California’s signature scent of marijuana permeates the warm air in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. Dogs pant and people strip off. The arrival of an early summer has caught the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood off guard. It is a distinctive, blissed-out atmosphere but still an age away from the drug-fuelled, music-drenched summer of 1967, when 100,000 people converged on the Haight.
Back then, people came to embrace a higher consciousness and obey the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” message that Timothy Leary had delivered earlier that year to 30,000 people in Golden Gate Park at the “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In”.”
The area quickly became a test-ground for 1960s counterculture, with the political activists from Berkeley joining the bohemians of Haight-Ashbury.
Comparisons and reflections are expected this year, though, as San Francisco is busy looking backwards, marking the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, remembering and debating its legacy. The summer of 1967 was an optimistic, heady time, following on from the beat generation’s championing of sexual liberation and freedom, and the Trips festival in San Francisco the year before, when 10,000 people watched the Grateful Dead perform, many of them high on LSD having heeded the festival flyer’s words: “The audience participates because it’s more fun to do so than not.”
This was a short-lived, peak moment of trippy rock posters and social activism, cut short by an influx of violent heroin dealers into the Haight, subsequent overdoses and, eventually, tourist buses arriving to gawk at the hippies. Come autumn 1967, many of the “flower children” had decamped to rural communes and the original pioneers and visionaries were gone.
Today, Haight-Ashbury is still a living – if touristy – flashback to that seminal summer, a district of nonconformists, tie-dye stores and emporiums with names like Little Wing (after the Jimi Hendrix song) selling fringed waistcoats, anarchist handbooks and bongs. Distractions boutique declares it has been “keeping Haight-Ashbury strange since 1976”, while other stores mirror the style of the 60s. There’s Rasputin Records, with a psychedelic sign depicting the Russian mystic in the lotus position; the Blue Front Café, advertising itself with a fantastic giant muscle-bound blue genie; and Hippie Thai, with its campervan logo and macrobiotic Thai street food. A huge mural above a fast-food cafe called Burger Urge illustrates the Summer of Love with Hendrix playing the guitar and Janis Joplin howling into a microphone. Buskers play harmonicas and Hare Krishna folk in orange robes tour the streets. You either love it or hate it.
From the open doors of Love on Haight, a shop on the corner of Masonic and Haight, Jerry Garcia’s weathered voice eases out – the shop stereo only ever plays the music of former residents the Grateful Dead. Multi-coloured fractals and tie-dye designs cover not only the walls and ceiling but also the staff. Proprietor Sunshine Powers, self-proclaimed Queen of Haight Street, is a well-known local figure and her youthful mop of curly red hair makes her easy to spot amongst the psychedelic pile-up. Despite not being part of the original movement (Powers was born in 1980), she is a keen modern-day promoter of the 1960s message of peace, community and love.
“What people forget is that all that hippy stuff – sex and drugs and music – was just frosting on the cake,” says Powers, her signature green glitter facepaint sparkling. “Social justice, community and healthcare, that’s what really mattered. That was the main drive. This 50th anniversary also gives us the chance to show the original pioneers that we’re carrying on their causes. After all, they may not be around in 10 or 20 years’ time.”
It’s easy to dismiss the peace and love message as corny and passé, but Powers is convincing when she speaks of “valuing people over things”, and her beliefs are proven later when I learn of her considerable financial support of Taking it to the Streets, a charity helping vulnerable homeless youths, of whom there are many. (This is depressing given the torrent of wealth pouring into the city from nearby Silicon Valley. If the Summer of Love set out to end stark inequality in its own community, it appears to have failed, despite the efforts of people like Powers.)
Back outside, I step over paving slabs painted with large red love hearts, towards family-owned Gus’s Community Market. Its motto of “local produce, local farmers, locally here for you” lured me inside, as did the smell of sweet Californian berries mixing with the soft aroma of baked grains. Every conceivable wholefood is packed into every available space. The label on a bottle of organic kombucha, a fermented tea, claims, cringingly, that its number one ingredient is “love” and that it hails from a batch “small enough to hug”. Psychedelic posters advertising street-fairs from the past decorate the walls, acting as reminders that common ecological awareness and vegetarian lifestyles have been central to this part of California since the 60s. Organic food and Middle Eastern food, so popular worldwide today, was sold at the Monterey music festival of 1967, where Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Mamas & the Papas all played.
