Summer of Love Memories

Chris Diestler - July 9, 2017

The Summer of Love gave birth to me.  And I don’t mean just figuratively.  I was born in July of 1967 to what could have been the straightest of straight-laced couples.  Still, there was definitely something in the air.  I’d be more inclined to believe in a zodiac sign of the freewheeling hippie than any of the Eastern or Western signs I’m supposed to have been born under.  When I listen to the music of the era, it feels like finding my center.  My true center, not the one I display to the world at large.  The one that’s always looking to expand my horizons, even if it’s just the boundaries of my mind; the one who likes being goofy as often as being serious about sociological and environmental issues; the one who believes free will is our inherent birthright, as long as we don’t get in the way of our neighbor’s free will; the one who knows war is not the answer.  Though I’ve long ago shorn my Samson locks, I still draw power from my zodiac spirit hippie, as well as the music I was born into and from.

There is a photo of me from back then, when my mom and dad both swear I was some kind of child DJ prodigy, not yet able to read the labels on the 45s, but nevertheless able to find the single I was after every time, proudly showing off my favorite Beatles album.  Even though the Summer of Love calls to mind images of San Francisco (and the accompanying flowers-in-hair), to me the sixties will always be about the Beatles.  Yes, the San Francisco music legend was bearing fruit at the time, but look at a list of popular singles from the time and it’s easy to see that what the media dubbed “the Summer of Love” had no doubt started before 1967 and carried on well beyond it.  Furthermore, it was a global phenomenon.  The pendulum of history was swinging away from the buttoned-down conformist culture, and towards a multicultural stew of creativity and free thought.  Echoes of this would reverberate through subsequent decades, but would never be as widespread, as ubiquitous.  The freaks again were relegated to the fringe, but have never disappeared entirely.

During the so-called “Summer of Love,” Baron Wolman, whose photos would grace the soon-to-be-launched Rolling Stone magazine, was living at the epicenter and took to the streets with camera in hand:

Image Courtesy of Baron Wolman

“For years the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco…was a family residential neighborhood, one of the few spared from the devastating fires that followed the catastrophic earthquake of 1906. In the early sixties the counterculture people descended upon the area and things changed dramatically. Families were displaced and older folks…were confused by the arriving hordes of noisy, colorful young people.

“Tourists…probably felt as if they were on an alien planet. Tourists wanted to see hippies and hippies wanted to sell tourists one of the several counterculture newspapers that appeared that summer. Just lots of kids with time on their hands and tourists asking them strange questions. ‘Are you a hippie?’ ‘Do you smoke weed?’ ‘Do your parents know where you are?’ ‘Do you believe in God?’

“Around the time of San Francisco's 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ we had our own ideas of ‘how to make America great again.’ Some came true for a while and longer. Some were more workable than others. However, all were grounded in fundamental respect and compassion for one another, qualities sorely missing these days where contentiousness and greed and fear reign supreme. It's become beyond sad; the future uncertain...”

Some, like Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally, would become deeply entwined in the musical mythology which followed the Summer of Love, even if they weren’t initially at “ground zero:”

“I’ve spent a good part of my adult life studying the sixties as a social and historical phenomenon.  I started with the immediate predecessor, the fifties (and the thirties and forties), in a biography of Jack Kerouac, 'Desolate Angel.'  In the course of that work, I became a Dead Head, and decided that my focus in the sixties would be the Grateful Dead.  Eventually, Jerry Garcia invited me to be the Dead’s biographer, and I began work on what turned out to be a book called 'A Long Strange Trip.' 

“After three years of work, I got to the point where I needed a job.  Fortunately, about that time the Dead needed a publicist.  When the subject came up, Garcia said, ‘Get McNally to do it.  He knows that shit.’  And so I discovered I’d fallen into a ‘career.’

“Eventually, I went back and researched and wrote a study of white America and its relationship with African American music, 'On Highway 61,' which was essentially the deep background of what happened in the sixties.

“And for the past year I’ve been working on curating a photo show documenting the origins of the sixties.  It’s called 'On the Road to the Summer of Love,' and it’s on exhibit at the California Historical Society, in San Francisco, until after Labor Day, 2017.

“All of which is the lead-up to answering where I actually was in the sixties.  Basically, I kind of missed the decade. 

“I graduated high school in 1967.  But the high school was in a fairly isolated part of New England, and my biggest taste of what happened in San Francisco in the mid-sixties was sitting in the public library of Dexter, Maine (Thank you, Andrew Carnegie) reading 'Time' and 'Life' and looking at pictures of Jerry Garcia at the Be-In, thinking that it surely looked more exciting than Dexter.

