Authored by Dr. Jeremy Guida –
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” when somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 youth flooded 25 blocks in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Before the Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury was home to a small community of “hip” residents interested in art, music, theatre, and literature. After the Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury was known worldwide as the center of countercultural activities. For many, knowledge of the Summer of Love calls to mind an ambitious attempt at cultural revolution when America’s youth championed values like peace, love, and freedom of expression.
Today, fifty years later, many people plan to “remember” the utopian vision of the Summer of Love with celebrations, art installations, and festivals. The San Francisco Travel website includes a summer’s long list of activities which “pay tribute” to the legacy of the Summer of Love. The web page describes the fabled summer, “In 1967, nearly 100,000 free-spirited adventurers congregated in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood near Golden Gate Park to join a cultural revolution…Wearing flowers in their hair, people danced through the streets promoting peace and love.”
For some, this romantic picture of free-spirited adventurers dancing in the street in the names of peace and love is only topped by the cultural significance of the moment. Vanity Fair’s Sheila Weller writes that the summer of 1967 “divid[ed] American culture into a Before and After unparalleled since World War II…the phenomenon washed over America like a tidal wave, erasing the last dregs of the martini-sipping Mad Men era and ushering in a series of liberations and awakenings that irreversibly changed our way of life” (Weller). Such visions are echoed in her article by people who were there. Weller quotes Joe McDonald (lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish), “’The Summer of Love became the template: the Arab Spring is related to the Summer of Love; Occupy Wall Street is related to the Summer of Love” (quoted in Weller).
However for many others, “remembering” the Summer of Love does not call to mind visions of flowers, beautiful young people dancing in the streets, or peace and love. It reminds them of cold nights spent in overcrowded crashpads, the smell of homelessness, the twisted paranoia of drug use, venereal disease, hunger, and violence.
Underground papers testify to the dark underbelly of the Summer of Love. Chester Anderson published these sentiments in a pamphlet titled “Uncle Tim’s Children,” re-printed in the Seattle Helix. It reads,
Pretty little 16 year-old middle-class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about and gets picked up by a 17 year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again and again, then feeds her 3000 mikes and raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last…Kids are starving on The Street. Minds and bodies are being maimed as we watch a scale model of Vietnam. (Anderson, 12).
The June 23 edition of the Berkeley Barb includes an advertisement for the Berkeley PROVOS, a group of people intending to help deal with the influx of people into the area. Although embracing the spirit of the Summer of Love, the article amounts to a plea for help. It reads, “We still need food, clothes, places to stay, beds, sheets, soap, blankets, coat hangers and HELP.” Forrest Saulsbury sums up this dark vision of the Summer of Love, “[T]he ‘Summer of Love’…turned the Haight into a ghetto.” (Saulsbury, 4).
Taken together, the articles in the underground press demonstrate that many details are missing from the romanticized descriptions repeated today. Looking closely at the Summer of Love as it is depicted in underground papers shows not only how vapid such romantic descriptions really are, it shows that they entirely miss much of its significance. In some ways, the Summer of Love may really have “eras[ed] the last dregs of the martini-sipping Mad Men era and usher[ed] in a series of liberations and awakenings that irreversibly changed our way of life,” but if it did, it wasn’t through simple cause and effect. The hippie demonstrations and the publicization of hippie culture that coalesced in the Summer of Love met controversy rather than acceptance. Even the participants varied in what they understood the meaning of the event to be. They knew something was happening, but it was hardly the simple introduction of peace and love to American culture.
The Summer of Love was a difficult time, rife with controversy, confusion and disagreement. It is in these difficulties that we can, as scholars and students of the era, do better than to romanticize this complicated summer. By looking at underground papers, we can learn from those who published their experiences and opinions as the Summer of Love was taking place. Their voices make clear that we still have much to learn about the Summer of Love, and much to learn from it as well. Below are three significances to which underground newspapers speak that are often missed by romantic visions of the Summer of Love.
1. The Role of Mass Media
For many in the counterculture, the Summer of Love was an accident precipitated by the widespread consumption of music, television and magazines. Songs, programs and articles began documenting the activities of the countercultural community in the Haight-Ashbury district with the advent of the Human Be-in . According to Chet Helms, after the Human Be-In, a relatively small group of counterculturally minded people in the Haight-Ashbury issued an invitation for young people to come to San Francisco. They formed a council that they called the “Council of the Summer of Love” and attempted to organize summer activities in Golden Gate Park.
