The summer of Love
Did the haight-Ashbury district of san francisco witness a psychedelic shift in consciousness that continues to reverberate today, or was it just a social experiment that ended in commercial exploitation, drug abuse and disillusion? GARY LACHMAN turns on,
Did San Francisco witness a psychedelic shift in consciousness that reverberates today, or was it a social experiment that ended in drug abuse and disillusion? Gary Lachman turns on, tunes in and goes back to 1967 in search of enlightenment.
Fifty years ago this summer, something happened on the west coast of America that in retrospect seems rather like a modern day Children’s Crusade. It was called the Summer of Love.
Filled with LSD, marijuana, patchouli oil and the strains of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Summer of Love of 1967 was envisioned as a kind of transformative season-long sociological experiment by the leaders of the burgeoning San Francisco psychedelic counter-culture. For them it was the start of a ‘consciousness revolution’. For others, it was a party that went on for too long.
As I point out in my book Turn OffYour Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side
of the Age of Aquarius, the roots of the 1960s counter-culture go back to the Beat Generation of the previous decade. 1 But we can trace its ancestry even further back, to the Wandervogel movement of early 20th century Germany, the ‘free love’ communes established at MonteVerità, in Ascona, Switzerland, around the same time, and further still, to the ‘occult revival’ of the late 19th century that produced Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, and the dark magician Aleister Crowley, whom the counter-culture would celebrate as a ‘proto-hippie’; even the Beatles were fans. But the immediate spark for the Summer of Love was struck on the previous autumn.
On 6 October 1966 the State of California criminalised the possession of lysergic acid diethylamide-25 – or as it was better known, LSD. Acid had been making the scene for some time by then. It had been discovered 23 years earlier by Albert Hofmann, a rigorous research scientist with the prestigious Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company in Basel, Switzerland. Hofmann was searching for a better aspirin and he had a hunch that the batch of ergot fungus he had been working with had something more to offer. When a minute amount of the 25th synthesis of the stuff mysteriously got into his system, he knew he was right. His account of his celebrated bicycle ride a few days later, on 19 April 1943, when he purposefully ingested some more just to make sure, is a recognised classic in psychedelic literature.
Not long after this, literati such as the German writer Ernst Jünger, who tripped with Hofmann, and Aldous Huxley, who popularised the judicious use of psychedelics in mainstream publications like Saturday Evening Post, sang the praises of chemically altered consciousness 2 (see
FT180:28-32). Huxley had already written his account of his own experience with a less powerful agent, mescaline, in his widely read The Doors of Perception (1953). It was, in fact, the Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who had administered Huxley’s mescaline dose, who coined the term ‘psychedelic’.
Through the late 1950s to his death in 1963 – on the same day as President John F Kennedy and CS Lewis – Huxley was the acceptable face of the growing psychedelic movement. Others followed, but not always with Huxley’s caution. LSD became popular among the Hollywood bohemian set, and the psychologist Oscar Janiger – headshrinker to the stars – administered it to his clients with great success. Cary Grant, one of the most popular actors of the time, told an interviewer that LSD had changed his life. Other therapists ran LSD sessions for $100 a shot. But it was R Gordon Wasson’s article about his experience with psilocybe
mexicana, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in the 13 May 1957 issue of Life that set the stage for the summer shindig a decade later. One of the people to try a taste of the ‘flesh of the gods’ – as the mind-altering fungus was called – was a Harvard psychology professor named Timothy Leary. The experience, we can say, went to his head.
At Harvard, Leary initiated a series of experiments with psilocybin, the powerful drug synthesised from the mushroom. Among his guinea pigs were the Three Musketeers of the Beat Generation – Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S Burroughs Jr. Ginsberg became as vocal an advocate of the unrestricted, ‘democratic’ distribution of LSD as Leary would be. He would later bemoan the fact that LSD had
Among Leary’s guinea pigs were theThree Musketeers of the Beat Generation
been the drug of choice in the infamous CIA MK-ULTRA experiments in ‘mind control’, and that he had unwittingly been one of their subjects. 3 The author Ken Kesey was another recipient of the CIA’s enlightenment. Kesey believed use of the drug should be unregulated, as the Acid Tests and Trips Festivals he organised with his band of Merry Pranksters made clear: even Leary’s famous dictum of ‘set and setting’ was jettisoned in these freeform, multi-sensory happenings. One less enthused participant in Leary’s psilocybin experiments was the writer Arthur Koestler, who had recently switched from politics to psychology and who would later turn to the paranormal. He found the experience “fake, ersatz, instant mysticism”. His assessment, however, was in the minority. But the most important player in Leary’s Harvard days, from the point of view of the Summer of Love, was the English conman and hipster sociopath Michael Hollingshead, who made a name for himself as ‘the man who turned on Timothy Leary’.
