelvic lewdness and pyromaniacal lunacy. No guitarist had ever worked a one-handed version of Strangers in the Night into the power chords of a heavy metal rampage…I loved it when he played his Fender behind his back…when he did a backward roll and stood up again without missing a lick…I did not believe it when I saw Jimi lay the Fender down, sacrificially drop to his knees, and squirt lighter fluid on the guitar.
Then he tossed a match and created a legend. The flames danced several feet in the air and died down. Jimi stood and swung his Fender like an axe until it splintered into kindling wood. By then, we all sensed that Monterey was making history.
John Phillips, 51, founder of the Mamas and the Papas recalling the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival; from his recently published autobiography, Papa John (Doubleday) I have no possessions. Money is beautiful only when it is flowing. When it piles up, it’s a hang-up.
An ad saleswoman for The Oracle, 1967
Will it happen again? No question about it, although not in the same way. We’re not naive anymore. I know what a copyright is these days.
Psychedelic artist Victor Moscoso, 50, who is now locked in a lawsuit over copyrights to his ’60s dance posters for the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms
J. Edgar Hoover sleeps with a night-light.
Sign in a Haight-Ashbury bookstore, 1967
WHO BREAKS A BUTTERFLY ON A WHEEL?
There are many people who consider that Mr. Jagger has “got what was coming to him.” They resent the anarchic quality of the Rolling Stones’ performances, dislike their songs, dislike their influence on teenagers and broadly suspect them of decadence…If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity.
From a July 1, 1967 editoral in the London Times criticizing the three-month jail sentence given Mick Jagger for the possession of four pep pills, legally purchased in Italy
Even ultraconservatives began saying things like, “Wow, this is mind-blowing.” I remember the first time I saw Richard Nixon flashing a V sign. I thought, “This thing is bigger than all of us.”
Singer Country Joe McDonald
Understand this, brothers, this country can play Nazi if they choose to, but the black folks ain’t gonna play Jews…
Get your guns…If you gotta die, wherever you go, take some of them [white people] with you. I don’t care if we have to burn him down or run him out, you gotta take over those stores, take over your freedom…
When I get mad, I’m going out and look for a honkey and take out 400 years’ worth of dues on him…
Violence is as American as cherry pie…
Bobby Kennedy can be liberal about my freedom, but I am fanatic about it.
Selections from summer 1967 statements by black radical H. Rap Brown
We have left some Americans behind. They are the “have-nots” of America. Ugly economic facts feed their frustrations and their sense of hopelessness which makes them strike out. If you expect them to act as part of our society, you are kidding yourselves.
United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther, during the July 1967 race riots in Detroit that left 40 people dead, 2,000 injured and 5,000 homeless We saw all these kids descend on the Haight, and they were like sitting ducks for the predators, professional dealers and pied pipers. I remember at the Park Street precinct station we had one entire wall covered with pictures of runaways or missing children. Every day we were getting heartsick calls from parents whose children had disappeared.
You know, it was great for all these academic types to preach about the wonders of LSD and how it was going to change the world, but we were the officers who got called in when somebody had freaked out on a bad trip and was trashing some crash pad.
Retired SFPD officer Matt O’Connor, 62, then supervising agent of the Northern California Drug Abuse Task Force
In the beginning the clinic was mainly a place where kids on bad acid trips would come. We concentrated on creating a peaceful, desensitized environment, and it wouldn’t have been at all unusual to go into the room with one of the workers and find them in a circle chanting a mantra or meditating.
It wasn’t long before the dream fell apart. By late 1967 many of the original flower children moved out of the Haight and started the commune movement, and by 1968 the professional heroin and speed dealers had moved into the turf. That year the riot squad invaded the Haight and indiscriminately beat anyone they could find.
The times are different in 1987 than they were 20 years ago. For example, many of the cops on the San Francisco police department were themselves part of the hippie movement. And we now have new problems—like the AIDS epidemic.
Dr. David Smith, 48, founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic that, since 1967, has treated 650,000 patients
One reason for the decline of that era that has never been widely reported was the advent of professional dealers. In a very few months, around the end of 1967, it went from disorganized crime to highly organized crime, and a lot of the free-lance dealers who were part of the community ended up dead. Suddenly things got ugly.
Mixed-media pioneer Stewart Brand, 48, who in 1968 began publishing the Whole Earth Catalog
Actually, the previous summer had been the one that really got things off to a good start. By the time ’67 rolled around, we were already conscious that we were into something “important.” Hell, we even called it The Summer of Love. We knew what it was even while it was happening. I always think of it in light of Paris in the ’20s, a kind of mini-Renaissance. The culture was repressed, and that repression, I think, resulted in a flowering of the avant-garde.
Former concert promoter George Hunter, who now designs and manufactures furniture in Sonoma County, Calif.
The ’60s were not a time or even a place. They were a set of values. T-shirt artist and second-wave hippie Jonathan Marks, 24, who currently lives in an apartment on the corner of Haight and Ashbury
Could it happen again? I’m sure it will. History moves in spirals, not circles, and we’re evolving even as we attempt new things. Whatever is going to happen will be unexpected and suited to the times. But I’m not sure it will ever match the breadth and strength of the hippies. That was truly an extraordinary experiment in living.
S.F. attorney Terence Hallinan, 50, a Haight resident then and now