CACTUSPEAR.ORG PRESENTS

haight-ashbury days


Prior to the Forty-Niners, what's now the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco was little more than windswept sand dunes and scattered farmland. Golden Gate Park was laid out in the 1870s, with Haight Street to its east and the undeveloped ocean waterfront — now Ocean Beach and the Great Highway — at its western end. In 1883 a cable car connected Haight Street with Market Street and downtown San Francisco. By the 1890s, a trolley car passed nearby on Carl Street on its way to the beach.

The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was spared most of the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire. After World War II, however, the flight of residents from the city to the suburbs left many homes empty and uncared for.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Bookstore across town in North Beach in 1953. A few years later he published Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce started their careers in political comedy and satire at the hungry i nightclub, also in North Beach.

In 1958 a local newspaper columnist coined the term beatnik, and the Beat movement was off and running.

The hungry i also launched the careers of folk music acts such as the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters.

By the early 1960s, however, the heyday of the beat artists was over, and the cultural action moved elsewhere.

In 1962 Andy Warhol showed his Campbell Soup can silkscreens in Los Angeles.

Michael Murphy and Dick Price established the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Monterey County, in 1963, kicking off the Human Potential Movement. Civil rights workers from around the country were active in the South in an effort to register voters and end racial segregation.

In New York, folk music was undergoing a revival in the Greenwich Village coffee houses, and Warhol shot his first movies.

In May, 1962, Bob Dylan released Freewheelin', his first record with mostly original material. It included the hit, Blowin' in the Wind, which became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. The folksinger Joan Baez began introducing Dylan at her concerts.

In Britain, the Mods and the Rockers were at the height of their influence. In November, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

§   §   §

When I was in New York in 1969, I met a guy who said he was one of the first "hippies" in San Francisco. Robert was born in the early to mid-1930s and grew up in Seattle. His father was a trade craftsman and his mother was a housewife. Robert was a child of the Depression.

A committed union organizer as a young man, Robert's union activities and socialist leanings earned him an FBI file. Later in life, he trashed the labor movement for what he saw as its cold materialism and lack of a spiritual dimension.

Disillusioned with social and political activism, Robert took up painting and earned a degree in the fine arts. He also learned the guitar and began to write songs.

Around 1963 or 1964, at about the age of thirty, he dropped out of conventional society — long before it was fashionable to do so — and moved to San Francisco. Attracted by the cheap rents, he took an apartment on Page Street in Haight-Ashbury. This was once a fashionable neighborhood of beautiful Victorians, many of which had sadly fallen into disrepair. He lived in the Haight for many years in the company of other artists and musicians.

Robert practiced an extreme form of frugality, sometimes trading his paintings for rent. One of the first wooden flute players on Haight Street, he earned a respectable five dollars per hour. Roberto (or sometimes "Robert O") became his street nickname, although he was Caucasian.

§   §   §

In 1964 San Francisco resident Chet Helms began presenting the growing community of musicians and artists at informal performances in the basement of his home, also on Page Street. He went on to become a major music promoter.

1964 was also the year of the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and of the Mississippi Freedom summer. When school reopened in the fall, the Free Speech Movement began in Berkeley.

The first of the bands that would become associated with the San Francisco rock-'n'-roll scene, the Charlatans, formed in the summer of 1964. Their influences were blues, country, and jug band music, but they dressed in late-19th century garb and pioneered the outlandish costuming that later became associated with the City by the Bay.

The next year, 1965, the rest of the seminal bands were formed: the Great Society, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Sons of Champlin, and the Warlocks (later the Grateful Dead).

Also in 1965, Owsley Stanley, a chemist from Berkeley, began producing cheap, high-quality LSD for mass consumption. (The Sandoz pharmaceutical company, now Novartis, had been producing the substance since 1947, but only for scientific research.) Acid quickly became an important part of the concert experience, for musicians and audience members alike.

Bill Graham, a member of the avant-guard San Francisco Mime Troupe, staged his first musical shows. He would become one of the most successful promoters in rock history.

The first shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in February, 1965, featured the Jefferson Airplane (with Signe Tole Andersen on lead vocals), Big Brother and the Holding Company (before Janis Joplin), the Great Society, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Grace Slick composed the song White Rabbit, a psychedelic take on the Lewis Carroll story Alice in Wonderland.

Janis Joplin sang her first show with Big Brother at the Fillmore Auditorium in June and Grace Slick first appeared with the Jefferson Airplane in October.

The press gave the growing number of artists, musicians, and hangers-on in the Haight the label "hippies" in late 1965.

In early 1966 the band Country Joe and the Fish relocated to San Francisco from Berkeley, where they had formed the previous year.

