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The Autumn of Love

By Tom McNichol
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page E01

   


Ken Kesey's Bus
Ken Kesey's bus, Furthur.
Photo by Gene Anthony
Forget about the flowers in your hair. If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear . . . a sweater. Maybe two. Thirty years after the Summer of Love, thousands of tie-dyed pilgrims still make the journey to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, and the first thing they discover is that they're woefully underdressed. Many think of California as a land of balmy ocean breezes, endless games of beach volleyball and fun, fun, fun, 'til daddy takes the T-Bird away, but that's Southern California, man. Up north in San Francisco, the summer temperature rarely climbs out of the sixties, and when the fog rolls in, the chill cuts to the bone. The original Summer of Love, it turns out, was long on love and short on summer.

Once the summer fades, however, the Haight (as locals call the neighborhood) begins to look and feel more like the groovy lotus land the rest of the country envisions. The fog evaporates, the tourist throngs thin and it's actually possible to stand at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and not shiver. The "Autumn of Love" may not have the same ring, but at least it's more comfortable.

The weather is one reason why the 30th anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love is taking place in the fall – on Oct. 12 in Golden Gate Park. The free daylong "consciousness-raising event" will feature music (the Jefferson Starship is scheduled to appear) speakers, poets and children's events, not to mention the unscheduled appearance of hundreds of barefoot revelers continuing to dance well after the music has stopped to a tune of their own devising. The other reason that the Summer of Love event isn't taking place until next Sunday is that the organizers of the event, some of whom participated in the original Summer of Love, couldn't get their act together in time. "Hippies aren't big on chronological time," explains one person involved in the planning.

In an era ruled by the twin gods of time and money, the aging children of the Summer of Love still refuse to have anything to do with either, part of the reason why Haight-Ashbury continues to attract seekers from all over the world. Most of the original hippies that inhabited the Haight during the Summer of Love are long gone, but the neighborhood still pulsates with a hippie vibe, though not always an authentic one. Many of the long-haired, brightly clad young people walking up and down Haight Street look exactly like their hippie ancestors did in 1967. If the original hippies had modeled their culture on one that predated them by 30 years, they would have worn zoot suits and grooved to Tommy Dorsey.

In the Haight, as elsewhere, the counterculture has been absorbed by the over-the-counter culture. The commercial strip along Haight Street, once dotted with small craft shops catering exclusively to the neighborhood, is now crowded with T-shirt and souvenir stores packaging the hippie experience and selling it back to tourists. The neighborhood that was once the greenhouse that nurtured the budding flower power movement has turned into Hippieland, the wacky walk-through theme park. Still, as theme parks go, it's a pretty good value – there's no admission and the show never stops. Just make sure you bring that sweater.

One of the biggest changes over the past 30 years is how acceptable – even saleable – the Haight and its inhabitants have become. In 1967, San Francisco's city leaders took a dim view of the freaky goings-on in the neighborhood. Police conducted regular drug busts on apartments in the Haight and checked the IDs of teenagers on the street. Gray Line buses left hourly from downtown hotels for a tour of the Haight known as the "Hippie Hop," advertised as "the only foreign tour within the continental limits of the United States." The local hippies responded by running alongside the tour buses holding full-length mirrors up to the gawking tourists. "Dig yourselves, man!"

Today, San Francisco officials treat the Haight with the respect due a legitimate tourist attraction. Police generally look the other way at drug use, intervening in only the most blatant acts. Gray Line buses no longer chug through the neighborhood, but something called the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour gives tourists a thoughtful, at times almost reverential, overview of the neighborhood and its heady history.

The 2 1/2-hour tour attracts people from all over the world. The day I caught up with it, a group of 25 Japanese tourists were assembled, several pushing strollers. One tour director, Bruce Brennan, grew up in the Bay Area during the 1960s and now runs – with his sister, Pam – the Herb'n Inn, a cozy bed-and-breakfast a half-block from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Brennan has the requisite credentials for a hippie tour guide – he attended Woodstock and Altamont, protested the Vietnam War and twice hitchhiked across the country.

The walking tour begins with a look at the often-ignored history of the Haight – all those years before 1967. At the turn of the century, the neighborhood was a resort area where well-to-do San Francisco burghers built Victorian country homes, many of which have since been immaculately restored. By the 1940s, the Haight had lost some of its luster, becoming a low-rent district of mostly working-class families. In the late 1950s, the beatniks fled the high rents of San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood and began migrating to the Haight, where they were joined by an influx of students from nearby San Francisco State University. The combination of cheap housing, even cheaper drugs, an emerging local rock music scene, and the fact that no one had to get up for work the next day eventually sparked the hippie invasion and the Summer of Love.

The tourists dutifully record this part of the tour with video and still cameras, but it's clear that they're waiting to get to the part where the hippies get naked and dance in the park. The tour picks up considerably at 42 Belvedere St., the house where Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, in town for a ballet performance in July 1967, were busted at a pot party. News footage of the giggling revelers being taken away by police only added to the Haight's growing national reputation. Those crazy hippies even made getting arrested look fun!

