One of my favorite things to do as a teenager in 1967 was hanging out at the Detroit Zoo. At that time, the zoo was free of charge and I used to spend summer afternoons there, walking the trails and observing the people and the animals.
People, frankly, werent all that colorful in a day when bluejeans were still known as dungarees and worn by farm kids. Style-wise, most Americans in the white middle class looked pretty much the same. For young men, there was the greaser look, the California beach boy thing, jocks with their varsity jackets, maybe a Beatle haircut here and there, or the fresh-off-the-farm look I was saddled with: white socks, penny loafers, dungarees and a short Princeton haircut that was the epitome of nerdiness.
So when two actual hippies wandered through the zoo turnstile one summer day in 67 just as I was leaving, it was like seeing visitors from Mars.
I still remember them: their tangled hair fell way past their shoulders and they were draped with love beads and medallions. They had made their own bell bottoms by splitting their pant legs at the hem and sewing in brightly colored material to create a flare. One wore a leather vest with no shirt, while the other had on a pajama top, draped with long necklaces of seeds strung together. As promised by reports in the media, they were appropriately dirty with bits of leaves in their hair, like theyd been sleeping in the park; but also strangely incandescent, as if they were channeling some new species of happy spirituality that radiated from their eyes.
Were they avatars from the Age of Aquarius that we had heard so much about in the pop songs that summer? Was the world really going to have a radical transformation by these newly-enlightened humans to become a place of harmony and understanding, filled with golden dreams and visions and mystic crystal revelations and the minds true liberation? To a gullible teenager, it sure looked like the real deal was blossoming during the Summer of Love.
SUMMER IN THE CITY
Alas, that idealistic teenage dream barely made it through the summer, but it was such a literal “youthquake“ that the Summer of Love still reverberates today, 40 years on.
The Summer of Love never really connected in suburban Detroit. There were rumors of John Sinclair, the King of the Hippies, staging a love-in on Belle Isle and nurturing an enclave of hip shops on Plum Street near Tiger Stadium, but true street-dwelling, meal-mooching, Buddha-quoting hippies were as rare as orangatans in the suburbs. Plus, we had an army of teen greaseballs in Elvis Presley haircuts who would have kicked their asses if they dared to materialize.
Mostly, we heard about the Summer of Love on TV and radio, with paeans to be sure to wear some flowers in your hair if you made the trip to San Francisco to join 100,000 kids who were streaming in from around the country. The volunteer “Diggers“ of the Haight advised visitors to turn in their money as the “responsible thing to do,“ so that it could be redistributed to the kids living on the streets.
By the end of the Summer of Love, there were tour companies offering bus trips into the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco to see the kids in their quaint hippie clothes. And a Death of Hippie parade was held by some of the old hands on the scene to point out that the whole hippie thing had been taken over by the media for marketing purposes. Many of the real hippies left for communes scattered across the country, where they slowly evaporated back into the mainstream.
But still, the relatively small band of hippies and their Summer of Love changed the world in radical ways within a few months. They sparked a revolution in hairstyles and fashions; they elevated rock music to an art form; they extinguished jingoistic attitudes towards war, launching protests to end of the war in Viet Nam. They played a role in launching the environmental movement and the “back to the land“ ethic that resonates to this day, not to mention the sort of anarchist politics that regularly disrupt globalization seminars. For a time, people began experimenting with free love, mind-expanding hallucinogens and living in communes. Books, films, plays, television and art all flipped like pancakes. Compared to todays hip-hop revolution, which has taken 30 years to impact the culture, the hippies were a tsunami that engulfed the world with an ocean of ideas in the space of three months.
I finally made it to the Haight-Ashbury in 1970, hitch-hiking there as a 17-year-old high school grad. I thought of myself as an an anthropologist, going to investigate the remnants of what was considered by then a long-dead phenomenon.
By that time, the scene in the Haight had evaporated, but there were still some crash pads around where any stranger (ie: brother or sister) could stay for free. On the road to San Francisco, I met a hippie crash pad dweller whod been fasting and meditating for a week in a campsite at Big Sur. He had come up with a simple plan to save the world and jump-start the comatose Age of Aquarius: he would simply invent a cure for cancer and then use the hundreds of millions in profits to make the world a better place.
We thought his idea was brilliant.
Anyway, we got to his place in the Haight -- a big Victorian home right across from Golden Gate Park. He walked in and found another visitor -- a young runaway hippie-wannabe girl. Want to sleep with me tonight? he asked, as casual as a cat, even though he looked 10 years older than her. Okay, she said, just like that, and sure enough, the bunk next to ours was rocking that night with proof that free love, at least, still lived.
Spent a couple of days in the Haight, reading R. Crumb comics and checking out Frisco before moving on. By then, Charlie Manson and his cult of killer hippie chicks had put the sour note in the Age of Aquarius dream by cutting open pregnant movie star Sharon Tate and her friends during an evening bloodbath. And in 1969, the Hells Angels put the bullet in the movement by killing a guy in front of the Rolling Stones and 200,000 spectators at Altamont.
Cest la vie.
A few years ago, I went back to the Haight-Ashbury and strolled the neighborhood with my wife and teenage daughter. There, across from the park was the same crash pad Id stayed in 33 years ago, only now it had been gentrified and was worth more than a million bucks.
The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of 2003 was filled with shops, marketing the hippie myth. You couldnt go 50 feet without finding a Grateful Dead t-shirt, or yet another collection of body piercing jewelry. Black light posters, Rasta hats, love beads, buttons and bongs. All of the fakey hip crap thats puts style above substance in what it truly means to change the world for the better. There were a lot of self-consciously hip kids hanging out, drinking lattes at the psychedelic wrap & smoothie joints. Was that all that being a hippie had come to? Just a bunch of hip marketing? It seemed like a big cheat.
Summer of Love
Children are dancing on Haight Street
A thousand ancient scarves hide the sun
from their eyes
Visions of Blake run rampant
Thousands have come to the Haight Ashbury
To transform this maddening upside down planet
Cracks open along this smiling daydream sidewalk
As music pours upward toward the sky
The sky is filled with lies of
Vietnam, Johnson, Reagan, Nixon
And the CIA is watching everyone turn on in Golden Gate Park
Haight Ashbury years later
Boarded up shut down
And now summer turns with the wind fog & junkies are Searching
for fixes along with big biz realtors
Visions are now falling to Haight Street
Children are no longer dancing through fog
The sidewalk opens
A thousand wolves
Pour on to Haight Street
The Wolves are Eating
butterflies from the hands of dancing children
We travel on & on
through midnight fog
Searching for existence
traveling through and
from matrix to matrix
for our lost generation
known only in our dreams
-- by Tony Seldin Vagabond poet
Courtesy of Jim Norgaard
We are all -- squares and the psychedelically enlightened alike -- involved in our world of now. To take up the call, to respond to the cosmic forces, we must be the hard-working, harmonious, respectful, honest, diligent, co-operative family of man.
Our words are inspired. Our feeling is deep and complete. Our devotion is strong. The precious revelations which have come through us with increasing magnitude must be fathomed until we are one with each other and can extend our awareness beyond the tribe to our entire planet.
What is the natural karmic duty of a generation whose brothers, neighbors, and childhood friends now promote hate by killing innocent human beings around the world? It is to balance their jive and immature actions with the light of intelligent goodness; fearlessly to deal with the money-mad machine in order to release its hold on our bowels -- the bowels of mankind.
Practically, this means that all excess profit is turned back into the community. That means all money, material things, food, etc., which are beyond the basic necessities of a happy, healthy, human existence...
- The San Francisco Oracle 1967
Courtesy of Jim Norgaard