From the Human Be-In in early 1967 to the Summer of Love later that year, new people from all over the country arrived every day in the Haight.

Unlike their older brothers and sisters, this new wave of wide-eyed youths were not all artists and musicians. They were ordinary folks, a mix of World War II-era Baby Busters and the eldest of the post-war Baby Boom generation. Many of the Busters were recent college graduates whose major cultural influences were the Beats and early rockers like Little Richard and Elvis Presley.

The exploding generation of Boomers, whose influences were the Beatles, Motown, and Bob Dylan, were reaching their late teens. Many had some college experience, even if they had dropped out in the hope of finding a more direct and immediate way to experience life. The attitudes, sensibilities, and worldview of the new community of transcendental vagabonds and psychedelic space travelers were heavily influenced by television, vinyl record albums, comic books, and other non-literary media.

Whatever their age, many were refugees from what they felt was a stifling, suffocating, and isolating middle-class, suburban culture, with its emphasis on material success, conformity, and mind-numbing, repetitive jobs. Others had simply failed to fit in elsewhere.

Thousands arrived with a few possessions and perhaps an old junker, hoping to make San Francisco their home. The city didn't let them down. Former city supervisor Angela Alioto, daughter of then-mayor Joseph Alioto, was fifteen years old during the Summer of Love. She said that it was fitting that it was the city of St. Francis of Assisi that welcomed so many so warmly.

No one, least of all the young people themselves, had ever seen such a phenomenon. (Most people in our parents' generation had little or no recollection of the Roaring Twenties.) The atmosphere was giddy with excitement about possibilities for the future.

Rock concerts, both the ticketed, indoor dance-format shows held at various venues around town, and the free outdoor shows in Golden Gate Park, quickly became the dominant public art form and community gathering place. They were as much about the audience as they were about the performers. The performers began to understand that they were there to facilitate the communal experience, not to be the experience, much as one hires a band to perform at a ball or dance gathering, rather than at a sit-down concert.

Many of the newly arrived made their own clothes or haunted the depression-era vintage clothing stores and the yard sales. There they discovered old Hollywood or Guilded Age costumes and transformed them into the colorful, outlandish, theatrically charged looks of the Sixties.

The clothing fashions of the day quickly became commodified and stripped of the individuality that gave them their initial charm and appeal.

Like the Beats, the hippies developed their own language. Many terms have found their way over the years into the general vocabulary, such as bummer, hassle, and uptight, while others have slipped into obscurity.

Slowing down to zero. Some used yoga or meditation to get there. Only when we slow down will we able to be gentle with ourselves and with others.

Being free. What could be more fundamental to who we are as people than the desire to be free?

It was believed for about fifteen minutes in the mid-Sixties that Berkeley would lead the way politically and San Francisco culturally.

Zen and yoga as they're practiced in the West today are little more than minor accessories to those pursuing larger material interests. They're yet another lifestyle choice, like fortune cookies, sushi, or hot yoga, designed and marketed to appeal to common western tastes.

There's a short distance between the commodification of a lifestyle and dependency on pills.

The challenge, which few of us have taken up fully, is to fundamentally change your life and your self. There's much more to life than which group you join or what clothes you wear.

The laws of physics dictated that what went up in the mid-Sixties would soon come crashing down. Looking back, the seeds of destruction were sowed early. By early 1967, there were tour busses in the Haight, so that Middle Americans could watch the freaks and non-conformists like animals in a zoo.

In October, 1967, some hippies held a mock funeral for the movement, urging others to take their practices and message to the rural communes and other cities. Many worried that the movement had devolved into little more than an ephemeral and superficial media phenomenon.

Meanwhile, drug dealers flooded the Haight with hard drugs like speed and heroin.

There are hard lessons in this story. The most important one is that finding yourself isn't about a place, or a time, or a drug, or a city or neighborhood. People are important — you can't do it all by yourself — but you can become the person you want to be almost anywhere.

It wouldn't be in the spirit of that life-affirming time to leave this subject on a negative or sour note. You learn how to take the good, cherish the memories, and move on to even better things. The universe provides.

Zen says that whatever happens, happens. This may sound fatalistic, but it's the sign of the maturity of a religion that it refuses to try to sell you something it can't deliver.

It's a measure of how worshipful we are of the commercial culture that we can't imagine a religion that isn't at bottom a transaction: you give up x, and you get back y, as opposed to give, give, give to others. No strings attached, no expectations, just give until you can't give any more.

There's much hate in the world, but we proved that with effort, you can transform it into love, if only for a few magical moments. The effort is worthwhile, whatever the outcome.


cactuspear home
comments to comments at cactuspear dot org