Articles on the “new” hippie lifestyle appeared in magazines like the New Yorker, and the hit song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by the Mamas and the Papas cemented the idea that something was going to happen in San Francisco in the summer of 1967. By most accounts, the arrival of so many young people was more of an accident than the result of any planning performed by the council.
As the Summer of Love progressed, it became increasingly clear to many committed participants in the community that the Summer of Love, and the idea of a “Hippie,” was being defined by the media more than anything else. Many in the counterculture became deeply suspicious and then hostile toward what they considered “the media,” (by which they meant photographers, magazine and daily newspaper reporters, and documentarians). Columnist Joan Didion recalls being labelled a “media poisoner” by countercultural leaders who were part of the Diggers (Didion).
Jef[f] Jassen of the Berkeley Barb writes nostalgically of the Haight-Ashbury district before the Summer of Love when, “Nowhere was a camera visible” (Jassen, 5). Perhaps the event that highlights most clearly the role of the media in relation to the Summer of Love is the “Death of the Hippie Parade” that was meant to conclude the Summer of Love. The event, documented in underground papers like the Berkeley Barb, included a funeral procession that marched through the Haight-Ashbury district, participants carrying a coffin filled with symbols of hippies: beads, mandalas, hair. A funeral notice was passed around the neighborhood that read, “Funeral Notice / HIPPIE / In the Haight Ashbury District of this city, Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media…” The demonstration was meant to call attention to the role that the media had played in creating a hippie stereotype and to replace the image with that of a “free man.” Jassen of the Berkeley Barb quipped,
I didn’t appoint the Chronicle to label me a ‘hippie.’ Similarly, I didn’t appoint the Oracle, Happening House, the Diggers, or anyone else to free me from whatever plastic coating society is trying to seal me in. If precious time has to be spent now to release people from the name of ‘hippie’ then I can only wonder about those same people who spent countless hours telling me that there is no such thing as a ‘hippie.’ (Jassen, 2).
Jassen’s comment reveals disdain for mass media, but also disagreements within the countercultural community over the significance of the idea of a hippie.
The media, as imagined by countercultural participants in the Haight, played a role not only in the creation of the Summer of Love, but also came to be one of its primary targets of criticism. Underground papers offer a valuable resource for examining the evolving and ambivalent relationship between participants in the counterculture and mass media. For those interested in the cultural effects of media, the Summer of Love is ripe fruit.
Countercultural disdain toward the media was complicated by another countercultural trend that participants in the counterculture were developing: guerrilla theater. During the Summer of Love, the San Francisco Mime Troupe used street theatre to make political points. The group was known for putting on thought-provoking (and just generally provoking) theatre meant to make social and political critiques. Leaders like Rennie Davis and Peter Berg were members of the mime troupe and their theatre and opinions appear regularly in underground papers.
After the Summer of Love, Rennie Davis continued working with ideas of guerilla theatre, collaborating with the media-minded Abbie Hoffman on a number of Yippie demonstrations in which they intended to leverage the power of the mass media to countercultural ends. For those interested in performance studies the Summer of Love is a moment when participants in the counterculture experimented with guerilla theatre and began to realize new ways of leveraging its power.
For many, the counterculture died when corporate America began capitalizing on hippie culture. According to this narrative, greedy capitalists, seeking nothing more than to make a dollar, realized that there was money to be made in marketing to countercultural sentiment. These entrepreneurs and ad men co-opted the symbols and practices of the authentically revolutionary counterculture and sapped them of their power. By this way of thinking, the Summer of Love failed not because the countercultural community in the Haight-Ashbury was ill-equipped to deal with 100,000 visitors, but because those 100,000 visitors attracted greedy entrepreneurs who cared little about the community and wanted only to make a buck.
Chester Anderson’s pamphlet charges such entrepreneurs as responsible for the dark underbelly of the Summer of Love. Anderson’s pamphlet may be hyperbolic, but it lists scathing criticisms of the “HIP merchants” whom he blames for the difficulties of the Summer of Love. Among those he criticizes are the San Francisco Oracle, the council for the Summer of Love, and especially Timothy Leary. The hyperbole of Anderson’s pamphlet speaks to the passion with which many in the counterculture disagreed with one another over their activities, how they imagined themselves as a community, and the meaning of the Summer of Love.
To my mind, romantic visions of the Summer of Love look more like contemporary political myth-making than anything else. Such a phenomenon in itself is worth studying, but taking such descriptions at face value misses much of the Summer of Love’s cultural significance, significances that live in the grimy details expressed in underground papers.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2017.