Monday, August 14, 2017

Archival Revival (Feed Your Head Edition)

It's recently come to my attention that this is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which originally came about when a committee of San Francisco nonconformists, realizing the rundown neighborhood in which they lived and worked was rapidly becoming world-famous, decided that such a label might put a positive spin on things. However, in the years since, I think the Summer of Love has come to mean something much larger than that one neighborhood or those mere three months of the year. It's now synonymous with The 1960s (even if the decade was more than 3/5ths over by then.) Mostly because it was about this time that the general public became aware of a colorful (sometimes literally so) group of people known as "hippies". But what exactly was a hippie, and how did such an individual come to be identified with not just a season when a lot of people go on vacation, but an entire decade, or even an entire era? A while back I did a post on the TV show Star Trek where I digressed a bit to take a look at the social currents that were then swirling about the science-fiction series. Here is some of what I wrote: 

Eleven years before the Summer of Love.

Ten years before the Summer of Love.

Three years before the Summer of Love.

On January 14, 1967--halfway through Star Trek's first season--somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people showed up for The Human Be-In that was held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a stone's (or stoner's) throw from the low-rent neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. What exactly was this Be-In? A few months earlier, California had banned lysergic acid diethylamide, a psychoactive drug better known as LSD that allowed those taking it to visit strange new worlds without having to first book passage on a starship, and so this was a protest of sorts, though pictures of the event shows very few people carrying signs. Mostly they're dancing and appear to be having a very good time. Maybe that was their way of protesting. Whatever they were doing, it caught the attention of the national, and even international, media, which tentatively portrayed the event as a humorous sideshow to the serious issues of the day. There was a problem, though. What to call all these young people? Well, just calling them young people sounds OK to me, but perhaps that wasn't good enough copy. According to the writer Tom Wolfe, who kept close tabs (no pun intended; he was strictly an observer) on this scene, a good many of those young people liked to refer to themselves as acid heads. That wouldn't do for a family publication. Nor would another term they like to use, freaks. Newspaper readers might get the mistaken impression that 20,000 Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, and bearded ladies had shown up in Golden Gate Park. A 50-years old local columnist by the name of Herb Caen came up with a suitable alternative: hippies, and the term stuck beyond a Madison Avenue copywriter's wildest ad campaign. Within a few weeks, "hippie" had become a household word, even used by those who wouldn't let a hippie in their tool shed much less their house. The only people who weren't using the term were the hippies themselves, and even they eventually had to give in rather than disappoint all those teenage runaways now arriving weekly in Haight-Ashbury by the busloads, thanks to all the publicity the low-rent neighborhood had gotten (indeed, it soon became the most famous low-rent neighborhood on the planet.) Though he certainly helped popularize it, Caen didn't actually invent the term "hippie". The words "hip" and "hep"--both meant you were in the know--had been in use in the African-American community since the early 1900s. White kids were introduced to the terms via swing music during the '30s and '40s. As a minority of those white kids got older, especially if they were artistically inclined, or maybe were just different from anybody else (otherwise, what's the point of a subculture?), they moved to places like Greenwich Village, or North Beach in San Francisco (before rents went up in the latter and they all had to relocate to the more affordable Haight-Ashbury) where, since the middle of the 19th century, they were called bohemians. Not that that's what the Bohemians called themselves, at least not in the beginning. Those who didn't like artists, or people who were just different, sarcastically compared such folks to Gypsies, in the mistaken belief that the latter group had originated in Bohemia. Yet that label had gotten old by the middle of the 20th century, and so a few Bohemians took to calling themselves hipsters ("angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection" as one young poet put it.) "Hippie" was coined around the same time, probably by some unsung beatnik. Not that the unsung beatnik would ever have called himself a "beatnik" (at least not until the teenage runaways began arriving in Greenwich Village and North Beach by the busloads.) That term, too, was coined by the enterprising Herb Caen, though a friend of Jack Kerouac's by the name of Harold Huncke had come up with the "beat" part a decade earlier. So many terms, so many ways to attract teenage runaways, so many ways to scare the hell out of Middle America.