Outside, posters advertise one of the biggest shows of the year: the De Young Museum’s Summer of Love exhibition (until August 20). I head there next.
De Young is a giant copper-clad museum in the open green spaces of three-mile-long Golden Gate Park, where goldfinches and turquoise jays flit between palm and eucalyptus trees. It is a cool, calming space.
In the garden, signs for the Summer of Love exhibition draw links and contrasts between 1967 and 2017. One reads “hippie 1967, hipster 2017”, seemingly ignoring the fact that hipsters emerged as a subculture in the 1940s. Another reads “free clinic 1967, affordable care 2017”, reminding us of the non-judgmental clinic set up in the Haight in 1967, complete with a “bad trip” room.
Inside, the roar of Jefferson Airplane introduces the exhibition. In one room, Ben Van Meter’s double- and triple-exposed images from the Trips festival are described as “a documentary … from the point of view of a goldfish in the Kool-Aid bowl”. Fashion-focused rooms show the journey from uptight girdles and garter belts to loose, free-flowing maxi dresses and flared trousers. The first bell-bottom jeans, made in San Francisco at the Levis factory then on Valencia Street, are displayed. Flared, or boot-cut jeans, we are told, were originally made to fit over cowboy boots.
Today, the Levis store on Market Street, the main downtown shopping drag , has a rack of Summer of Love clothes inspired by the company’s archive, including a two-tone suede jacket at $1,200. It’s easy for corporations to jump on the Summer of Love theme, seemingly ignoring key messages about simple living, inclusion and community. In April, the San Franciso branch of department store Neiman Marcus held a pop-up called The Love Boutique, featuring vintage pieces from the 60s alongside new Balmain, Chloe and Alexander McQueen garments that cost thousands of dollars.
One of the best items in the exhibition, however, is one of the smallest. Made of goatskin and decorated with silk chain-stitch embroidery by Haight-Ashbury couturier Linda Gravenites, it is Janis Joplin’s exquisite handbag from 1967. Suspended in a glass case, it looks like new, its red beads still shining. Joplin told Vogue magazine in 1968 that Gravenites “turns them out slowly and turns them out well and only turns them out for those she likes”.
Later, I meet Greg Castillo, a counterculture expert and associate professor of architecture at Berkeley. He says some of the legacies of 1967 are more subtle and less dramatic than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The recycling logo, today one of the most recognisable in the world, is a direct product of that era. It was designed in 1970, its spinning, revolving graphic based on the mandala – a symbol for the cosmos borrowed from eastern cultures. Its designer, Gary Anderson, has said that the spirit of the 1960s directly influenced his design.
Later, as a sunset turns the Californian sky bubblegum pink, I walk through Chinatown, making a literary pilgrimage to the landmark City Lights bookshop and publishing house. Open until midnight daily, America’s first all-paperback bookstore has been riding the counterculture wave since it was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a veteran of the Bay area now 98 years old. It still publishes books on social and political issues, as well as the poetry it is best known for, much of which influenced the local 60s zeitgeist. Ferlinghetti famously published Allen Ginsberg’s controversial 1955 poem Howl. A poster on the wall today announces that “printer’s ink is the greatest explosive”, while another reminds us that “democracy is not a spectator sport”. City Lights, with its wall of ’zines, still holds regular radical events and has held on to its anarchic charm.
Back at my hotel, the Zeppelin, in the theatre district, a couple of blocks from the alarmingly drug-addled streets of the Tenderloin and the department stores of Union Square, there is also an air of ’67. The Doors’ Light my Fire – released in May of that year – is playing in the lobby and on the wall a giant mural of a doe-eyed girl with flowers in her hair overlooks the chill-out area. The staff are disarmingly friendly, too, and a general air of liberalism dominates.
The spirit of the Summer of Love does appear to linger in this city. Despite the vast and obvious inequalities – which some say are steadily worsening – San Francisco feels like a flexible and creative city, somewhere that is still capable of opening minds.
Way to go
The trip was provided by American Sky (01342 886721. americansky.co.uk), which offers five nights at the Hotel Zeppelin from £999pp, including flights from Gatwick with American Airlines and room-only accommodation.
• For Summer of Love events, see sftravel.com/summer-love-2017