Column: Remembering the revolutionary, hedonistic and sexist ‘Summer of Love’


Some fraction of the country — the young, the curious, the rebellious, the rootless — went to San Francisco 50 years ago; much more of the country watched it and read about it. The 1967 “Summer of Love” is a freeze frame, a template, sometimes even a self-parody of flower power, of love and LSD, of mind-blowing music and countercultural thinking. Its backdrop was the Vietnam War, the generation gap and the 1967 urban riots. Its future, diluted somewhere amid political assassinations and law and order and Kent State — and more Vietnam.

William Schnabel was a 17-year-old high school student during the Summer of Love; he hung out in the Haight when he could, going to the seminal Human Be-In, the happenings, the ground-breaking and earth-shaking ballroom rock concerts. Fifty years on, he’s written about the time and the place in the book “Summer of Love and Haight: 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love.” He’s a historian now retired from a French university, and remembers and analyzes that seminal season.

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For a teenager like you to go down and spend your weekends there, it sounds a bit like a carnival — people riding bicycles and blowing bubbles and clanging finger cymbals. What did it look like walking down the streets there?

Well, it was, to use the idiom of the period, it was a mind-blowing experience! It was revolutionary. It was a cultural revolution was going on. An artistic revolution was going on. A political revolution was going on in many ways too. It was revolutionary. It was like a carnival, too. Sometimes there were parades organized by the Diggers; a lot of them came from a theatrical background. Some of them had worked with the San Francisco mime troupe and a lot of them left the San Francisco mime troupe because they wanted to do it in the streets, not on a stage.

There were a lot of students; there were artists. It was called the new Bohemia. Young people were going there because you could rent a room at a very reasonable price. Young people were getting together and living communally in the Victorians. So they had similar ideas,

They were certainly more liberal-minded than most. A lot were smoking grass — that created a kind of general movement that just sprouted and grew, I think.

The idea of communal living was that everybody put into the pot and everybody took out. How did that work in practice when it came to the food and sleeping and drugs?

It didn’t always work out so well, unfortunately. It’s one thing to have certain goals and ambitions and ideologies, but to put it into practice is not always successful. Some people might not pay their fair share. Some people might be more selfish than others. It’s very difficult to generalize about communal living. The rock band the Grateful Dead lived together at 710 Ashbury. That worked for them pretty well. It depended on the communal stew; it depended a lot on the ingredients you put into it.

Did you spend a lot of time hanging out in those places, besides the ballrooms and the music venues?

Me and my friends, if we needed something, if we were looking for a lid, is what we called an ounce of marijuana at the time, it was easy. You just walked down Haight Street and usually you’d walk by someone who’d be advertising their wares. I might crash there on the weekend with friends in a crash pad. Some of them were Digger crash pads.

What were the Diggers?

The word “Digger” comes from the 17th century. English diggers that believed every Englishman should own a plot of land that he could farm, that the government should be run by the people.

In many ways women did seem to have a subservient role in the counterculture.

San Francisco’s Diggers generally speaking were opposed to authority. Everyone was equal, right? The San Francisco Diggers felt that everything should be free. Food should be free. In fact, they set up free food in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. They did that for a while every day at 4 p.m. They had a Digger store; everything in the store was free. Sometimes people would go to the Digger store and say, well who’s in charge here? And if there was a Digger around, he’d say, well, you are.

Where did all that good stuff come from? If you’re giving away food, you have to get it from somewhere.

Some of it was excess, Some might be produce that was not really fresh or that had been thrown out. Some of it was donated. They’d go to bakeries — do you have any stale bread? Yeah we’ve got some over there. They’d take that. Some of it was just ripped off. Emmett Grogan was arrested a couple of times because he saw an open door of a meat truck, he’d just help himself.

So many of the kids who were there seemed to be white and middle-class for the most part, educated for the most part. What was the class nature of what was going on then?

You’re right. The hippies by and large were white; there were not that many Afro-Americans or Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans. Basically they were white, middle class. They rejected materialism. They came from nuclear families, they rejected the American dream.

The neighborhood that is right next to the Haight Ashbury is the Fillmore district. I don’t know if it’s changed today, but in the ’50s and ’60s it was predominantly black. The Afro-Americans wanted part of the American dream. They wanted all these so-called meaningless goods that the hippie culture was rejecting. That’s why Jimi Hendrix is something of an anomaly in psychedelic rock. Because he was a black American. And there was a guy who sold acid. His name was Super Spade, “spade” meaning black. But by and large the people in the Haight Ashbury were white, middle-class or working-class.

What about women there? What were women doing during this period in the Haight Ashbury?

In many ways, women did seem to have a subservient role in the counterculture. Women in the Diggers tended to have a subservient role. By that I mean they didn’t make the major decisions. Things had to be decided, right? Where are we going to go, what are we going to do? And the men in the Diggers tended to do that. In a lot of the communes, that seemed to be what was happening as well. The women took care of the children, they did the housework, they did the cooking — the traditional kind of family situation.

