on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2017 22 Aug

Musings and remembrances: The Summer of Love

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 10 Comments

I had just turned 15 in February of 1967, thus I was a bit young to fully appreciate and understand the Summer of Love. But I was ripe for it all the same. I was tuning into Sgt. Pepper’s, The Doors’s first album, the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, etc. I had already smoked my first joint.

Even though I was all the way over on the East Coast, the vibe of San Francisco had drifted across the country like heady incense. It showed up one day in the form of my best friend’s older brother. He came east bearing gifts: good strong pot and a stack of records from the left coast. He wore tall black boots with pointy toes, bell-bottom jeans, and a blue denim jacket. He had a mustache and a beard and hair down to his back. He was a self-proclaimed anarchist – and the coolest guy I had ever met!

In truth, I idolized the hippie movement. I’d already gotten a taste of it—a free concert in New York City’s Central Park. The lineup was impressive: the Butterfield Blues Band opened, followed by the Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead in all their glory played a long closing set. That concert turned out to be a life-changing experience. I still remember the Airplane hanging out on a riser behind the Dead, swaying to the music of (the yet to be released) Anthem of the Sun (possibly the most adventurous album of their entire studio output), Augustus Owsley Stanley (the legendary acid maker) at the mixing board and Grace Slick throwing candies out to the uber-stoned crowd during the Dead’s set. It was a taste of heaven. I walked out convinced I was destined to become a musician and that somehow, I had get to San Francisco.

That summer, my parents sent me on a camping tour called Wagons West. A very straight couple ran it. They hired teachers to drive a couple dozen rambunctious teenagers in Ford econo-vans across the country to visit the nation’s landmarks. They had the annoying habit of embarrassing us in crowds by shouting loudly, „Waggoneers, over here!“

I admit it,  I was one of the wilder ones. I didn’t fit in with most of them; they were far too sedate and, well, straight for my tastes. However, it turned out that there were several other characters with whom I quickly aligned myself. One of them turned out to be the son of Robert Rauschenberg, the late contemporary artist. He even crazier than I was, espousing an incomprehensible philosophy that seemed to include spaghetti as the ultimate form of God. The other character was Jason, whose father was a well-known science-fiction writer. His dad had written an apocalyptic novel about the reemergence of a new society after the psychedelic wars. Jason was 15 going on 25 – he’d already managed to grow a sort of mustache, had long hair, and always wore dark shades. And he lived in Greenwich Village. He was an aspiring photographer and always had his camera at the ready.  His dad would eventually go on to publish an article in Life magazine entitled, “My Son Is on LSD.“  These metropolitan New Yorkers seemed far more experienced than I was. They became my mentors, especially with regards to drugs and generally getting into trouble, which we did quite a bit that summer.

After endless stops at national monuments and parks, we finally arrived in San Francisco. As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco” (wear some flowers in your hair) came on the radio. This was how I wound up at 15 in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

We were staying at the Y, and managed to ditch the group almost immediately, making a beeline for the Haight. It was teeming with energy; the streets were full of colorfully clad hippies and runaways. The smell of pot was everywhere. People were drumming and dancing in the park. Head shops looked like dark caves, filled with glowing black-light posters; smoke and music were drifting into the streets. Long haired freaks were giving away copies of the beautiful and mystical Oracle on every street corner. There was a vibe of unbridled creativity and freedom in the air. I drank it all in, too young and naive to see the shadow that lurked beneath the veneer of “Love on Haight.”

It is impossible to convey the feeling this experience transmitted to an impressionable 15-year-old. A new and mysterious world was being revealed, a world rich with the promise of altered consciousness, drug-and-music fueled ecstasy, and at least to my testosterone fueled teenage mind, the possibility of getting it on with far-out hippie chicks! And somewhere, mixed in with the drugs, music, and sex, there was also a feeling of nascent spirituality crackling in the air.

