Something remarkable happened to the youth of the Western world 50 years ago. In the summer of 1967 a huge number of American teenagers – nobody knows exactly how many, but some estimate between 100,000 and 200,000 – escaped what they saw as their suburban prisons and made for the city district of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco.
We now look back on the “Summer of Love” – the name originated at a meeting of counter-cultural leaders in the spring – as a lost golden age of bliss, excitement and adventure; a paradise which can never be recreated. But in actual fact, this centre-piece of the 60s still looms large over popular culture and social mores today.
Drawing on utopian traditions which date back to the founding fathers, and fuelled by the euphoric and hallucinatory powers of marijuana and LSD, the summer of 1967 saw an extraordinary culture rise in a remarkably short space of time.
There was a creative explosion in the arts, music and fashion combined with a belief that the world could be born anew. Characterised by the vivid, flowing colours of psychedelic art, and a belief that love was the solution to all problems, hippy culture set out to transform the world by rejecting every social, political, economic and aesthetic feature of mainstream Western society.
The story goes that a paradise of peace and love prevailed in San Francisco for much of the year, but came sadly unstuck very soon after. This new Garden of Eden was destroyed progressively by the sheer numbers of teenagers who descended on Haight-Ashbury. One leading figure described the resulting chaos as a “zoo”.
Commercialisation of the hippie dream compounded the problem and disillusion set in. The twin shock of the Manson murders in August 1969, and the brutal killing by Hells Angels of an audience member at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont a few months later, provided the epitaph to an era.
According to this version, the “survivors” renounced psychedelia, abandoned the vain belief that love would solve everything and knuckled down to political action – gay liberation, second wave feminism and environmentalism. Or they found gurus and became new agers. The 60s were sealed off, preserved in aspic as a lost golden age, a time of innocence. It was over, finished, forbidden to anyone who wasn’t there.
However, like all golden age stories, this narrative is largely bogus.
Criticism of the Summer of Love mythology dates back to 1967 itself, to the Diggers – named after the English radicals of 1649-50. This guerrilla street theatre group regarded the hippy phenomenon as a media creation, a distraction from the true attempt to build a new and more just society. They denounced the irresponsible preaching of psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who urged teenagers to take LSD and renounce work and education, and attacked the catchy nonsense of MacKenzie’s song as a marketing ploy.
The truth is that like all apparently simple cultural phenomena, the Summer of Love was complex. There was a deep tension between the Diggers’ back-to-basics idealistic communism, the commercialism of hippy capitalists selling bells and beads, the advocates of psychedelic transformation, and the politicos of the new left based in Berkeley, California.
The single issue all these groups opposed was American involvement in Vietnam. When the war came to an end with the Paris peace accord in 1973, there was no longer a binding external enemy. The illusion of a single, principled counterculture vanished.
Flowers in your hair
In reality, there was no single “60s”, no golden age, and nothing to come to an end. Instead there were three taste cultures that all coincided, and started to change society’s values.
The first of these cultures was based in fashion and music. Peacock styles for men – long hair and bright colours – and women in mini-skirts or flowing hippy garb. The second group were political revolutionaries, post and neo-Marxists for whom the transformation of socio-economic conditions was the pressing priority. The third group believed in inner transformation and liberation achieved through marijuana and LSD.
Though the three groups’ priorities were fundamentally different, they shared a belief that the past was old and stale, along with a commitment to unfettered individualism. There were, of course, still significant overlaps, and when psychedelic culture met the radical left, notions of protest as play and performance took centre stage.
Half a century on from the height of the Summer of Love, all three taste cultures have survived, but with a different relevance. Individuality and self-expression in fashion and music has continued unhindered. Traditions of political protest flourish as new targets are found in environmental activism and sexual politics. And new generations of spiritual seekers find inspiration in psychedelic drugs, now also known as entheogens.
Defining the 60s as a single unique period, a lost golden age, seals it off from contemporary experience. The sun may have set on the Summer of Love, but the warmth of its rays are still being felt today.