I tucked a couple of small daisies into my hair, slid on a pair of pink, moon-shaped glasses and started up the stairs leading to the Fillmore auditorium.
I was in awe of this place, the cathedral of rock ’n’ roll. Hundreds of the world's greatest musicians have performed at this legendary San Francisco venue.
At the last minute I felt a little silly and took off the hippie glasses but left the tiny flowers in place. After all, I was here because of a line from a song: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”
Fifty years ago this month, the "San Francisco" song, written by John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas and sung by Scott McKenzie, bolted up the charts and helped launch the Summer of Love, a crazy period when an estimated 100,000 young people descended on the city.
There were lots of reasons for the influx: Some were concerned about political and social injustice in the U.S. and looking for like-minded people.
Others came for a chance to experiment with drugs — primarily LSD — that Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and other members of San Francisco’s Beat Generation were writing about.
Still others sought an opportunity to challenge mainstream American society in a city known for its liberal philosophies. And some just came to have fun away from the watchful eyes of their parents.
Whatever the reason, the Summer of Love ushered in an era of power for the younger generation and ushered out the absolute authority of the Greatest Generation.
Summer of plenty
Now San Francisco is celebrating the anniversary in a big way, with events, exhibits, package deals at hotels and special tours.
And some of the city's venerable hippie-era faves — places such as the fortress-like Fillmore and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood — are again in the spotlight.
I couldn't wait to get a close look at the Fillmore's Poster Room, where nearly 300 framed concert posters cover the walls, charting the modern rock-concert era.
Late concert promoter Bill Graham, who refurbished this historic venue in the 1960s, distributed the colorful posters to patrons, along with an apple, as part of an effort to make everyone feel welcome.
To this day, a tub of apples awaits guests at the Fillmore, which is now managed by Live Nation.
If only these walls could talk, I thought, looking at the posters, many bearing flowing flower-power script. I left the sentence unfinished. The walls actually do have a story to tell, from Graham's first for-profit concert at the Fillmore in 1966, starring the Jefferson Airplane.
I walked along the walls, seeing a roll call of famous names, including the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Santana and hundreds of others. Graham helped launch many careers, and the drug-enhanced acts he booked helped propel the psychedelic era in San Francisco.
A lot of people, me included, are humbled by this room
— Amie Bailey-Knobler, The Fillmore's general manager
What the posters couldn't tell me, Amie Bailey-Knobler, the venue's general manager, filled in.
"A lot of people, me included, are humbled by this room," she said. "This is such a special place, especially for some of the newer bands on the way up.
“They're just shaking when they come in for the first time, they're so excited about playing here."
The Fillmore had a spotty history in the ’70s and ’80s, but was retrofitted after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and reopened in 1994. It now offers about 200 concert dates annually, said Bailey-Knobler, so it's not hard for Summer of Love fans to see a show and check out the Poster Room. (It's not open at any other time.)
My S.F. itinerary took me next to ground zero: the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, onetime home of the grooviest of the groovy. I was warming to the era; I put on the pink hippie shades and felt comfortable this time.
Besides, I'd just walked past a twentysomething wearing a woven crown of marijuana leaves on his head. No one was going to notice my goofy glasses.
I was scheduled for a Wild SF Walking Tour, which promised to be a Free Love Tour of the Haight. It was free, at any rate. Such a deal.
Guide Wes Leslie strummed a guitar and sang occasionally as we walked, giving us a taste of the era's music as well as a bit of history.
The Haight-Ashbury business district seems to be the most authentic tourist zone in the city. You can still pick up Tibetan gifts, madras shirts, recycled clothes — pretty much the same products you could find here 50 years ago.
A few other things are the same too: The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which opened in June 1967, still serves the public, and as I toured the neighborhood I frequently picked up the scent of burning marijuana.
None of the other Summer of Love drugs — magic mushrooms, peyote and LSD — were evident.
Other things have changed. The century-old Victorian homes found here once rented for as little as $175 a month — one of the reasons the counterculture movement loved living here, our guide said.
Gentrification has turned them into beautiful mini-mansions that now sell for more than $1 million each.
Our walk took us past homes that once sheltered some of the biggest bands of the era, sort of the San Francisco version of Hollywood's star tours. Among the famous digs we saw:
Grateful Dead, 710 Ashbury St.
Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, 2400 Fulton St.
Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, 638 Ashbury St.
Janis Joplin, 122 Lyon St.
Jimi Hendrix , 1524A Haight St.