And this is while the guys were out there preaching equality?

I don’t know if they were all preaching equality. They were preaching for rights. It’s somewhat contradictory; some people have said that out of the hippie movement, feminism grew as well. But I’m not so sure about that.

Law enforcement and much of the political establishment regarded these kids and their ideas with suspicion.

You’ve got two diametrically opposed mindsets. You have a really conservative mindset, the older generation who fought World War II. And then you had the younger generation that was smoking marijuana. Our parents did not smoke marijuana, you know. They drank bourbon, they drank whiskey, they drank beer,

They saw their children letting their hair grow. You have these two contradictory cultures clashing. One is opposed to the Vietnam War; our parents were for the Vietnam War. You do what the government says, right? You don’t contradict the government.

So whatever the reason that drew so many people to this moment in San Francisco, whether it was the war and the draft or drugs or spirituality, it was about challenging authority. That was the common thread?

Not necessarily challenging, but rejecting. Trying to decipher it yourself. Do your own thing, which was one of the slogans of the time. That implies, think for yourself. Don’t be a robot, don’t accept what everybody tells you, because it might not be true, The psychedelic counterculture felt the American dream and imperialism and the arms race and the Cold War, that was chaos. That would lead to destruction. That, I think, explains why a lot of young people rejected the ideas of their parents.

In all the time you got to spend there, did you sense that Vietnam was a cloud that was just off the horizon, if it wasn’t actually hanging above everyone’s head?

Sure. For young people that was the fear. Timothy Leary talked about dropping out. And dropping out could have its risks too. If you were in school, in college, you had to maintain a certain grade point average. Otherwise Uncle Sam would send you his letter of greetings notifying you to appear at your local draft board in the very near future

Young males who were drafted were sent to Vietnam where they could be killed for no good reason.

What were the elements of the disintegration of that singular moment in San Francisco?

Something destroyed the Haight. As a history teacher, I’m interested in that because I don’t think things just happen for no reason. There are causes and there are consequences. What killed the Haight Ashbury?

Well, the media killed the Height Ashbury by simply making it become a cliché. If you repeat something often enough, it tends to become automatic and people tend to forget what the meaning is.

Too many people overwhelmed a small district of San Francisco. That killed the Haight Ashbury.

Before the Summer of Love, there was the Human Be-In [in January 1967 in Golden Gate Park], which I think was the high-water mark for the Summer of Love. In ‘66 and up to the be-in, people’s attitudes were different. People believed in sharing. You could see people tried to be sincere. People were, I think, more honest. After the be-in, there tended to be kind of a decline. People started getting more selfish. There were people who were drawn to the Haight Ashbury because of all the publicity, and because they wanted to take something out rather than give something.

There were a lot of the people in the establishment who didn’t like the hippies. [Then-Gov. Ronald] Reagan had a joke about the hippies that you probably heard at one time or another, that a hippie dresses like Tarzan, he walks like Jane and he smells like Cheetah.

I was talking about LSD. Owsley Stanley was the clandestine chemist who manufactured LSD. His LSD was pure, he wasn’t mixing it up with garbage. You knew what you were getting. Then all of a sudden he was arrested in December of 1967. After that you got these weird drugs. The quality of LSD got very bad after that. Then there were a lot of weird drugs. The hard drugs were dumped into the Haight Ashbury.

What do you think the lasting influence has been, all these years later?

I think there are a lot. Look at the United States today. Look at marijuana. Look at the number of states that have de-penalized marijuana. A lot of states authorize marijuana for medical purposes. How things have changed!

And in many other areas as well. Ecology — today people know that you cannot pollute the planet indefinitely. Look at music — many songs from the ’60s are still played today.

People have a healthy questioning of authority — I think a lot of that came from the counterculture. The importance of the human body — people are not afraid to show their bodies today. Look at the integration of homosexuals, minorities, perhaps to some extent the feminist movement as well — all of that stemmed from the ideas of the counterculture.

Pacifism, people who were opposed to war. Look at how the sexual mores have changed. All of those things have changed because they started in the ’60s with the counterculture

The Summer of Love, it’s a buzzword, and everyone knows or thinks they know what it is, but in fact it’s an extremely complicated and complex period in American history.

There seems to be no question it was a turning point in American history.

It was a turning point, because look what happened afterwards. In ’68, you have the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the escalation of the Vietnam War, [the killing of civilians] at My Lai. Three years after the Summer of Love, the [violent radical group] Weather Underground declared war against the United States of America.

After the Summer of Love, there was a radicalization. After the summer of 1967, San Francisco was being emptied of its counterculture. Everyone who could get out was leaving. The young people were leaving the Haight Ashbury because of the police brutality, because of the bad drugs, the hard drugs. There was a lot more violence — peace and love were gone.

Is there one piece of music for you that brings it all back, that takes you right back there?

One album in particular: Jefferson Airplane and “Surrealistic Pillow,” that I think in many ways captures the essence of the period.

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