The Bay Area celebrates the fabled Summer of Love in exhibitions, tours, film and dance.
“The issues raised in the ’60s that connect back to the Beats and way back to Thoreau haven’t died at all,” declares historian Dennis McNally. Our fragile link to nature; our concerns about gender and sexuality, women’s rights, cultural and ethnic diversity, war—each of these issues feel as relevant as ever right now, “if not more so,” says McNally, who’s the curator of “On the Road to the Summer of Love” at the California Historical Society. That exhibit is one component of Bay Area-wide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, that fabled period of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll,
Various arts organizations and other institutions are each presenting a small (or in some cases, big) piece of an era that’s too expansive for one organization to handle. For some of us old timers, this look back in time may feel like a big, nostalgic, sensorial dream of incense, patchouli oil, brown rice, bell bottoms, loud rock and sweet sensimilla (though it has been said that if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there). For younger folks—well, as Colleen Terry, co-curator of “Summer of Love: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll” at the DeYoung Museum, notes, it’s an opportunity to see how far society has come—and, with the goals of the ’60s counterculture in mind, to consider where we can still go.
On the Road to the Summer of Love
The California Historical Society’s photo exhibit provides perspective by looking at the history of the history of the Summer of Love, and as such it goes back as far as the mid-’50s, with 150-plus images to illustrate how the North Beach beatniks (so-named by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) morphed into the Haight Street hippies. The kickstarter, points out McNally, was in October 1955, when Allen Ginsberg first read his epic poem “Howl” to an appreciative audience at Gallery Six on Fillmore Street. “Unfortunately nobody had a camera that [particular] night,” he observes, “but we have sound recordings and images from the era.” The exhibit moves on through some political events, such as civil rights demonstrations on auto row in San Francisco, and then, says McNally, “you skip forward and add LSD and rock’n’roll and you have the scene in the Haight.”
The Haight-Ashbury was, famously, the epicenter of the hippie movement; during the Summer of Love in 1967, 100,000 young people from all over the country swarmed into that neighborhood, lured by Scott McKenzie warbling of John Phillips’ (of the Mamas & the Papas) “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair”) on the radio. The Historical Society’s exhibit boasts a “for-real sheet of LSD—double-locked behind glass,” says McNally; in the ’60s,, you ate a tiny square of “acid” that had been dropped onto blotter paper and you tripped (or freaked) out.
In the middle of the timeline, between the literary beatniks and the rock’n’roll/psychedelic crowd, there’s the avant-garde art scene—the “pre-hippie” art scene, McNally calls it—that presaged what was to come in that memorable summer. Photos show performing groups like the improv troupe The Committee in North Beach, the Actors Workshop, the Open Theatre, the (still vibrant and radical today) San Francisco Mime Troupe (then led by R.G. Davis), the folk music scene. McNally even tracked down a rare photo of Janis Joplin in 1963, taken in a club in San Jose.
Another museum, across the Bay, offers a different “history of the history.” The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) takes a decades-long look at the art, design and architecture created by 20th-century innovators, particularly those of the ’60s counterculture. More than 400 works—including photos, illustrations, installations, furniture, printed material and fashions—examine the legacy of avant-garde filmmakers, writers and artists of all genres and from various places, not just local. The assorted influences on hippie Modernism included the space race, Buckminster Fuller and his geodesics, the Vietnam War, the back-to-the-land migration and, of course, LSD. The exhibit goes back as far as a 1924 Alexander Calder painting of a circus that hints at the playfulness as well as the weirdness of the coming Modernism. “Altered states of perception were stimulated not only by meditation and psychotropic substances but also by art and design,” BAMPFA’s promotional materials point out. A central theme is about expanding consciousness of “the holistic relationship of self, world and cosmos.”