However, it wasn't what you called them, or what they called themselves that mattered. It was the sheer visibility that was so unsettling. Sure, there had always been Bohemians, but nobody gave them much mind until their numbers all of a sudden seemed to increase a thousandfold (thanks, no doubt, to post-World War II birth rates.) Difference had never loomed so large. The mainstream media could no longer treat it as a comedy side show. It WAS the serious issue of the day. In one respect, though, it still was a sideshow. They were freaks, as least as far as the non-freaks in the (soon-to-be prefixed as "Silent") Majority were concerned. Long hair on men was especially frowned upon. As was facial hair. Combine the two and you have what to 1967 Mainstream America would have resembled a bearded lady. That some of these strange, new people might differ from each other went unnoticed. Eventually, the hippies, Yippies, flower children, folkies, mods, Jesus freaks, back-to-nature hedonists, campus radicals, Weathermen, fugitives, hustlers, rioters, flag burners, bra burners, draft card burners, draft dodgers, doves, panhandlers, dope peddlers, Merry Pranksters, junkies, Transcendentalist Meditationists, Marrakesh backpackers, hitchhikers, organic farmers, communal dwellers, THE END IS NEAR (or NIGH) picketers, rock stars, rock concert promoters, sitar players, groupies, dee-jays, Sunset Strip go-go dancers, exhibitionists, Satanists, underground newspaper publishers, underground cartoonists, health store owners, head shop owners, cellar cafe owners, coffeehouse (but not coffee shop) owners, street performers, Off-Off-Broadway producers, avant-garde stage directors, experimental film directors, free-form poets, cut-up novelists, pop artists, potty-mouth comedians, Marvel superheroes, graffiti artists, New Journalists, public intellectuals (unless your last name happened to be Buckley), vegetarians, American Southwest desert nomads, gay liberationists, Maoists, Che Guevara admirers, Hell's Angels, Black Panthers, Black Muslims, dune buggy drivers, Volkswagen drivers, any Oregonians not employed by the logging industry, and last, but certainly not least, teenagers, were all filed (or lumped together) under a heading fraught with sociological meaning: The Counterculture. 

As I reread what I wrote, I see I left out a commonly used term of that era: Generation Gap, essentially the difference between teen or college-age kids and their parents on such matters as politics, morality, fashions, and what radio station the dial should be set on. If you're still not sure what the term means, watch just about any episode of All in the Family (the 1960s having spilled over into the '70s.) Is there still a Generation Gap? Maybe more of a cranny. I mean, kids still listen to different music than their parents. The reference points are still different. And a parent still may take offense if a member of the younger generation refers to one of their beloved movies or TV shows as "old". But it all lacks the sociological heft of the 1960s Gap. Back then parents felt THREATENED by youth culture. Today it's just a pain in the ass (as well as an irritating reminder that you're getting along in years and no longer "with it".) What I find funny is how often the middle-aged parent of today will nevertheless mimic the middle-aged parent of yesterday. More than once I've witnessed a father or mother born five or even ten years after the Summer of Love bitch and moan that "the kids these day are too wild. It's not like when I was young and we obeyed rules and blah, blah, blah..." The Gap has become routine, ritualized even, the complaints handed down from one generation to the next like an old heirloom. That original 1960s Generation Gap just seemed so much more vital, so much more urgent. 

It's now also so much in the past:

So go celebrate the anniversary with an Early Bird Special. Especially if you've got the munchies.


  1. Hi, Kirk!

    This is a tremendous piece, good buddy! It slipped my mind that we should now be observing the 50th anniversary of The Summer of Love. I appreciated this opportunity to review what was happening at the time, learning how the term "hippie" came into widespread use, and about all the groups lumped together under the umbrella term "counterculture."

    In the summer of '67 I was coming of age on the East Coast. Until then I was not directly affected by and had paid little attention to what was going on with the youth out west. That changed in the fall of the year when I enrolled at the main campus of Penn State and found a significant percentage of the student population dressed as hippies and lending support to the movement. By 1969 and 1970 campus protests were common and on one occasion demonstrators took over and occupied the administration building. I had a long haired, bearded professor who held classes outdoors and had us studying Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors, The Graduate, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Easy Rider. Good times!

    Thanks again for putting together a great article and bringing back 50 year old memories. Have a great week, Kirk!

  2. Thanks, Shady. I think I'd like to take that professor's class.

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