A Troubled Season of Love
Swaddled in comfort, we stood there waiting. The high sun cast over thousands of faces, lines stretched as far as the eye could see. This was the peak event, the Surrealistic Summer Solstice Concert and Grand Lighting, and Golden Gate Park was beautiful.
“It’s just, like, I don’t know. I need more attention,” the girl next to me said.
Her friend nodded supportively. We were waiting for Mexican food and the line was moving slowly.
“Like, this is kind of embarrassing, but a few weekends ago he was out of town with his family. I wasn’t used to being alone, so I got kind of, like, I don’t know, I got kind of lonely.”
They both laughed knowingly.
“I just, whatever, I was alone with my phone. And after a while, I kind of…”
She paused to look at her friend.
“I started a Tinder account. Just to look and see, you know? I mean I was alone! I just wanted to feel someone noticing me…”
It’s a bit of a faux pas to join a dating site if you already have a boyfriend. She knew that. But this is the year 2017. We have options.
“Here’s the really funny thing,” she continued.
“The next morning I got a text from Ryan saying something really embarrassing had happened. He said it was embarrassing for both of us, but more for me than for him.”
Her friend looked eager, waiting for the punchline. The line still wasn’t moving, and I was hungry too.
“He sent me a screenshot; he got a message saying we’re matched. He had an account too!”
In San Francisco, this is how we’re remembering the Summer of Love: with an army of overpriced food trucks, bands playing predictable ’60s tunes, a light show that begins promptly at 9pm, all the lonely people with their smart phones not to blame.
Fifty years ago, thousands of young people flocked to the city following the clarion call of musicians, head shops, and the notion that peace and love really were available. Now, in honor of that supposedly great migration, various events are being held to laud the present and celebrate the past.
At the de Young museum, The Summer of Love Experience is available for $25. Tie-die remains an obscure form of symbolism, but never you mind, seems to be the main message. Period posters, colorful clothing, provocative references to acid, free love, and other forms of protest decorate the walls. According to the de Young there was little distinction between the hippies and the Black Panthers, or the counterculture and the civil rights movement, because it was all about resistance, man. Do your own thing, have fun, and be fashionable. The past is prologue and the future is now — hey!
Nearing the end of the exhibit, I wondered what the curators had to say about the end of the sixties. The years after the summer of 1967, when the Haight-Ashbury fell into decline due to overpopulation, and an infusion of hard drugs spread violence throughout the city. Would there be some treatment of this aftermath? Some attempt to come to terms with the decade’s darker legacy?
No. The Summer of Love Experience ends in a gift shop, quite literally. There are retro outfits, decorative handbags, posters, coffee mugs with peace signs, and other memorabilia for sale. But no further explanations.
* * *
These days, the fog of self-congratulations hangs heavily over San Francisco. And for this reason it’s easy to assume the gaze of history shines happily upon us.
Yet the real question is what we’ve learned since the 1960s. Who are we now, and what do we truly stand for, beyond old slogans and newer marketing campaigns?
Early in 1967, the San Francisco Oracle announced that on January 14 “A Gathering of the Tribes” would meet in Golden Gate Park for a Human Be-In. “Bring food to share. Bring flowers, beads, costumes, feathers, bells, cymbals, flags,” the newspaper said.
On the cover a large photo of a Hindu holy man greeted readers with his flowing beard and a third eye drawn on to his forehead. “The Human Be-In is the joyful, face-to-face beginning of the new epoch,” the editors wrote. Around Haight-Ashbury especially, promotional fliers helped spread the word.
As the list of celebrity speakers made clear, the event would feature cultural and political radicals united in a common effort to “powwow, celebrate, and prophesy the epoch of liberation, love, peace, compassion, and unity of mankind.”
Freewheeling Frank of the Hells Angels and Michael McClure the poet would be there, and the Grateful Dead would provide the soundscape. When the day came, the legendary LSD chemist and local music scene benefactor Augustus Owsley Stanley III made a special batch of acid, which he gave to the Diggers, a Haight-Ashbury anarchist collective, to distribute for free.
The crowd was estimated at 25,000 people. As City Lights historian Peter Conners writes,
“With the Hells Angels guarding the generators, helping to restore the sound system whenever it cut out, and acting as security for the day, the Be-In had representation from basically every quarter of American counterculture. Overall, it was an event with very few snags, and — as with Woodstock two years later — a shining example of how large-scale unregulated youth-oriented gatherings could be peaceful events without the presence of the police. Allen [Ginsberg] would eventually call the Be-In ‘the last idealistic hippie event.”
On January 14, 2017, I went back to the park to look for clues as to what the Human Be-In meant, why it matters, what, if anything, is left.
