A lot of celebrations are marking the 50-year anniversary of the Summer of Love. There has been a positive ripple effect as well as some overrated aspects I witnessed, even being a little late to the actual party. Basically it was a good time according to the older brothers and sisters of friends who visited San Francisco and like the song advertised: ‘summertime will be a love-in there; lots of gentle people with flowers in their hair’.
In a sleepy suburb south of San Francisco I was barely into my teens in 1968 waiting with my fellow junior high school students for the arrival of the first hippie, a transfer student from San Francisco. We’d all heard about these creatures in the media but never actually seen one. And as most teenagers want to be cool, this was our chance to examine someone from the center of love and peace and learn how they dressed, talked and walked. The student showed up with hair almost to his shoulders, and a leather vest over his funky shirt and jeans. He stood out because back in those days California schools had a dress code - men’s hair couldn’t be over the ear and blue jeans weren’t allowed. He carried a harmonica and spouted jargon like cool, groovy and far out while looking perpetually stoned with sleepy eyes. (Guess who found his big brothers stash.) He didn’t like being a freak show so quickly kept aloof before turning on the school.
During this time my good friend Sherman Applegate and I had an opportunity to go to San Francisco. We figured the good vibes would still be flowing and might catch some of the spirit still in the air. My dad was driving up to the city for a seminar so we hitched a ride and went to Golden Gate Park looking for a Love-In with all the groovy people celebrating the endless party. We came across an outdoor bandstand and were happily surprised to discover a group we knew called the Flamin’ Groovies performing their 50’s rock inspired tunes. A couple of hundred chairs were set up but only maybe 20 or 30 people scattered around listening.
It was hardly the big festival of colorful dancing free spirits we had expected but as Sherman noted: “I remember seeing girls wearing completely see-through tops, laughing, singing, dancing, being completely free in their sexuality. It was wonderful. At that point in my life I had never really seen women's breasts right in front of me. It was an eye opener not simply in the literal sense but in the way those visuals were delivered with no shame, no embarrassment. It was pure, honest and beautiful. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this happens every day here?’. It was small but it was pure fun with an attitude of ‘we're here to be happy in spite of everything that is happening in the world around us’. But even with those positive experiences there seemed to be something underneath that was darker and that something once beautiful may have been tarnished a bit.”
We walked down the Panhandle, a narrow strip of the park that extends towards the Haight Ashbury – the home of hippiedom. There we had a real eye-opener coming across a free food kitchen operated by a group of volunteers called the Diggers. The main course looked like a rice concoction being served out of a large plastic garbage can (there were a lot of hungry people). There was a long line of disheveled, homeless looking people in everything from worn out Mexican ponchos to tie-dyed outfits. Everybody around the States had heard that song ‘when you go to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’ and took it literally. But with no place to live or work thousands of kids wanting a little slice of heaven on earth became disconnected souls and burned out runaways.
I felt disappointed or perhaps disillusioned because we had come expecting to see this Day-Glo experience of brotherhood and love radiating positive energy and instead all we saw was a band playing to a miniscule public and what looked like survivors from a war zone ready for rescue by the Salvation Army.
Sherman was more upbeat in his observations: “what I came away with was simply experiencing a bit more of the communal tribe vibe at the park, people having fun and really just taking care of each other. That rang true to me. That was more profound to me than the negative issues.”
There was a spirit in the air that even found its way down to our sleepy little suburb. Eventually some students started showing up to school in worn-out blue jeans and long hair as the rules adapted to the times. A funny smell appeared in the air like some kind of burning hay while various people took up the guitar. The spirit lived on even if the essence of the movement had faded out, while the conservative mentality was opening up in ways still felt today. Trips to the Fillmore auditorium to see rock acts became the norm. And nobody was surprised to see our longhaired water polo coach who had taken our school to a national championship hanging out on the legendary sofa at the back of the hall wearing sunglasses with a blissful smile and a beaded roach clip on his belt.