Hollingshead had acquired some 5,000 doses worth of LSD and, the story goes, mixed the stuff in an empty mayonnaise jar with some powdered sugar and distilled water, producing a high-potency goop. When he licked the spoon he went through the roof. He was convinced that henceforth he would “live in the realm of the primordial… I shall transform myself into a god who could walk across the tops of mountains…” Similar extravagant pronouncements would soon be echoed by Leary.
Claiming that he was sent by Huxley, Hollingshead turned up at Harvard; soon after, Leary enjoyed a lick of Hollingshead’s special spread. The flesh of the gods seemed more of an after-dinner mint compared to stuff Hollingshead had given him. Harvard was already concerned that too many of Leary’s students were acting strangely and that his psilocybin experiments were really a cover for illicit drug-taking. Now that
The psychedelic culture took hold in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco
Leary had tasted God’s DNA, all pretence to academic objectivity was abandoned. He was sacked by Harvard in 1963, but by then he had already taken on the role of psychedelic prophet, one he would maintain, in different versions, for the rest of his life.
Leary’s tub-thumping for the drug took the form of a semi-initiatory organisation, the International Federation of Internal Freedom, but its more public face was the
Psychedelic Review, which appeared in 1963. Its pages explored the hidden history of psychedelia and advocated its use for religious, psychological, philosophical, social and sexual liberation. Many heard the call, and LSD – still legally available – became the new sacrament of the underground. By 1964 John Lennon and George Harrison had both tripped, and in 1965, during a stint in Los Angeles, Lennon dropped acid again with the rock group the Byrds. The post-Beat scene and the rising youth culture were coalescing and moving on from ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ to edgier business. In March 1966, at London’s Indica Bookshop, Lennon picked up a copy of Leary’s The Psychedelic
Experience (1964), written in collaboration with his Harvard colleagues Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, and was enthralled. Pop music would never be the same again. Taking their cue from the Tibetan Book
of the Dead – a sign that Eastern mysticism of different sorts was getting into the act – Leary and co. advised Lennon to turn off his mind, relax, and float downstream. Lennon took this to heart and began a steady diet of LSD, which he continued for the next two years. One immediate result was what many consider the first psychedelic pop song, the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” the hypnotic closing track on their Revolver LP.
One place where the new psychedelic culture took hold was the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park. The area had been in decline since the 1950s. Property values had gone down and rents among the elaborate but now seedy 19th century wooden houses were cheap. The earlier North Beach scene, home to the Beats, had by then become overpriced. Artists, poets and others out of step with the American dream found a haven in the Haight, and it was among this community that the use of LSD and other mind-altering substances, such as marijuana, became popular.
The mid-1960s saw a growing trend among some Americans – a desire to escape the rat race, to reject mainstream conformity, to seek out new, experimental ways to live. In this they were following in the footsteps of the European bohemians who journeyed to Ascona in Switzerland to join the growing body of Sun worshippers and ‘back to nature’ enthusiasts occupying the communes on MonteVerità half a century earlier. One pilgrim to the ‘Mountain of Truth’ was the German novelist Hermann Hesse, who was now having a bestselling posthumous comeback among the love generation. An opposition to the intensifying war in Vietnam, a concern with civil rights and freedom of expression, a permissive attitude toward sex and hedonism, a predilection for comfortable, colourful, and expressive dress, an interest in Eastern mysticism, and a liberal use of LSD, produced a relaxed, tolerant, and communal atmosphere in the ‘alternative’ neighbourhoods that were popping up in places like New York and Los Angeles.