When I got there the sun shone brightly just as it did fifty years ago, I’ve read. But the Polo Field was vacant, closed off. Seemingly empty.
At first I sat on the north side across from a group of cyclists that quickly dispersed. A few people walked their dogs. Walking on the inner track I got confused about which way is which. Two cyclists came hurtling toward me and one said, “you’re going the wrong way, dude.” Yes, I was. Backward, in search of lost time.
Up ahead I saw a few dots on the southwest side of the field. Hearing the faint tinkle of an electric guitar, I sensed some observance. A ceremony of remembrance. Maybe this was the saving remnant.
Really it was a small gathering of weirdos. Animal costumes, rainbow hats, and tie-die predominated. The music was bad and I didn’t have the stomach to mingle. As I approached, I turned and walked immediately the other way, back toward the dilapidated bleachers on the other side of the field.
I expected it to be a ghost town, myself the lone chronicler. I remembered Allen Ginsberg’s question to Lawrence Ferlinghetti a half-century ago, not far from where I was sitting: “What if we’re wrong?”
A voice on the loudspeaker called me back toward them. As I approached, a circle was called into union. Suddenly, we were all holding hands in the sun.
Evocations of the spirits who came before us: Leary, Ginsberg, McClure, Gary Snyder, all the great sages of countercultural remembrance. Wishes for love and light in our season of darkness. The seven generations before us and after us, someone said. That’s who this is for.
Through our clasped hands we offered gratitude, hope, faith that the power of love would win out in the long run. It was six days before Donald Trump’s Inauguration.
When it was my turn to speak, I felt the wave of fellow feeling drawing me forth. I’m honored to be standing on this hallowed ground, I said. We’ll keep cultivating these seeds, growing them in new ways for new generations. That’s what this day means.
But what about the official anniversary, the ticketed event happening tonight at the Gray Area Theater?
When my friend Peter and I arrived at the old warehouse space on Mission and 23rd Street, it was clear that there was going to be a lot of gray and a lot of sloppy sixties nostalgia.
People in costume, some I recognized from earlier in the day, gathered in line. A guy with a knock-off Magic Bus passed out reservation cards that said “Life is not a tour, it’s a trip!” It wasn’t just a gimmick. He wanted us to book a tour. A well-dressed kid in front of us said he was part of a Merry Prankster revival, spreading the movement to a new generation. When I asked him what the “movement” is, he said you know, not choosing the path society has cut out for you, all those ideas that go back to the Beats, which we still need today. I thanked him for the information and gazed off into the distance, not knowing what else to say.
Peter and I sniffed at each other and continued to wait in line. When we entered the space it felt like an overly ambitious art installation. Bright colors, too much visual stimulation coming from too many screens. A bar completely out of sync with the moment in history we were supposed to be celebrating. Nothing felt genuine, it was all twenty-first century chic being sold under the guise of tie-die.
I began to feel had, pissed, heartbroken. With flowers in their hands, people stood by dumbly. An aging hippie passed me wearing Google Glasses. The lyrics “Are you going / to San Francisco?” played over a fuzzy sound system. It was a bassy remix. More funny hats, a bald guy blowing bubbles passed by. Peace signs on t-shirts; on one of the screens a giant Love graphic morphed into the word “Peace” above the stage. This was Moloch, and Allen Ginsberg was dead.
When Diamond Dave — the evening’s Emcee — appeared, all hope was lost. He read a list of slogans that ended in “don’t panic, keep it organic.” The words were meaningless, his fist pumps even less convincing. What had he been doing all these years, I wondered?
This was a bad dream, a cruel awakening. They wheeled Wavy Gravy in to the center of the stage so he could preside over his own terrible music being piped in at maximum volume. For no apparent reason, he wore a big red clown nose. Barry Melton, of Country Joe and the Fish, later played one song and then announced he had to leave because he almost died two days ago from the flu. The Human Be-In All Star band sounded OK, but the remaining members may all be gone within the year.
The crowd cheered. What a waste. Corporate sponsors appeared in even more dramatic costumes to talk about peace and love and their new websites.
“Does anyone else want to promote a show?” an announcer asked.
I had no idea what to do but capture video footage and send sullen text messages to old friends. Would I have fared better on acid? Probably worse. That’s an important lesson to be noted.
I nursed a beer and watched people decades older than me get down on the dance floor. Under different circumstances, I might have joined in; but tonight my body ached. This was a high school reunion I wasn’t invited to.
I wanted to be old for their sake. I wanted to protest, to stand for something and make an argument, or at least engage someone in conversation. But the music was too loud. The people were into it.
I was alone on behalf of ghosts.