Editor’s Note: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the California Historical Society’s “On the Road to the Summer of Love” tells the story of this countercultural movement through an ambitious photographic exhibition. The selection of images and text included with this article are reproduced from the larger exhibition and highlight a portion of the cultural and contextual features that led up to the 1967 Summer of Love. The full exhibition will be on display through 24 September 2017 at 678 Mission Street, San Francisco.
The Summer of Love
The community that grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood from 1965 to 1967 was part of a vital tradition celebrating personal freedom and the right of peaceful protest that has traveled through American history since Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1954). The thread is intrinsic to San Francisco, which as Thoreau began his masterpiece was emerging during California’s Gold Rush. The forty-niners were not dutiful servants of the Protestant work ethic but rogues gambling their lives for gold, scamps who cherished an eccentricity uniquely American.
Today, fifty years from the Summer of Love, its impact—social, cultural, economic, political, psychosexual—continues its ripples through American culture. Its unabashed pursuit of liberation triggered all manner of questioning of gender identity. LSD challenged social hierarchies, which had a particular impact on engineers around Palo Alto; without the West Coast psychedelic ethos, Silicon Valley and the development of the personal computer may have happened in Boston. It also created sensitivity to what one put in one’s body that led to natural foods and the organic food industry. The music and graphic art of the subculture swept the globe and seized young imaginations everywhere.
All this and more remains with us: the origins of the revolutionary maelstrom begin with the tribal elders known as the Beat Generation, succeeding important political events and the mind-changing effects of a powerful avant-garde art scene. Combined with psychedelics and rock and roll, the result was the creation of a new consciousness, which we call the Summer of Love.
The roots of the Haight-Ashbury scene arose in a small cluster of disaffected writers repulsed by the monstrous death and destruction birthed from World War II. In 1944, a seaman and Columbia University dropout named Jack Kerouac fell in with Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and another man, William S. Burroughs. They created a “new vision,” a mix of transcendentalism and bohemianism that evolved into “Beat,” a rejection of mainstream bourgeois American beliefs and an advocacy of art and spirituality pursued through intense experience.
Their friend Neal Cassady settled in San Francisco, and then Kerouac and Ginsberg followed. Here Ginsberg blossomed as a poet, producing Howl in 1955. He first read it at the Six Gallery along with sympathetic companions and fellow readers Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and others, with the elder of the city’s poetry scene, Kenneth Rexroth, as master of ceremonies. Howl was published the next year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press. Along with Kerouac’s 1957, On the Road, the poem inspired young artists to align with the idea of Beat, especially in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.
A succession of youth-dominated political events prepared the ground for the consciousness labeled the Summer of Love. In 1960, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco’s City Hall to hold hearings, and the students of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University demanded the right to attend. They were not only denied entrance, but forced down the hall’s grand staircase by firehoses. Outside, students and left-wing unionists mocked HUAC with Nazi salutes; the once-terrifying power of the committee would soon disintegrate.
In 1964, students from the two schools came together again, this time to challenge white-only hiring among the auto dealers along San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue and at the Sheraton Palace Hotel. After nonviolent picketing and hundreds of arrests, they achieved victory when the car dealers and hotel owners agreed to integrate.
Later that year, students at UC Berkeley created the Free Speech Movement, as they named it, and challenged the limits on political free speech in the university’s Sproul Plaza in what developed into a countercultural critique of a technocratic university treating education as a product. The mass arrests and frequent violence surrounding the FSM presaged many more such incidents to come across the nation, as well as the ensuing reaction that helped elect Ronald Reagan as California governor and later US president, jumpstarting a nascent conservative movement still ascendant in 2017.
Coupled with an awakening sexual liberation stimulated by birth control and ongoing Vietnam War protests, many young people in the Bay Area evolved a very new perspective by the mid-1960s. The experiences, experiments, and beliefs of those “hipsters” or “hippies” would soon rock the world.
An underappreciated element of the cultural and intellectual flowering of the Haight-Ashbury scene is the role played by various avant-garde arts group and individuals over the previous decade. The Actor’s Workshop, the Tape Music Center, the Committee and Lenny Bruce, the Open Theater, Canyon Cinema—each had a heavy impact on young people whose minds had been opened by Beat poetry and political events. Two groups emerged as particularly significant.