Hells Angels, who sometimes served as bodyguards at rock concerts, 719 Ashbury St. (across from the Grateful Dead house)
On the bus
One tour was left on my itinerary and I was looking forward to it: San Francisco Love Tours by VW bus ($48 per person). Online photos showed a hippie van painted with San Francisco murals.
When guide and company owner Allan Graves showed up, the 1972 bus was everything I had expected and more. Besides the fun murals, the Love Bus has neon-blue seats, orange shag carpeting and a tie-dyed fabric head liner.
As we bounced around the city, Graves flashed the two-finger peace sign at every tourist who aimed a camera at us — and there were a lot. We rolled from the Marina District to Golden Gate Park, Mission Dolores Park, the Financial District, Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf as Graves provided a running commentary and smiles for everyone inside and outside the bus.
I was grooving in my flowers and pink glasses.
Meanwhile, ’60s and ’70s music played in the background, including McKenzie's hit single.
The 50-year-old tune seemed a harbinger of things to come this summer:
"For those who come to San Francisco / Summertime will be a love-in there / In the streets of San Francisco / Gentle people with flowers in their hair."
I was there
A guy with a white ponytail was pointing to a Jan. 22, 1967 poster for a Paul Butterfield Blues Band concert. "Hey, far out! I was at this," he said.
I heard other similar comments, as people lucky enough to have been in San Francisco half a century ago browsed through the De Young Museum's exhibit, "The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll" (tickets $25 for adults, $20 seniors, $10 for kids).
The 50th anniversary show, which runs through Aug. 20, includes photos, films, hippie costumes and a psychedelic light show that celebrates San Francisco's famous counterculture.
In one room, I ran into Carol Warren of Webster Springs, W.Va., staring at a poster of three pretty college-age girls in floppy hats.
"Girls say yes to boys who say no," read the headline. Smaller type below explained, "Proceeds from the sale of this poster go to the Draft Resistance."
"We even had this poster in Appalachia," she said, laughing.
Although the exhibit offers an interesting stroll down memory lane for baby boomers, it also draws younger people interested in the sights and sounds of the era.
The light show takes over a high-ceilinged room at the museum, catapulting viewers into the past as oils and dyes are projected onto the walls. It's a popular stop for people young enough to sit in (and get up from) the bean bag chairs on the floor.
The show is reminiscent of the ones often seen at concert venues during the Summer of Love; it's actually an art installation titled “Kinetic Light Painting” by Bill Ham.
Signs posted outside the De Young Museum compare 1967 terms to those used today. Here are a few:
2017: hipster, 1967: hippie
2017: marriage equality, 1967: free love
2017: World Wide Web, 1967: Whole Earth Catalog
THE BEST WAY TO SAN FRANCISCO
From LAX, American, Delta, Virgin America, Southwest and United offer nonstop service to San Francisco, and Alaska, United, Southwest and Virgin America offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $116, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Zeppelin, 545 Post St.; (888) 539-7510. Get into the spirit of the celebration at this groovy, year-old Viceroy hotel that reflects the '70s era, complete with flower-power fonts on the wallpaper, record players and 45s in the room, and a game den decorated in peace symbols. Doubles from $250 a night.
Stanford Court, 905 California St.; (855) 968-3430. Sophisticated Nob Hill hotel is marking the Summer of Love with a special package that includes overnight accommodations, two tickets to the De Young Museum’s Summer of Love exhibition, a map and psychedelic tote bag. Doubles from $336 a night plus a mandatory fee of $20 a night.
Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery St.; (888) 627-7196. This historic, luxury hotel opened its doors in 1875 and will feature retro decor and ’60s-era flowers during the celebration. The Summer of Love package includes a welcome cocktail. Doubles from $675 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Hard Rock Cafe, 256 Pier 39 Concourse; (415) 956-2013. Combine beer and burgers with nostalgia at this Pier 39 restaurant, which features keepsakes such as Eric Clapton's guitar and a painting of Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia by his friend Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane. Burgers from $17.95; entrees start at $19.95
De Young Museum Cafe, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive; (415) 750-2613. Take in the museum's Summer of Love exhibit, then dine inside or out at its pleasant cafe. Open for breakfast and lunch. Soups, salads, sandwiches and excellent views of the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden. Entrees from $10.50.
Terrapin Crossroads, 100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael; (415) 524-2773. If you're a Grateful Dead fan, take a drive across the Bay to this restaurant founded by bass guitarist Phil Lesh, a founding member of the group. Pasta, burgers and comfort food such as Southern fried chicken and gravy ($18). Entrees from $13. The restaurant is also a popular music venue.