You Can’t Go Home Again: San Francisco and the Summer of Love

DeYoung entranceDamn, it’s tough getting a social change movement going nowadays. And just as tough to get the permits and Board of Supervisors’ okays for a commemoration of one from half a century ago. Fuckin’ bureaucracy, man. It ain’t how it used to be.

The Summer of Love in 1967 was one of those organic hopey-changey phenomena of which there was a seemingly endless supply in the Sixties. Founded on all that great Postersmy-parents’-your-grandparents’-music like Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead and a bunch of subversive ideas like peace, love and free thinking that the corporate overlords hadn’t figured out how to turn into money yet, it pissed off the mainstream and probably inspired J. Edgar Hoover to wreck it by flooding Haight-Ashbury with speed and smack. Many of those who were there at the time will tell you the iconic San Francisco neighbourhood had already gotten pretty scuzzy by July ’67 and the mellow vibe was turning paranoid. But hell, at least the movement’s aims and motives were positive, and all the President’s horses and all the President’s men couldn’t put the military-industrial complex’s fear-and-control prison back Are We Nexttogether again. Not completely, anyway. Or at least not as solidly as before. So, as a take-chains-off-people’s-minds thing, it was great. As an enduring change vehicle, not so much.

Aware of the upcoming fiftieth anniversary and inspired by a road trip through northern California during the Christmas season at the end of 2016, my wife and I booked flights and a room a few blocks south of Golden Gate Park for June 3-5, the weekend of an anticipated free anniversary festival at the Polo Fields. Two days after booking, we learned that the City had denied the organizers’ application. Apparently this had something to do with the questionable quality of the application (I mean, come on…. when your diagram of the proposed layout is badly hand-drawn and misspells “fence” twice, and even the 420 crowd were able to produce a more impressive application than yours, something’s awry).

Still, non-refundable plane tickets be non-refundable. So we decided I’d head down solo, rather than flush the entire experience down the drain. By that point, the Street gatheringaborted free festival had been retooled into an informal meet-up on Sunday the 4th at the fabled intersection followed by a march along Haight towards Golden Gate for a gathering at Hippie Hill. I billed it to myself as a bit of a pilgrimage, to one of the epicentres/places of origin of both the music I love and the sociopolitical views I’ve held most of my life. And who knows, I thought; maybe I’d pick up a bit of the “spirit” — that word that never fails to sound corny, nausea-inducing and airy-fairy in this context — of an era that predated my arrival in the world by five years.

For the most part, I didn’t find it.  No slag on the earnest and well-meaning people I met at the intersection on the Sunday, many of them veterans of the era, and bless them for trying. But the remaining “spirit”, such as it is, is almost entirely based on nostalgia, even for most of the people living and working in and around that locus of the Sixties counterculture. Cynical, sure, but also realistic.

Was I expecting something different? Somewhat, though that was mostly my own fault. To the extent that the anniversary is being celebrated at all, the city almost exclusively treats it as a nostalgic exercise, hence the Girls and Boyswelcoming signs at the airport recognizing it, and the admittedly impressive exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate (source of most of the photos shown here). And the small gathering of about a hundred people on the Sunday clearly indicates that most survivors have moved on to other things; those who remain, bedecked in flowers and tie dye clothing, are the diehards. On the evening of Saturday the 3rd, I walked west along Haight listening with headphones to a Summer of Love song playlist with the setting sun in my face. Around me swirled the fragrant aroma of an era buried in the past but still poking its head through to the present — flowers, weed, food, even street stank (which did add to the experience, oddly enough). Which was lovely at first until, somewhere around Love’s “Alone Again Or” and the Turtles’ “Happy Together”, suddenly, the artificiality of the experience decided to punch me square in the crotch. Ow. Fuck. Part of the popular experience in much of today’s world is the ability to have music coming at you constantly thanks to the wonders of smartphones and streaming. Obviously not the experience of people fifty years ago, who — walking along Haight, or anywhere, for that matter — might have heard music wafting out from a storefront, or from a hippie with a guitar twanging away. But with little to no tech at the time to Pillprovide portable recorded music, it just wasn’t a constant accompaniment. For this we can probably slap some of the blame on Hollywood: they’ve done us a bit of a disservice with their portrayals of the second half of the Sixties in pretty much every movie or TV show they’ve spewed out. Is it real, or is it Memorex? Definitely Memorex.

I was a tad disappointed at first; in retrospect, not so much. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia; it’s critical as a species that we remember the past and teach it so we can learn from it. But trying to recreate it is pointless: in doing so, you have to take the rough with the smooth, or you end up with a phony plastic pile of shit that only reflects some advertising hack’s sanitized version of the past. And nobody wants to re-live the shitty parts too. They just don’t.

The late Sixties, in all their transformative and idealistic glory, are gone. The era bestowed its lessons and its benefits, and then drifted away into history. And that’s okay.

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