Thursday, June 29, 2017

Memories of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, 1967

I started hearing about the hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager living in New York City. I mostly knew about the hippies from reading Ramparts, a political and arts magazine based in San Francisco. I devoured each issue of Ramparts that arrived in the mail, with its articles and photos on the radical experiments in lifestyles taking place in the Bay Area. I read about the collective called the Diggers distributing free food. I dug the solarized, DayGlo posters for the Fillmore Auditorium’s rock concerts with the letters rippling like flames. I saw the long hair for women and men and the loose-fitting garments made from paisley Indian bedspreads. The more I saw in Ramparts and heard about on the news, the more I was hooked. I had to experience all of it firsthand.

Rock poster, San Francisco, 1960s
I was only 15, but I had a mom who was an unusual free spirit. It didn’t take too much convincing to get her to agree to leave New York and spend June, July, and August in San Francisco in 1967. I might be the only person who went to the Summer of Love with his mother.

The Rogow family in 1967
My mother, my sister, and I arrived in San Francisco in early June with no clear idea of where we would stay. We found a hotel room near Union Square when we first arrived, but that proved extremely expensive. Our search in the San Francisco Chronicle for short-term rentals didn’t yield any results. Wandering around North Beach one day, we happened by chance to pass the office of Ramparts magazine. On an impulse we went inside and my mother asked the receptionist if she knew of any apartments for rent for the summer. It turned out the receptionist lived nearby on Leavenworth Street at the top of Russian Hill, and offered to rent us her place for the summer, while she moved in with her boyfriend. Kismet!

You don’t hear much about this in the nostalgic recollections of the Summer of Love, but it turned out that the hippie movement had pretty much peaked in San Francisco by June of 1967. Many of the original hippies had left the increasingly violent drug scene in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to move to communes in the country. Haight Street itself was bumper-to-bumper with rubbernecking tourists gawking at the latter-day hippies who were still in town, hawking copies of the San Francisco Oracle and the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper to sightseers. There were head shops selling posters of Che Guevara and the guy on the Zig Zag rolling papers package, who looked strangely alike.

We went to the opening of a show by the artists who created the rock posters for the Fillmore Auditorium: Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and others. I idolized those artists and their rippled lettering that was like a secret code you had to learn by training your eyes to see the negative spaces. By the Summer of Love, though, those artists were selling their work in a fancy Union Square gallery, sitting in the back yakking about how much they were charging for their surrealist collages.

You could smell the pot in the air in Golden Gate Park, but beyond that, you could smell the freedom in the air. You could dress any way you liked (although the hippie rejection of style involved a style of its own). You could also love anyone you liked, and you could give things away for free (definitely verboten in the consumer culture of the U.S.A. post-World War II). At the Fillmore Auditorium, you could dance in a strange, unchoreographed way, wheeling your arms in the air and jumping up and down, while blobs of colored oils throbbed on the walls in a projected light show.

I remember my mother taking me to a gay bar on Grant Street (how many moms took their teenage sons to gay bars, especially in 1967?). We watched as two men partner danced to the tune of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” I’d never seen a gay couple dance together before—that was also eye-opening. We heard the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish playing free concerts in the parks.

My sister briefly dated the son of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, so a whiff of the militant labor history of San Francisco also reached us. We socialized with the family of Earl Conrad, a radical novelist and nonfiction writer who lived with his wife in a very urban apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We had met Earl in New York when he was researching a book that mentioned my dad Lee Rogow, also a writer.

The author Earl Conrad
Evenings we often took the N Judah trolley all the way to the end of the line near the beach, to watch foreign films at the now-defunct Surf Theatre, a great old neighborhood movie house from the 1920s that showed the innovative flicks of Bergman, Fellini, and the Italian avant-garde directors. The impenetrable fog at night in that part of the city resembled an apocalyptic landscape out of an Antonioni film.

That first glimpse of the West of the United States was an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t that New York was devoid of culture and liberty—just the opposite. But something different was happening on the West Coast, a new kind of freedom that made for a bubbling arts and literary scene, more open to new ideas and lifestyles and to the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

For me as a writer, that summer was formative because it gave me the sense that the old culture and politics were crumbling, particularly in the face of the Vietnam War and the rebellions in the ghettos of the United States. Despite the commercialization of hippie art and fashions, there was a shared sense that a new and more liberating culture was being created. The literature that we read in school was fine, but it wasn’t the fiction and poetry that the current era demanded. That was still to be invented. The sense of openness was enormously empowering.

One thing I came to recognize only much later about the Summer of Love and the hippie movement was that they were the continuation of centuries of social and artistic experimentation. From the French Enlightenment, to the commune in the Lake District that Wordsworth and Coleridge founded, to the utopian socialist philosophies and phalansteries of the mid-nineteenth century, to the free-form designs of art nouveau, to the international Arts and Crafts movement, to the bohemian lifestyles of the Left Bank and Greenwich Village, to the Bengali renaissance and the mysticism of Sri Aurobindo, the roots of the Summer of Love went very deep into global culture and history.

If many of us had known that in 1967, or been willing to acknowledge that our New Age and New Left culture and politics were part of a long and rich legacy that had its ups and downs throughout history, I think it would have been easier to sustain the momentum of the 1960s for radical political, social, and artistic change. As it was, that momentum began to decline even as it peaked in 1968, the year that Richard Nixon was first elected president of the United States. Very soon, there was a mass exodus from the Counter Culture of the 1960s back toward the status quo and consumer culture. I hope that the revival of interest in the Summer of Love will encourage new forms of social and artistic experimentation that will continue the legacy of social, personal, and artistic transformation.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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