But the Haight would become the Mecca for the advocates of the new way of life. Rock music was a central ingredient, especially at the dances promoted by a group known as The Family Dog. Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead (see
FT164:20-25, 180:52-56), were familiar faces. Strobe lights, Day-Glo body paint, gyrating dancing, throbbing rock ensembles, and uninhibited embraces all conspired with the powerful illumination of the ‘psychedelic experience’ to turn rock concerts into something much more like religious events.
So when word got out that the government had decided to ban their sacrament, the local participants in the ‘consciousness revolution’ knew they had to act. The date of the criminalisation, 6/66, seemed ominous given it was the number of the Beast in Revelation. Tension had already developed between the Haight and the authorities. What had begun as a small, alternative enclave was now very visible. The non-conformist lifestyle was spilling out into the streets and attracting attention. Arrests for smoking pot and vagrancy increased as the police tried to contain what to many seemed a threatening trend. But it was Leary’s outspoken, aggressive, and attention-grabbing advocacy of LSD that more than anything else made Albert Hofmann’s discovery verboten, something for which the more judicious psychedelic initiates took him to task. For some in authority there were actual health hazards that needed to be addressed. For others, the idea that LSD could be used to transform society, as Leary untiringly proclaimed, was reason enough to ban it.
On the same day as possession of LSD was criminalised, the anarchist group the Diggers and the editors of the psychedelic newspaper the San Francisco Oracle organised a ‘LovePageant Rally’ to mark their opposition to the ban. The Oracle’s astrologer, Gavin Arthur, had already announced the advent of the Age of Aquarius. Now the Oracle’s brightly coloured, mind-blowing pages were commandeered to sound a rallying cry. Peaceful coexistence with the straight world was over – this was war.
The call was heeded. Thousands of people turned up on the Panhandle, the stretch of Golden Gate Park nearby, many more than Ron Thelin of the Psychedelic Shop or Allen Cohen of the Oracle expected. Music blared, pot was smoked, and as the ‘Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence’ was read aloud to the grooving crowd, many among them consciously broke the new law, and, placing a tab of the banned sacrament on their tongue, swallowed it.
But the Love-Pageant Rally was only the beginning. Afterward, the elders of the tribes gathered for a powwow, to decide on what would be ‘the next step’. Leary had predicted a psychedelic revolution and now, it seemed, it had begun. But it needed to spread. Michael Bowen, an artist associated with the
Oracle, consulted his own psychedelic guru, the mysterious John Star Cooke, who had his own ideas about a consciousness revolution. Cooke had been involved in Sufism, Ouija boards, Kahuna magic, Tarot, Gurdjieff, Subud and a number of other pursuits, as well as LSD. It was during a telephone conversation with Cooke that the idea of the Human Be-In came up.
It would be a kind of gathering of the tribes. Gavin Arthur consulted the stars to find the right time: 14 January 1967 would, it seemed, be ideal. Posters went up all over the Bay area. The Berkley Barb, a radical underground newspaper not always partial to psychedelic pursuits, threw in its front page. This was in keeping with the aim of the Be-In. Although many see the 1960s counter-culture as all of a piece, in truth it contained serious disjunctions. Most of these boiled down to the split between the political activists and the ‘psychonauts’, who were more concerned with ‘inner’ rather than outer revolution. The activists thought LSD and pot turned the revolutionary proletariat into lotus-eaters, while the consciousness kids thought the lefties were uptight and authoritarian. The idea of the Be-In was to bring the two tribes together, to unite against the common enemy, the Establishment. The Be-In would mark a union between the Heads and the Fists.