“Then I went to college in really, really, upstate New York (like sixty miles from Ottawa, Ontario).  I read about the sixties, took part in some peace demonstrations, smoked some pot, played the Dead and the Airplane on a college radio station, but….you couldn’t say I took a serious part in the cultural upheaval of the decade.  I was a student; I watched. 

“And nothing’s changed, except that by working for the Dead I got a whole lot closer to the center of the party and gained a much deeper insight into what had gone down.  And so my job, as I conceived it, became to make a record of all this. 

“After all, if you miss the real event by reasons of youth and geographic distance, you can still help folks remember an extraordinary time.  And that’s what I hope I’ve done and am still doing, since now I’m working on a book about the arc from Beat to Hippie—essentially what the photo show covered.  The beat goes on.”   

I’ve read that a lot of southern-Californians were drawn into the San Francisco scene when the Monterey Pop Festival happened in June of 1967.  Ira Gordon – mastermind of adult-alternative radio station KBAC-FM in Santa Fe, NM – remembers what it was like being so close, yet so far:

“I was 13, growing up in Los Angeles, and the Summer of Love was ushered in when a rock festival up the road in Monterey made stars of every artist in the lineup.  I was young enough to wonder what was happening in our culture and old enough to know I wanted to be part of it.  I was still a few years away from tasting an illegal drug but everything else became an instant part of my lifestyle.  From incense and blacklight posters and the underground newspapers available for 25 or 50 cents at corner newsstands to the hair on my head now inching over my collar I was ready to embrace the change….and it all began with the music.

“Of course, for me, The Beatles led the way.   I owned every album by them and the newly released 'Sgt. Pepper' pointed us down the proverbial Wonderland rabbit hole.  Many artists I had been listening to for three years already were changing with the times.  The Stones jettisoned their heavy blues for the 3D 'Satanic Majesty’s Request.'   The Who created 'Sell Out,' building on the ‘concept album' they hinted at on their 'Quick One' mini-opera.  One magical summer night, I clutched the $5 ticket I had purchased from a high schooler who was charged with selling them to our junior high school students.  My first concert to take place at the high school football stadium!  I had come to see a new band that had blown me away with a local television appearance just weeks before: The Doors, with their enigmatic front man Jim, staring the television camera in the eye, welcoming us to ‘break on through to the other side.’  Also on the bill: The Jefferson Airplane, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Sunshine Company and a half dozen local bands churning out serviceable renditions of Hendrix and Cream favorites.   Yes, kids, concert tickets were once had for under $150! 

“In the second decade of the 2000’s I regret to announce we will never see another era like that one!”

Mary Pat Butler grew up in San Francisco, and it was her idea to produce a special session of the Toast-n-Jam radio show which focused on the “Summer of Love.”  She admits to having been, at the time, something of a “flower child wannabe,” due to being slightly younger than the hippie crowd, but managed to hold on to a few mementos of the era:

“The Summer of Love.  Who didn't want to be a part of it?  I had spent my early childhood in San Francisco, lived in the Haight-Ashbury district with my parents, and attended St. Agnes grammar school on Ashbury Street.  8:00 am Mass was a regular thing on Sunday morning, followed by a stop at Tracey's Donut shop on Haight Street on the way home.  But the neighborhood began to change rapidly in the mid-to-late 60's and my conservative, Irish Catholic father wanted no part of this new scene.

“Fast forward a few years later to the Summer of Love.  We were living in Walnut Creek and, at age 14, I began babysitting for some of the families in the neighborhood. One such family was the Jones family down the block, who had 5, maybe 6 kids.  Understandably, they didn't have a lot of money and I was paid about 25 cents per hour to watch all the kids and the Great Danes they were breeding.    Although it was not known to me earlier, he also happened to be the owner of Tracey's on Haight where groups like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company and more would ask to hang their posters in his window.  Knowing of my budding interest in art, following the close of any particular show at the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore, Mr. Jones would bring the posters and handbills home and pass them on to me as part of my babysitting payment.  Although a little worse for the wear, having been taped to the ceiling of my bedroom in the late 60's and early 70's, I still have a decent selection of those posters as a reminder of the great music that came out of that era. And now, 50 years after the Summer of Love, I'm returning to live in the City.  Rest assured, some of those posters are finally going to be given the respect they deserve—framed and added to my San Francisco apartment decor.”

Since I was too young to have my own memories of the era, I appreciate everyone who contributed theirs to this collection.  Despite the old saying, “If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there,” it was surely a time to remember.

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Chris Diestler hosts a jamband radio show, which most likely wouldn’t exist without the groundwork laid down by musicians orbiting around the Summer of Love.