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Tie dye and tweed: an oral history of the Summer of Love

As the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of an infamous, nostalgic era, we’ve gathered a few eyewitnesses with memories of those gentle (and not-so-gentle) days.

By Fredric Hamber

Grace Prien’s column, May 17, 1967, San Francisco Chronicle:

Parties for the 1967 Cotillion debutantes will keep everyone hopping during the months of June, August, September and December… Debuts and parties by relatives and friends recorded by the Society Department’s date book include the following…Virginia Hearst, daughter of Mrs. Randolph HearstGay Callan, daughter of Edwin C. Callan

Gay Callan (fifth-generation San Franciscan, owner of Chatom Vineyards): I was at Berkeley in ’67. It was a very challenging time because society really didn’t know what to do with us. I worked in a head shop. I also worked at the ASUC [Associated Students of University of California] bookstore. My parents were very generous but I wanted my own money to be able to do things without having to ask them.

If you looked like you were a pot smoker, the Alameda police—we called them the “blue meanies”—would hassle you. Why? “Because you’re a dirty hippie.” But I’m going to class and have an armful of books. If you had long hair and a short skirt and you looked at them cross-eyed, they didn’t like it. Who would have thought that cannabis would be the issue of today? Fifty years later.

Joel Selvin (author of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day): The San Francisco police force was an Irish battalion run out of the Sunset. They were unchecked authority figures, one hundred percent against the hippies. That would become a real flashpoint in the summer.

Carl Nolte (veteran Chronicle columnist): At the newspaper, we all wore Harris tweeds. Not exactly hippies. [My wife] Darlene believes that the two worst things that happened to San Francisco are the 1906 earthquake and the Summer of Love. It wrecked the joint.

Darlene Plumtree: I remember on Sunday afternoon my grandmother, who was always very progressive, wanted to know what was going on in the city so we would take a drive through the Haight-Ashbury. It would take an hour to drive through because so many people just wanted to see it. I was in high school. A couple of hundred thousand kids from all over the United States descended on San Francisco. And all of a sudden it went from kind of a smallish city, to … this massive invasion! I wasn’t allowed to go near the area.

Gay Callan: I worked the door for Bill Graham. There were several of us from Berkeley and SF who were friends going into college and worked the door. We didn’t even get paid—you would come in and watch the show. The music was fascinating to me. I was fortunate enough to get a terrific education along with having a really good time at Berkeley. I had parents who were really fabulous. It wasn’t like they didn’t know what I was doing, but I was with people who were trustworthy and it’s not like we all tuned in and dropped out.

Joel Selvin: Indoor concerts were places that people went to take LSD and dance. It was a psychedelic speakeasy. There was no “San Francisco sound” the way there’s a Nashville sound. It wasn’t a show, it was a tribal rite. The LSD was a common element, not just to the musicians but to the audience. Everybody under the influence of LSD was not only willing to experiment but they would participate in the experiment. That’s why this was a Dionysian revel and not an Apollonian performance.

Gay Callan: I started going to Winterland when I was 15 or 16. My kids laugh at me when I say I saw the first Jefferson Airplane when Signe [Anderson] was singing with them, and Buffalo Springfield and all those incredible people. Literally there might have been 200, 250 people in that room. Everybody got along. You had to make sure that what you were eating or drinking wasn’t laced with something.

Wavy Gravy (iconic 1960s hippie and entertainer): In the Haight, the spirits of the people were lifted by the free music in the park.

Gay Callan: Part of the Summer of Love was the mayhem that was going on in a certain [section] of the city, the influx of people coming in. It’s so interesting to look at San Francisco and the pockets of the city that were affected by it and the pockets of the city that were not. Certain areas of the city weren’t affected because they didn’t want to be.

Stephen Taber (native San Franciscan, former president of the California Historical Society): The Haight was the successor to North Beach as the countercultural capital. In New York City, both movements were centered on Greenwich Village, but in San Francisco the beatniks were focused on North Beach, the Summer of Love on the Haight. I suspect because North Beach had solidified, there wasn’t a lot of cheap housing there—the cheap housing was to be found on the edges of the Western Addition and the presence of Golden Gate Park.

Norman Larson (fourth-generation Californian, standing outside the building he owns at the corner of Haight and Ashbury): If you see a pile of clothes you like, help yourself. People love to abandon items here, right at that corner. I guess they figure that it will be more likely that someone will be here to pick it up.

Joel Selvin: Outdoor events were more of a community event. They tended to be spontaneous and disorganized. Bill Graham never threw outdoor concerts, because he couldn’t collect tickets or make money.

Carl Nolte: [Former Chronicle editor Scott] Newhall had an idea that we should do a thing about the hippies coming in. It was a bad idea. They got this really lousy reporter and he did it. A series called “I Was a Hippie.” Honest to God. It was really terrible.

From “I Was a Hippie” by George Gilbert, May 1967:

Our next stop was a Haight-Ashbury coffee shop which is known as a good place to find “where it’s at.” The usual dealers were there…

Then we were on the street again, heading for Golden Gate Park.

“I love to go to the park when I’m high,” Peter said. “I saw the first snails the other day. God, they were out of sight. I watched them for hours. Really far out…”

I asked him how it felt to be on a permanent vacation.

“That’s a weird question, really weird,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing, I’m grooving with life right now. That’s enough for me now. Just grooving on life.”

Gay Callan: Most of my friends who went through all of that went on to finish our educations and go to graduate school and try to make something more of our lives. We lost a handful of friends because they got lost. They just sort of went in the wrong direction.

Stephen Taber: The whole hippie era, the thing people like to remember, was a really short span of time—from ’65 through ’67. After that the drug culture got really bad. Things got to be much more violent.

Gay Callan: The drug debacle got to the point of no return. I was so fortunate not to go down that path.

Stephen Taber: We had a large Victorian house [in the 1980s] in the Panhandle which had been the headquarters of the Church of the Good Earth Commune. It unfortunately got taken over by the White Panthers, a more violent group that came in the ’70s. The Church of the Good Earth Commune was well known and one of the things we had in the house is a very large mural, kind of a satanic nativity scene.

Gay Callan: [The moment] lost its luster because the people who were taking care of so many were like, “We can’t do this anymore.” Bill Graham was one of those who took care of a whole bunch of people, very much behind the scenes. As ornery as he could be, he was an incredible businessman, but there was a really soft side to him.

All of a sudden it got the point where people weren’t taking responsibility for their own very bad behavior. A lot of people came to the Bay Area to experience the “Summer of Love.” Those who contributed and made it a positive experience were the ones who were getting used. The people who just wanted to escape living in Oshkosh or wherever to come experience it, and then realized, “Wait, I thought this was all supposed to be taken care of for me.” Those people had to move on.

Joel Selvin: The hippies you see around here today are kind of pretend hippies. I don’t recognize them from the streets of the Haight. I see that kind of stuff more up in Mendocino and Humboldt. Signs of hippie life around San Francisco are few and far between.

Wavy Gravy: Today, instead of so many bodies in the streets against the powers that be, people have learned to rise up electronically … and let their voices be heard throughout the world. 

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