There’s Ken Isaac’s “Knowledge Box” that you enter, four people at a time, and are surrounded—walls, floor, ceiling—by an impressionistic visual and audio collage of the ’60s: voiceovers, text, world news clips and so on. Or you can lie on a hammock in a room with trippy wall projections and piped-in rock’n’roll, and, in another chamber, sink into a bean bag chair to watch psychedelic films that were probably more amazing back then, when you were stoned. There are political posters, photos of those zany performers the Cockettes, four mannequins on a dais wearing one four-person sweater (by fiber artist Evelyn Roth), the iconic photo of John and Yoko in bed, copies of Ramparts Magazine, Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalogue” and Max Scherr’s ever-controversial Berkeley Barb (where this writer worked that summer, happily, without pay); the latter never achieved the fame of Allen Cohen’s San Francisco alt-weekly, The Oracle. There’s an accompanying film series, “Cinema and Counterculture,” that screens documentary, fiction and experimental cinema of the late ’60s and early ’70s, including such well-known films as Haskell Wexler’s 1969 “Medium Cool,” set during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Berkeley, back then, was a center for political protest—we Berkeley kids looked down on the flower children and teenyboppers who were having way too much fun across the Bay. The Magic Bus, conceived by Antenna Theater’s innovative artistic director Chris Hardman, is your “transcendental transportation to travel through the City of Love back to the ’60s,” promises the Magic Bus website. The tour covers all the bases of the hippie-dippy San Francisco Summer of Love experience without ignoring the dark side that was to come: The Summer of Love inevitably led to the “winter of our discontent,” as Hardman’s voiceover intones—the disturbing ’70s, when San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in City Hall, when Jim Jones induced members of the People’s Temple to commit suicide, when, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best musicians of my generation destroyed by drugs.
On the two-hour, time-traveling ride that takes you from Union Square, through the financial district, Chinatown, North Beach, the Haight, Golden Gate Park and back again, you sit on vertical benches and watch the scenery roll by in a dream-like series of little tableaux. Intermittently—timed to the actual location of the bus at the moment—retractable screens unfurl to cover the windows, and you watch an artful video collage of vintage TV news broadcasts and other images of the era. Throughout, you’re listening to a mash-up of ’60s rock, ambient sounds from a half-century ago, commercials and broadcasts and other audio, plus current real people’s tales of their wild city-side youth. You’ll see the house where the Jefferson Airplane lived, the Fillmore West on Market Street (now a Honda dealership) and more.
From the Summer of Love to the Winter of Our Discontent
For a concentrated Haight-Ashbury hike, you can choose from several walking tours. This one, by Foot, could double as an architectural tour; it takes you on a two-hour stroll among the beautiful Queen Anne Victorians. You start on Haight Street, go along Waller down Masonic to the Panhandle and back again. It’s all about the rise and fall of the hippie subculture, and my guide Kurt Weitzmann went even further back in history to talk about the entertainment park that, pre-1906 earthquake, was located right here, complete with “the Chutes.”
You’ll see the Grateful Dead’s house, now beautifully repainted from the grimy white it was back then (as were all the other unrenovated Victorians in the area), across the street from the Hell’s Angels’ house; the All Saints Church where the Diggers (that street-theater group that provided free food in the park) operated; Janis Joplin’s apartment near the Panhandle, where she and Jim Morrison romanced. This tour doesn’t prettify the scene: “In 1967 this area was one big porta-potty,” Weitzmann noted. (Historian Dennis McNally writes, in an essay for the DeYoung Museum’s “Summer of Love” exhibit, “By Labor Day, the Haight was a tourist carnival nightmare. By 1968, Haight Street would be inhabited by children shooting methedrine and heroin. The magic died hard.”) But some of the best innovations remain, like Dr. David Smith’s first-ever free clinic, still on Haight Street. The tour includes music via a Bluetooth device; this summer there’s a special three-hour tour entitled "A Long Strange Trip."
Photographer Jim Marshall’s Summer of Love—in fact his whole year of 1967—was different than anyone else’s. As the San Francisco Arts Commission describes it, he had “an all-access pass to document history in the making.” In the SFAC’s photo exhibit at City Hall, you’ll see 80 images from among the thousands that Marshall took during that year alone. They’re arranged chronologically, January through November, and include the Monterey Pop Festival and the Big Sur Festival. There’s a group photo of the five original San Francisco bands of the era: Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane and the now-lesser-known Charlatans, who pioneered the Victorian/Wild West look.
