By Bill Petro • billpetro.com
The Summer of Love was fifty years ago, the summer of 1967, with its epicenter in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It was a summer of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Both San Francisco and Liverpool will be celebrating it this summer. While not limited to San Francisco — New York and London were involved — no other city but San Francisco attracted almost 100,000 young people who converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This mood was captured at the time by the hit single by Scott McKenzie “San Francisco” with its lyric “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” It was a unique time, just one summer. The song was written by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas to promote that the June 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.
In the next year both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr would be assassinated. Woodstock was still two years away. But at the time there had never been anything quite like it. I recall my father driving through Haight-Ashbury at the time saying “Look at that!” with carnival-like amusement, baffled by the hair and clothes. By the end of 1967 many of the hippies and San Franciscan musicians from the Summer of Love had moved on. In its wake was street people, drug addiction, and panhandling. But let’s look at that one brief shining moment in history.
America had seen a couple of post-WWII counter-culture movements that later became mainstreamed: Jazz, and the Bohemians, the Beat Generation, or what were called beatniks. The first focused on music, the second on literature. The Summer of Love saw this and more personified in “hippies.”
The hippie movement was different in that it encompassed not just music and literature, but also art, fashion, liberal politics, sexual liberation, weed, psychedelics, Eastern philosophy and spirituality, naturalism, ecology, organics, communes, long hair, and youth. It was also characterized by what they were opposed to: the Vietnam War, Nuclear weapons, the Establishment, Middle-class values, and orthodoxy. This was usually articulated by concepts of peace, love, freedom, and flower power.
First folk music began to change with the singing prophets describing alternatively dissent and utopia. The rhythm and blues that led into rock and roll became acid rock or psychedelic rock. The San Francisco groups who expressed this were Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service among others.Each of these bands had participated in the January 1967 Human “Be-In” in nearby Golden Gate Park Polo Fields.
Some like Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding company — who lived in Haight-Ashbury — had iconic female lead singers: Grace Slick and Janis Joplin respectively. They had strong voices and created anthem-like music. Joplin with her electric performance and bluesy style rocked Haight-Ashbury where she lived. Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit” added a psychedelic tone to the Alice in Wonderland “Through The Looking Glass” story. She too lived in the Haight.
Dr. Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, promoted the popularization of LSD with the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out.” LSD had been legal until 1967. He uttered his now famous line at the Human “Be-In,” along with 40,000 of his closest friends.
If San Francisco was the cultural center of the Summer of Love, Berkeley was the political and intellectual center. Across the Bay, the University of Californiacampus at Berkeley featured the famed Telegraph Avenue that led directly into the university. It had been host to free speech demonstrations, civil rights protests, Vietnam war marches, sit-ins, riots, and confrontations with the Alameda Sheriff’s deputies and the National Guard. And drugs.
The beginning of the “sexual revolution” did not start in 1967, but it had been fomenting through the ‘60s. Former Esquire magazine journalist Hugh Hefner had been promoting the “Playboy philosophy” since 1953 with the publication of his first magazine. The ‘60s saw the opening of several Playboy Clubs in major cities in the US and internationally.
As Steve Jobs (and others) have famously quipped “most of the ‘60s happened in the ‘70s” the impact of the Summer of Love were not limited to 1967 but reverberated into the ‘70s. While most of the political ambitions of that Summer did not see fruition in government, many of the cultural issues are still with us. And its impact cannot be overstated. Steve Martin, who I used to go see when he was doing standup in the San Francisco Bay Area said of this time:
“It absolutely had an impact on me. I was a hippie and I believed it all, that love was going to change the world, and ‘Why can’t there be peace in the world?’ But I sensed times were going to change — or wanted to change. That was when I changed, cut my hair and left the hippie world. That was when I left an old movement and got into a new movement. At that time, your hair length and clothes said who you were. That’s no longer true.”
George Harrison of The Beatles visited San Francisco in August of the Summer of Love. The locals welcomed him as a visiting hero, but he was not impressed by what he encountered. He said at the time:
“The Summer of Love was just a bunch of spotty [pimply] kids on drugs.”
Some call it a cultural and social phenomenon. Others call it the orgiastic excess of privileged and spoiled Baby Boomers. In the following three articles I’ll discuss what the Summer of Love meant to sex, drugs, and rock & roll.