It began with Gary Snyder, a Beat poet turned Zen enthusiast, blowing on a conch shell. Then the 30,000-strong crowd, sprawled out in Golden Gate Park, joined with him in chanting the mantra of Maitreya. Allen Ginsberg followed with a chant to Shiva,
The Be-In was to bring the two tribes together, to unite against a common enemy
the hashish smoking Hindu god of yoga. Leary donated a mantra of his own, telling the crowd to ‘tune in, turn on, and drop out’, his psychedelic slogan. Leary had hoped to head the new consciousness revolution, but his psychedelic demagoguery was already old hat to people who had graduated from Kesey’s free form ‘acid tests’. Local bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead provided the music. 4 The sacrament was imbibed, helped by a marijuana garnish. Even the Hells Angels were brought in to act as kyshatriyas, spiritual warriors, guarding the sound equipment and keeping an eye on children. The one sour note was when Jerry Rubin, the resident activist, grabbed the mic to wag his leftist finger at the crowd, reprimanding them for letting Vietnam go on.
Be-Ins soon popped up in other places around the country and the feeling was strong that something big was on its way. The idealism of the early psychonauts envisioned some kind of national Be-In, a gentle revolution that would show the world that hate, violence, poverty and all the other problems of modern civilisation could be overcome, just through a change in consciousness, available on a sugar cube. Hadn’t thousands of people in Golden Gate Park just managed to ‘be’ together without a hitch? Many believed that if the people in power would only share the sacrament, they too would see how easily it could be done.
The elders gathered again and a plan was agreed. They would make the coming summer a Summer of Love; they would even form a Council to organise it. The idea was to spread the word and to invite everyone dissatisfied with the America dream, the rat race and all it entailed, to come to the Haight that summer and to experience on a grand scale the peace and harmony of the Be-In. The pilgrims would then return to their own towns, bringing the glad tidings with them. Soon the whole country would be feeling the good vibes, guaranteed by a judicious ingestion of the sacred drug. It would, the Council for the Summer of Love believed, change the world.
By this time the Love-Pageant Rally and the Be-In had attracted much media attention.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen had coined the term ‘hippie’ to refer to the strange denizens of the Haight; he had coined the term ‘beatnik’ a decade earlier. Articles about the hippies appeared in newspapers, television news aired reports, and there was even a guided bus tour of the Haight, the ‘Hippie Hop’, showing the straights how the other half lived.
While the Council for the Summer of Love wanted word to get out, so that the psychedelic message could spread, they were also concerned that with all the attention, the magical vibes of the Haight were changing. Things were quickly getting out of hand, and swiftly moving beyond their control. Almost as soon as the idea of the Summer of Love was formed, clouds gathered around it. Tourists were clogging the streets with their cars. Day-trippers, uninterested
in the mystical insights afforded by the sacrament, headed to the Haight for some cheap highs and free love. What had started as a spontaneous creative expression was quickly becoming a fashion, with hippie chic requiring appropriate wear. Love beads and headbands were de rigueur. The locals felt that the neighbourhood was losing its soul. The Diggers fought back. When the Hippie Hop rolled down Haight Street, they held mirrors up to the window, so the curious could get a good look at themselves. On Easter Sunday 1967, hippies danced in the streets and had a ‘walk-in’, stopping traffic in the district. But the police were concerned too. Hippies seemed to be sprouting quicker than mushrooms, magical or otherwise. And when one newspaper announced that “Hippies Warn City – 100,000 Will Invade Haight-Ashbury This Summer” the mayor quickly declared war on them. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors said they were unwelcome, and the police said they would keep the pilgrims out.
Brave words. The flood started with spring break, with college kids from Middle America and back east wanting to see if what they had read in the papers was true. The Monterey Pop Festival, held over 16-18 June, just down the coast from San Francisco, drew an estimated 25,000 to 90,000 people, crowding in and around the fairgrounds where Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Dead, Ravi Shankar and others performed. Afterwards many headed north for the summer. A few weeks later, school was out, and the flood started in earnest. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper had just been released, and everyone listened for the coded psychedelic messages. It vied with other music as the season’s soundtrack, but the tune most associated with the Summer of Love was Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’, written by John Philips of the Mamas and the Papas. It was released that May and headed straight to the charts. With its catch line, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”, it was aimed at drawing its listeners to what was being called the ‘Capital of Forever’.