The Actor’s Workshop would have a far-reaching impact, bringing serious theater to San Francisco with plays by Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet. They sought, wrote co-director Herb Blau, to “shock, disturb, remind, tease and infuriate our audiences.” They succeeded. Among the veterans of AW was former assistant director Ronnie Davis, founder of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe.
The Tape Music Center, founded by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick with Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Tony Martin, would challenge the notion of what music was. It was central to the development of modern avant-garde music, and its propensity for interacting with other groups—for instance composing for the Actor’s Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin—made it an aesthetic nexus in the scene.
Poetry, politics, and avant-garde art were the elements in the alembic chamber (wherein alchemists tried to change base metals into gold). LSD and rock and roll were the final agents that catalyzed a remarkable transmutation in the minds of the Haight’s new citizens. The need for spiritual transcendence is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and LSD was a revolutionary agent of change, making the psychedelic experience exponentially more accessible—inexpensive, powerful, and easily obtained in San Francisco. It found a perfect partner in high-volume, visceral rock and roll.
In the summer of 1965, the San Francisco band the Charlatans took over the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and became the first band to routinely combine LSD, a light show, and rock and roll. Later that year, author Ken Kesey and his friends the Merry Pranksters began a series of parties where LSD was available, dubbing them Acid Tests. They grew very quickly, and reached their apogee in January 1966 at the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall, with thousands in attendance. Many of the avant-garde arts groups—the Tape Music Center, Anna Halprin, the Open Theater—took part, but it was Tony Martin’s light show and the rock and roll bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and the Holding Company) that people embraced.
The Real Summer of Love
The true Summer of Love was not the public affair of 1967, but the private social experiments that took place largely in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966. Among the most fondly remembered of these was a pair of parties at Olompali, a large home in Marin County where the Grateful Dead had taken up residence for the summer. Inviting their friends—members of Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others—they played, danced, and got quite high in the private, natural setting of the ranch.
Back in the city, a psychedelic neighborhood sprang up along Haight Street. Hip businesses like Mnasidika, the Psychedelic Shop, and In Gear opened. The Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium presented music, poster artists advertised the shows with extraordinary creativity, and a community grew. By fall, the Haight had generated its own iconic social-theatrical-political visionary troupe, the Diggers, who would subvert the dominant paradigm with art and humor.
When LSD was made illegal on 6 October 1966, the Diggers and their friend Allen Cohen of the Haight’s newspaper the Oracle responded with the Love Pageant Rally, a celebration rather than a protest. At their request, the Grateful Dead played for free, and free music in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park became a fixture of the Haight experience.
The Gathering of the Tribes
As 1966 drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the Haight. Peace, joy, and love were actually working. A few hundred people had created something remarkably beautiful. It called for a celebration, and Allen Cohen and his artist friend Michael Bowen of the Haight’s Oracle newspaper conceived of a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In, to be held in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967.
Among those who came together, there were elder and mentor poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Lew Welch; spiritual leaders like Timothy Leary and the apostle of Zen Buddhism in America, Shunryu Suzuki; various rock bands; and even the Berkeley radicals. They were celebrating, as someone remarked, nothing in particular. It was a truly wonderful day.
But it had enormous, unanticipated consequences. Up to that point, the Haight-Ashbury scene, whose members referred to themselves as “freaks,” had flown largely under mainstream society’s notice, not least because the group was actually quite small. But the Be-In attracted tens of thousands to the park, and the spell of invisibility vanished. The media descended, the phrase “hippie” became immortalized, and suddenly the trivial accoutrements of life in the Haight—long hair, flowers, extravagant clothing—were broadcast around the world.
 For a discussion of Kerouac’s understanding of “beat” as tramping along with a rucksack, and as beatitude, beatific, see Conversations with Jack Kerouac, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005), 31. With thanks to David L. Ulin for this reference.
Dennis McNally is author, historian, and music publicist. He was the publicist for the Grateful Dead, is the band’s authorized biographer, and wrote the bestselling history of the band, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, as well as the recently published On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America. He lives in San Francisco.
Copyright: © 2017 Dennis McNally and the California Historical Society. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/