Summer of Love II: Trying for Utopia

Haight AshburyAs the Summer of Love hits the half century mark, we should note that it wasn’t just a cultural phenomenon; it was the last sincere attempt to make a Utopia.  I once visited a golf community where the lush backyards all looked out on the heart of the place, a manicured golf course.  Men actually wore cardigan sweaters, and putted about in golf carts.  It was like The Stepford Wives without the interesting characters. It seems like everybody is after Utopia in one form or another.  For some people it’s a gated community; for others its a commune. The Greek philosopher Plato thought it was rule by an elite group of philosopher-kings whose leadership was universally welcomed.  Rome thought it was  Pax Romana (Peace of Rome).  The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages thought it was command by them with anybody who disagreed burning at the stake.  In the 1800’s, Utopian thinkers in America started special communities like New Harmony and Oneida where like-minded people could flourish in seclusion from the outside world.  We probably shouldn’t leave out the dark utopias, systems that were only Utopian for the rulers: the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.Summer of Love One(Feeling the Love: Before the tourist buses came)

Now and then, Utopia attempts have been inspired by novels.  In the late 1940’s, psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote Walden Two, a piece of fiction in which he applied his behaviorist philosophy to community development.  Years later, a group of optimists opened Twin Oaks, modeled on the Skinner novel.  Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the founding date was 1967.  Then there is the story of the story that came from a story and then led to a real-life story (Yes, it was as confusing as it sounds).  In the 1500’s, Thomas More wrote a tale he called “Utopia” from two Greek words meaning “no place.” More’s perfect place was an Atlantic island.  The island idea must have been in Aldous Huxley’s mind when he wrote his novel, Island in 1962.  The path to paradise for Huxley was drugs.  Drugs would open the mind to bold new perceptions and understandings.  Huxley’s vision burst into full-color, psychedelic life five years later when legions of hippies (hipsters) invaded a quiet San Francisco neighborhood known by the convergence of two of its streets, Haight and Ashbury.  They had been settling in for months when summer approached.  To head off concerns about things getting crazy when thousands more poured into the area in June, a “council” formed among the invaders, calling itself The Council for the Summer of Love.  The spectacle was put to music when the Mamas and Papas released “San Francisco” in July. “If you’re goin’ to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”  Echoing Huxley (who had died the same day as JFK was killed), the hippies used drugs to reach what they hoped would be new dimensions of enlightenment.  Their ideal was made up of not working, scrounging free food and clothes, sitting around, and heeding the words of LSD prophets like Timothy Leary: “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

Flower Power 67(Pentagon Protest ’67: Flowers for the troops?  You’re kidding, right? )

Ironically, the tens of thousands who invaded San Fran, were soon the victims of a counter invasion.  Tour buses, windows filled with curious, middle-aged faces, started nosing through the streets.  Haight Ashbury had become a zoo.  The Utopian values disintegrated in the sickness that comes from undernourishment and bad drug trips.  Mainstream comedian Bob Hope joked that manufacturers were putting ink on LSD pills – pause – so when the kids go on a trip they can write back (audience laughter).  But it wasn’t funny.  Another Utopia had come apart on the rocks of reality.  Troopers didn’t want flowers put in their gun barrels.  As summer waned, the hippies carried a coffin through the streets marking the death of the Summer of Love.  To understand what happened in that summer, why the envisioned Utopia never took root, we need only remember the words of Mark Antony from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.  Oh well, at least we have the music.

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Summer of Love

Sgt. PepperThe Fab Four kicking off the Summer of Love fifty years ago (almost today)

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  So claimed William Shakespeare, and who dares to contradict the Great Bard?  The Skeptical Malt Ball, that’s who.  Names are everything.  Italian restaurants usually have Italian names.  There’s something off-putting about Schultz’s Italian Eatery.  Names give us hooks on which to hang our perceptions.  So it is with the Summer of Love, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

For those who don’t know about that particular summer, it took place in the year 1967.  Someone must have thought that a special name was needed to distinguish that summer from the summer of 1966. The main difference between the two was pop culture.  ’66 was black and white TV, button-down collared shirts, button-down everything.  The Summer of Love was sudden, full color.  It wasn’t just color either; it was bold, psychedelic color.  There were explosions of color.  Patterns were in-your-face. Stripes and modest checks gave way to bursts of paisley.  Girls’ clothing went through a revolution with the paper dress, but boys were safe for a few more years; their ‘65-‘66 stuff was still okay in ’67.

Paper Dresses

Music changed that summer.  A mere twelve months earlier, every pop group looked like the Beatles.  Matching haircuts (bangs) and matching suits.  A world that had been rocked first by Elvis, then in an even bigger way by the Fab Four, had found a way to preserve its sanity.  If all the groups looked basically the same, they could all be put in the same box.  Things couldn’t get too crazy.  But then came Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the Beatles breaking all the rules again.  How could sanity be preserved in a world where the Beatles no longer looked like the Beatles?   Where did those mustaches come from?  And the 19th Century marching band suits in psychedelic colors?  One teen magazine printed a picture of the transformed Beatles over a caption reading “Is this the beginning of the end?  Probably.”  Sure enough, they broke up just two years later.  But in ’67 they seemed to pave the way for wild groups like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane.  Pop lyrics jumped from “The mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a red rubber ball” to “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.  And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all.  Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”

Most people did not go psychedelic. They went on working, paying their bills, enjoying their backyard barbeques.  They maintained the status quo while the world changed around them.  The alterations were presented to them in manageable, bite-size doses on TV.  The “boob tube” didn’t tell them that thinking was changing.  Yes, there are always thoughts behind events.  Everything seemed quaint, amusing, safe.  Look what the kids are doing now.

In the summer of 1967 a gallon of gas cost you 33 cents.  A movie ticket came to $1.25.  The average income was $7,300.00.  Israel won a six day war against Egypt and its allies.  Thurgood Marshall was confirmed to be the first black Supreme Court Justice, and the Court stopped states from making interracial marriage illegal.  A new magazine came out by the name of Rolling Stone.  The Constitution was amended again, and Mohammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing induction into the military.  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created.

Every year has its news, and with the news comes change.  In that sense, 1967 was no different than any other year.  So why is it remembered as something special?  Simple.  Shakespeare was wrong.  A rose by any other name would NOT smell as sweet.  Calling it a sausage would dent the allure somehow.  1967 might have been just another year that had a summer.  Like every other year.  The unhappy effects of drugs on the takers and their families plus an escalating war in Vietnam hardly made for thoughts of love.  But that particular summer, by getting the name Summer of Love, became (to borrow some other words from Shakespeare) the stuff that dreams are made on.  In this case, the name gave the flower its scent.

Surrealistic Pillow

You can tell that it’s not 1966 anymore.