It worked. Many heard the tune, and like the audience for the Pied Piper, many followed. Too many: with 15,000 hippies already inhabiting the Haight, another 100,000 made the place unsupportable. The city council refused to let Golden Gate Park act as a giant camp ground, so many slept in the streets and washed when and where they could. The Diggers, Family Dog, and other locals tried to find safe housing for the pilgrims, and even set up a Free Clinic and Free Store to help with the influx, but they weren’t prepared for the deluge that came washing down the Haight. The free food, free drugs, free love and good vibes that the new arrivals had read about in the national press were soon used up. In a short space of time it became clear to those involved that what they had on their hands was something like a ‘bummer of love’.
Soon even the sacrament could not turn the thing around, and its vociferous advocates weren’t making the scene. Kesey was in jail on a marijuana rap and Leary was ensconced in Millbrook, his upstate New York headquarters, trying to devise a new attack on the establishment and new ways to make money. Acid itself was in short supply and the newcomers took to swallowing methamphetamine and other substitutes in order to get high. Less spiritual drug dealers moved in, including the Mafia, who
The locals weren’t prepared for the deluge that came washing down the Haight
may or may not have been responsible for some gruesome drug killings, and free love quickly deteriorated into sexual assault and proliferating STDs. One Communications Company flyer – a kind of hippie bulletin board set up by the Beat writer Chester Anderson – announced that a “17-year-old street dealer” had pumped a “pretty little 16-year-old chick” with speed and then raffled her off for a “Haight Street gang bang”. When the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia read this he knew the party was over.
By the end of the summer, the Capital of Forever had become a kind of psychedelic ghetto, with bad trips on the rise. A new drug, STP, more powerful than LSD, had arrived. 5 On 21 June, the Summer Solstice, a celebration took place to mark the official start of the Summer of Love. 5,000 tabs of the new high-octane hallucinogen were distributed free to the participants. Many later found themselves in hospital emergency wards, rattling through a threeday trip. The doctors, unaware of what they were dealing with, administered Thorazine, the standard procedure with acid casualties. They didn’t know that Thorazine actually increases STP’s effects, and so the wiggedout pilgrims only got worse.
When autumn came everything was officially over. The neighbourhood had gone downhill, the good vibes had evaporated, the police were cracking down, and many who had made the Haight what it had been, pulled up stakes and moved to the countryside. The pilgrims returned to their homes, some enlightened by the experience but many cynical about what had actually taken place. On 6 October 1967, a year after the Love-Pageant Rally, the Diggers, who had been the most active and effective group on the scene, performed a mock ceremony, announcing the ‘Death of the Hippie’. Don’t come to San Francisco was the message now. There’s nothing here.
ABOVE LEFT: Ken Kesey, proponent of unregulated LsD use and organiser of the Acid tests. ABOVE RIGHT: eastern mysticism meets the san francisco sound.
ABOVE LEFT: the Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury; cheap Victorians in the haight meant that rock bands and artists could move into the neighbourhood. ABOVE RIGHT: the Dead hanging out in early 1967. TOP: the local music scene centred on family Dog dances at the Avalon, the carousel and other ballrooms.
ABOVE: “strobe lights, Day-Glo body paint, gyrating dancing, throbbing rock ensembles... conspired with the powerful illumination of the ‘psychedelic experience’ to turn rock concerts into something much more like religious events.” BELOW: Poster art for haight-Ashbury dances and concerts was equally distinctive.
ABOVE LEFT: Allan Ginsberg dancing to the Dead at the Be-In. ABOVE RIGHT: A poster for the ‘Gathering of the tribes for a human Be-In’ at Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967. BELOW: In october, the poster for the ‘trip or freak fantasmagoraball’ at Winterland seemed to sound a darker and less idealistic note.
ABOVE LEFT: the haight under siege; the Diggers hand out free food in the Panhandle. ABOVE RIGHT: the haight Ashbury free clinic opened in June 1967 to treat hippies dealing with ‘bum trips’, stDs and other conditions. BELOW: one major driver for the influx was scott McKenzie’s faux-hippie smash hit ‘san francisco’.
ABOVE: A group of people carry a fake coffin during the ceremony of ‘the Death of hippie’, a mock funeral organised by Mary Kasper to signal the conclusion of the scene in the haight Ashbury. BELOW: A funeral notice invited people to attend the service in Buena Vista Park on 6 october 1967.