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San Francisco '67... Summer of Love?

Updated on October 30, 2008

Maybe, if you were the media or a record label...

After all, the media told us it was, and record labels cashed in on it, big-time. The press handed us images of flower children, psychedelia and rock music which even today partially define San Francisco. Record labels swarmed the city and signed bands on mere suspicion that they might be based there. It was sign now and ask questions later, few labels opting to wait for fear of losing out. Kids grow fast, they knew, and when this was over, it was over.

Pictures flew out of the city, visual portrayals of a youthful nirvana. Kids dancing, sharing, kissing. Girls with long, straight hair, stars or designs painted on cheeks, smiling or laughing or just looking wistfully. Long-hairs passing joints, dressed in clothes more than likely gleaned from charity shops or Goodwill but which somehow worked. They danced, they laughed, they put flowers in the barrels of M-14's. Obviously, love was all around. Or was it?

"They call it the Summer of Love,"

said Gary Duncan, guitarist and co-founder of San Francisco's Quicksilver Messenger Service, "but I didn't really feel a lot of love.  I saw a lot of kids being victimized and a lot of people victimizing kids." 

Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1968
Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1968

Duncan was no stranger to San Francisco, having lived there in the fifties.

"I lived there when there were beatniks," he said, "and hippie was a derogatory term. A hippie was a young nobody. The beatniks of that time were into amphetamines, booze and heroin. When the hippies came along with LSD, everything changed. The old scene, before it became this nationwide phenomenon, was really nice. There were a lot of houses you could hang out in with artists and painters and other musicians. You could walk down the street and smoke a joint and nobody even knew what it was. It was all pretty much an underground thing. Then, when it got publicized, we had all these kids running away from home (and coming here)..."

The streets filled with youth and, not surprisingly, the youth became, to the press, a culture. A large part of the fabric of that culture, unfortunately, involved drugs.

"I didn't go to San Francisco for the cultural thing that was going on," commented Tracy Nelson, who had moved from Los Angeles and formed Mother Earth with a handful of transplanted Texans. "I went there because I was trying to make a living playing music. I did drugs, but wasn't particularly a part of the drug culture, and I didn't embrace most of what the people there were into. In the late sixties, it had become really quite dark. Way too many drugs, a lot of very bad energy.

Mother Earth
Mother Earth

"I think it was that the drug culture had become what any drug culture becomes, as people become desperate and destitute and start stealing from one another. Then, there were the riots. We were in Tennessee and Travis (Rogers, Mother Earth's manager) had gone back to Berkeley and he said that the National Guard was camped out on my front lawn--- I had a house in South Berkeley--- and I told him to pack everything up and bring it to Tennessee."

For Duncan, it ended even earlier, almost before it began, it seemed.

"When they had the Human Be-In (January 14, 1967)," he explained, "David Freiberg and I were living together somewhere in the city and he said we have to go play this gig in the Park today. I said, really? He said, yeah, it's free but what the hell. So we drove down there and as we got closer, there were more and more people. We finally had to park the car and walk. We came upon all these people--- thousands of people--- at this Human Be-In. And news people and cameras and people from the press. David looked at the whole thing and said to me, it's over. He said, when those guys get involved, it's the end. And it was. (From that point on), there was no more underground scene. It was all out in the open."

Drugs? Riots? Not exactly what comes out of love, and there was something else. Prejudice. But not what you would imagine.

"The racial thing was pretty cool in San Francisco," according to Nelson. "What wasn't cool was the male/female thing. Women were really second class citizens in that whole hippie scene. They would argue that they weren't, but women were expected to be traditional, old-timey, taking care of the kids, making tea, cooking organic food. You see, there were two different factions in San Francisco in those days. There was the flower child/hippie/psychedelic faction--- completely apolitical and very traditional in the way they looked at things. Then there were the radical politics people. Those two factions were not particularly connected. And even within the radical faction, women's issues did not arrive that I could see."

If what Duncan and Nelson say is true, one might ask how the media could have gotten it so wrong. The picture they painted was one not only of ideology and community, but of equality. Women, second class?

"I don't know if the media ever addressed that, did they?" Nelson asked. "A lot of people have fantasies about how it was, but they weren't there."

Or maybe there just long enough to get a warped view. Hippies with their own caste system. Not at all what we've been told.

"But that's life," argued Nelson. "It's a segment of life. It doesn't exist in a vacuum in any way, and what do we know about how the media presents things? I mean, why would it have been any more true then than it is now? I'm sure there was some truth that filtered through, but generally it was hype and a self-perpetuating myth."

The Summer of Love as myth. Interesting. A concept brought to you by the media and sponsored by the record industry.

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