Of course, the first thing we did was to try to cop some drugs. Jason simply went up to the most promising hippie in the vicinity and asked. The longhaired, bearded freak with the requisite flowers in his hair responded with, “No problem, man.” Jason proceeded to give him a laundry list of uppers, downers, pot, and LSD etc. The hippie told us he would get the stuff and come to our room at the Y. (Yes, we were that naive!) A few hours later, back in our room, there was a knock on the door: The hippie had actually come through with all of Jason’s requests! The rest of the summer was admittedly a blur, but I do remember nearly getting sent home several times for our escapades. (After that summer, the tour banned all longhaired kids.)

We hid our stash inside a portable battery-driven record player we had bought in Chinatown. We only had a couple of records with us, Sgt. Pepper’s, Surrealistic Pillow, Country Joe and the Fish’s Electric Music for Mind and Body, and, for some reason, Projections, the second Blues Project album.  Those 4 albums became the soundtrack of that crazy summer. We played them ad nauseam, never tiring of “Lucy in the Sky,” “White Rabbit,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Flute Thing.” “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” became a sort of anthem for us.

Radio was cool in San Francisco. KSAN played a mix of psychedelic rock, blues, Indian ragas, folk, and classical music. You never knew what you were going to hear next. It was true free-form radio—before it was even invented—as anti-corporate as one could possibly imagine. Bulgarian music, Vivaldi, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar all mixed together in equal measure. Even the top 40 stations were pumping out Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” or Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

And what a year for albums! Bands didn’t just put out one classic; many had no less then two: the Airplane released both Surrealistic Pillow and the boundary breaking Bathing at Baxter’s; the Doors had their eponymous first album and followed it with Strange Days; Hendrix released Are You Experienced? and Axis Bold as Love. This was also the year that Buffalo Springfield Again was released, as well as Forever Changes by Love. Moby Grape put out its near perfect first album. The psychedelic movement had a strong showing in Britain as well: The marvelously creative and zany The Who Sell Out came out alongside one of the best Kinks albums, Something Else. The Incredible String Band put out the amazing 5000 Spirits. Pink Floyd released its first album, the trippy Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And of course, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper (and later in the fall, Magical Mystery Tour, which may have been a shitty movie, but was certainly a solid collection of songs).

The first time I heard Sgt. Pepper was on the radio. FM radio had just gotten its first pop station and a DJ named Rosko (“on the go in stereo“) played it in its entirety before it was officially released. I had on my dad’s Scott tuner and listened with his Sennheiser headphones. In short, it blew my stoned 15-year-old mind. I even thought I distinctly heard one of the Beatles call out my name (right before the reprise of Sgt. Peppers!) I had never heard anything quite like it. Some rock critics thought it was overproduced and put it down for not being pure enough rock-n-roll. I remember reading a review that focused on dissing “Within You and Without You,” because it was „too Indian“ and the lyrics were too „overtly spiritual.“ For me all of it was ear candy I was ready to devour. And devour it I did.

As it turns out I’m still devouring it: Earlier this summer I bought the newly released deluxe package of Giles Martin’s remarkable remix of Pepper. It is everything I could’ve hoped for. Giles used the original mono mix as his template for relative volume balances, and got ahold of the individual tracks (before they were bounced to the final 4-track), and flew the tracks into the computer, where he was able to sync them up. This enabled Giles to create a true stereo mix from scratch. To me this mix, best heard in hi def (either in stereo or 5.1,) is the perfect Pepper. It has the solid bottom of the mono mix, bringing up the bass and drums for added power, yet possesses a wide, balanced and satisfying stereo soundstage, all the while retaining the relative balances and gutsiness of the original mono mix. The 5.1 mix is well worth checking out. It starts off mostly in the fronts with just a little ambience in the rears, but as the album unfolds, so does the surround-sound experience. By the end it entirely envelopes the listener.

There is an overriding theme here: The Beatles seemed to be telling us that we all have the ability to paint our reality as we so choose. You hear it in “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” the fantasy world of “Lucy in the Sky,” the emancipation proclamation of “She’s Leaving Home.” The message was clear: You don’t have to settle for the status quo: You are free to create the reality you want, if not externally, at least within your own internal landscape, where you can escape the humdrum 9-5 world.