June was a particularly busy month for Marshall, but there are plenty of photos of the rest of the year as well, including the Human Be-In in January in Golden Gate Park’s Polo Field, where 10,000 flower children attended to hear—along with the music—guru Timothy Leary advising them to “turn on, tune in, drop out” and Ginsberg chanting mantras. There’s a photo of the Diggers’ perhaps premature Death of the Hippie march on Haight Street and the Panhandle in October, with a banner reading “Birth of the Free America” and much more by the photographer who was a trusted friend of the musical celebrities of ’60s.
Through June 17
Summer of Love: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll
The DeYoung Museum’s multimedia exhibit is the most comprehensive of the various, similarly themed exhibits on offer. In a series of galleries, it explores the various threads that interwove to create not only that summer but indeed the entire hippie movement in San Francisco that spanned the mid ’60s to the early ’70s. The DeYoung is ideally situated for such an exploration, in the middle of Golden Gate Park, where the “tribes” so often gathered, and right next door to the epicenter of flower power, the Haight-Ashbury.
Nine galleries comprise the exhibit, each with a catchy title (“Love and Haight,” “Feed Your Head”), each focusing on a specific aspect of the hippie generation as seen on that fateful summer: fashion (mannequins decked out in the clothes of the era inspired by the Victorians, the Wild West, Native Americans, the Far East and so on); art (posters by the likes of Stanley Mouse and others, photos by Jim Marshall et al., light shows, films); rock’n’roll (audio, and objects such as Jerry Garcia’s hat and Janis Joplin’s handbag). The overall emphasis, as the exhibit title says, is art, music and fashion, but there’s also a political section—San Francisco was more about LSD and love than, say, radical Beserkeley, but, avers co-curator Colleen Terry, “There was a lot going on here—the environmental movement, women’s rights, civil rights . . .”
If walking tours, bus rides and museum exhibits can conjure the Summer of Love, so too can ballet. At Smuin, choreographer Trey McIntyre’s world premiere—on a bill with two other pieces from Smuin’s repertory—is inspired by that storied summer. At an early rehearsal, 16 company dancers were working out to the opening segment of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star,” tirelessly repeating jetées, pirouettes, jumps, turns, low cartwheels. “Get that feeling of hanging on the precipice!” McIntyre instructed them at one point. “I didn’t want to create a sentimental, here’s-a-slice-of-time-presented-through dance,” he explains later by phone. “It’s more of an exploration of certain concepts and ideas [prevalent] at the time, and how in some ways they relate to our times now.” He sees the piece as a collage of a group of people who are exploring various ideas such as the utopian vision of love. The predominance of LSD, he muses, offered a means of instant enlightenment, mind expansion. In choreographing, he is aiming to translate the emotions and metaphysical ideas that were part of the psychedelic ’60s zeitgeist into movement; he’s not simply creating “groovy images,” he explains, but rather transforming a whole way of thinking into dancerly exploration.
The soundtrack, not all of it from the Summer of Love, comprises 10 songs, most by San Francisco bands; they include Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” Buffalo Springfield, “White Rabbit,” tunes by the Mamas & the Papas. McIntyre says he’d planned to avoid using that all-too-familiar Summer of Love anthem but then he had a vision of the lyrics coming out of the mouth of God—“If you’re going to San Francisco . . . “—and so knew he had to include it, and a God character, as well.
In 1967 Buffalo Springfield first sang “For What It’s Worth,” a song written by Stephen Stills: “Stop, hey, what’s that sound?” The Summer of Love, says McNally, was an exceptional moment in San Francisco history. “It’s entirely appropriate that everybody stop and take a look and listen. Something remarkable happened in Haight-Ashbury and it behooves us to pay attention.”