With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dominating the airwaves of Western radio, the Summer of Love was in full swing. In August 1967, George Harrison decided to fly to America’s west coast to see what all the fuss was about. To venture into the heart of San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury district, the primal scene of hippiedom’s crowning moment. But as it happened, George didn’t exactly like what he found there in that supposedly gentle place where people adorn their hair with flowers.
With wife Pattie, Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas, and Neil Aspinall in tow, George took the long flight from London to LAX on August 1st. As George later recalled, “My sister-in-law at the time, Jenny Boyd (who was Jennifer Juniper in the Donovan song), had been living in San Francisco, and she’d decided she was going to come back to live in England. We all went for a day out to see her; Derek [Taylor] and Neil, the not-so-magic Alex, and myself and Pattie.”
As dyed-in-the-wool Beatles fans well know, George and his entourage stayed in a rented home on Blue Jay Way in Beverly Hills. With foggy weather having descended upon L.A., Taylor got lost, inspiring Harrison to compose “Blue Jay Way,” which would later find a home in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour project. As George later recalled, “To keep myself awake, just as a joke to pass the time while I waited, I wrote a song about waiting for him in Blue Jay Way. There was a little Hammond organ in the corner of this house which I hadn’t noticed until then, so I messed around on it and the song came.”
Not long afterwards, George and Pattie made their way to Haight Asbury. Home to such as acts as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin, the Haight transformed in the mid-1960s into an impromptu bohemian village, where hallucinogens, free love, and communal living abounded. While Scott McKenzie’s hit single “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” rather sentimentally commemorated the city as a “love-in,” Harrison found something altogether different in the Haight.
As the Beatle later recalled, “I went there expecting it to be a brilliant place, with groovy gypsy people making works of art and paintings and carvings in little workshops. But it was full of horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs, and it turned me right off the whole scene. I could only describe it as being like the Bowery: a lot of bums and drop-outs; many of them very young kids who’d dropped acid and come from all over America to this mecca of LSD.”
In a moment of intense epiphany, George quit taking LSD on the spot. As he later recalled, “That was the turning point for me—that’s when I went right off the whole drug cult and stopped taking the dreaded lysergic acid. I had some in a little bottle (it was liquid). I put it under a microscope and it looked like bits of old rope. I thought that I couldn’t put that into my brain anymore.”
For his bandmates, Harrison’s experience in the Haight would have longstanding implications. Having sworn off LSD, he sought a new form of awakening, and his spiritual discovery would change the course of the Beatles in the process. Only a few weeks later, they would be sitting on the stage at the Hyde Park Hilton listening to a lecture delivered by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. With the power of Eastern philosophy as their guiding light, the Beatles’ lives would never be the same again.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), tells the fascinating story of the celebrated producer’s life and times as the musical mastermind behind the Fab Four. Ken’s previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.