Listening to this album all these years later, I am struck by how ahead of its time it really was. This is not only apparent in the arrangements and boundary pushing production, it’s also embedded in the sophisticated lyrics—it’s not all peace and love either. There is an underlying thread of discontent and darkness brewing just beneath the veneer of psychedelic good vibes. Even as a teenybopper I could feel the despair and anger in the lyrics of “Good Morning, Good Morning”; Lennon was already emerging as the misanthrope he was to become in his later solo years, the dark clouds of a world in chaos seeping into the hermetically sealed bubble of his acid-infused days and nights. Even the Beatles couldn’t completely isolate themselves from the real world, the daily tally of war deaths, scandals, and the ever-present mortal news. “A Day in the Life” summed it all up.

It has been 50 years since the months we so romantically refer to as the Summer of Love. But by the end of that summer, the stories of drug burnouts, alcohol abuse, and the use of meth and other decidedly nasty drugs were circulating. Even as the busses carrying tourists, eager to see the hippies in their natural environment, were still driving through the Haight and the Village in NYC, the Diggers, a group of idealistic anarchists and performance artists who were feeding hippies in Golden Gate Park and had started the Haight Ashbury Free Store, proclaimed the „Death of the Hippies“ and marched through the streets of the Haight carrying the Hippie Coffin. Yes, it was over almost before it began. Shortly after, came the deaths of Jimi, Janis, Jim, and all the rest. Not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Lither King.  After that it was only a short trip from Woodstock to Altamont. The dream was over.

I read recently that the American neo-Nazis have dubbed this summer the Summer of Hate. No surprise there – the Blue Meanies are still trying to ruin our day. And we’re still trying to fight the good fight. Some things will never change.

It may be a cliché to say the music lives on. But, you know, it really does!

This entry was posted on Dienstag, 22. August 2017 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Oh, well what a journey! I can confirm every word on Sgt. Pepper, then again, after reading these lines and hearing them vibrate deep inside, I would like to immediately enter a time machine – then again (at least for some of us) SGT. PEPPER IS the time machine.

  2. Brian Whistler:

    Micha-While I listened to Sgt Pepper today as I finished this piece, I felt as if I had literally entered a time machine!!

  3. ijb:

    Hey Brian, only now I just noticed you are in San Francisco. For some reason I had assumed you were somewhere in the north of the UK… I will actually come to San Francisco in slightly more than a week..

  4. ijb:

    PS: A substantial element of my upbringing was the music of the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper as well as the Beatles films are among my oldest childhood memories (don’t know how many others of my generation experienced the Blue Meanies as some of their earlier cartoon characters) – and many other bands of the 1960s, since my father was born in 1950 (many of those sixties bands we went to see live much later together, here in Germany), so he’s practically your generation. He, however, has only been a visitor in CA, so no participant in the summer of love as a 17-year old ;-)

  5. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Ijb, Brian lives in Northern Cal, near Russian River!:)

  6. Lajla:

    Thank you Brian, what a good read.

  7. Michael Engelbrecht:

    The 70’s were not less adventurous, for sure, and now, great players of those pioneering years (the last pioneering jazz decade, imo) leave the stage as years go by. To see the title of your story below the „Gateway“ cover… well, it connects…

  8. Jan Reetze:

    Great read — thanks, Brian!

  9. Brian whistler:

    Ingo: your dad is only 2 years older than I, so we are the same generation. There was a critical difference between having been born in 1949, when one would’ve been just old enough to legally take off for SF on one’s own (unless like so many, you were a runaway, ) so your dad and I experienced many of the same things, albeit in different countries. By the way, I would’ve invited you up or could’ve gone down to SF to meet up with you, but you see, I have just left for NY, which is where I’m writing this note from right now. I’m not returning for some two weeks, lots of travel this summer! Hope you enjoy your visit to SF!

  10. Tom Yohannan:

    Wonderful remembrance. Pleased to have shared it all when we all came back at the end of the summer.

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