Next is 636 Cole St., an unassuming blue house where Charles Manson and his nascent family lived during the Summer of Love. Manson was naturally attracted to the Haight as a place to recruit naive runaways, but he soon found the scene too competitive. After a few months, he split to Southern California and went on to become the notorious mass murderer we know today. After hearing an interpreter recount the Manson story, a ripple of agitation sweeps through the tourists. Apparently, something gets lost in the translation and the group thinks that this Manson fellow is still roaming the streets. That's a profoundly disturbing thought to have while walking through the Haight, since there are people who look like Charles Manson on practically every street corner. After being assured that Manson is safely locked away in prison – at least until his next parole hearing – the group breathes a collective sigh of relief.

"Here's where the cameras really start clicking," Brennan whispers, as he stops the tour in front of 710 Ashbury St., the home of the Grateful Dead from about 1965 to 1968. The Dead have long been the most celebrated band to emerge from Haight-Ashbury, but since Jerry Garcia's death more than two years ago, local veneration of the group has intensified into something resembling a religion. The Ashbury Street house has become a shrine for Deadheads who leave behind messages like the tattered sheet taped to the front porch: "Your lingering notes will forever be embedded in my heart and soul. I miss you, Jerry. – Denise." The image of Jerry Garcia peeks out of shop windows up and down Haight Street, as common a sight as the face of Jesus is in Mexico, though not nearly as well-groomed.

Recently, the Dead house was put up for auction with bids starting at $900,000 – not bad, considering that the owners bought the house 20 years ago for only $55,000. While the commercial strip along Haight Street still maintains a funky, even ragged image, the surrounding neighborhood has gentrified considerably over the past 20 years. If the Dead were just starting their career now, they couldn't afford to rent a studio apartment on Ashbury Street, much less buy a house.

A few doors away, the tour group passes a homeless man fast asleep on a couch that's been left on the sidewalk. The scene could be taking place anywhere in America, but for one detail: It's a paisley couch. Unlike the 1960s, when many hippies in the Haight chose to be homeless ("The Earth is my home, man"), most of the homeless in the Haight today live on the street for all-too-familiar reasons – substance abuse, chronic unemployment or mental illness. Rubbing shoulders with the neighborhood's substantial permanent homeless population are young part-time transients, who panhandle tourists with clever lines such as "Spare change for a condom so I don't breed?"

At last, the tour arrives at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, ground zero of the Summer of Love. The junction that gives the neighborhood its name is often the first stop for many psychedelic pilgrims, and the experience is universally disappointing. On one corner of Haight and Ashbury, there's a T-shirt shop selling images of . . . the corner of Haight and Ashbury. On another corner, there's a Gap. Across the street there's a Ben & Jerry's, which even though it's a national chain is at least run by guys who look like hippies.

Just as the walking tour ends, the group stumbles across the paisley couch again. This time, the couch is inhabited by a trio of fortysomething hippies, all wearing sunglasses and grinning suspiciously crooked smiles. They wave at the group and shout, "C'mon, take our picture." A few members of the tour nervously stand behind the couch and pose with the hippies, who obligingly flash the peace sign. The rest of the group madly snaps photos of the postcard scene. Greetings from Hippieland.

Talk to veterans of the Summer of Love and you quickly discover sharp disagreements over basic facts. Janis Joplin had an apartment on Ashbury – or was it on Lyon Street? The Dead played at the Human Be-In – or was it the Jefferson Airplane? Perhaps the discrepancies are due to the fact that human experience is uniquely subjective, and each individual's memory is equally valid, regardless of the specific details. Perhaps memories of the Summer of Love are like thousands of brightly colored threads that at first seem to clash but somehow come together to form a seamless kaleidoscopic tapestry.

Then again, maybe it's the drugs.

One of the lasting legacies of the Summer of Love in the Haight is how little of the legacy is still standing. There are probably more continuously running businesses in Colonial Williamsburg than there are on Haight Street. Gone are such hippie icons as the Psychedelic Shop, a pioneering store that sold books, records, concert tickets and head supplies and served as a community gathering place. Today, the storefront at 1535 Haight is a pizza parlor, and the closest thing to a psychedelic item there is a slice with mushrooms. Gone, too, are the offices of the Oracle, the rainbow-colored underground newspaper designed to assault the senses, even olfactory – as each issue of the Oracle came rolling off the press, it was sprayed with a whiff of jasmine perfume. The paper lasted a year and a half, folding in 1968. "A lot of things in the Haight used to be free," says former Oracle editor Allen Cohen. "Now, they're not even cheap."

Gila Cliff Dwellings
The Flower Child Room of the Red Victorian B&B;
Red Victorian Bed, Breakfast & Art
The Drogstore Cafe, which was forced to adopt the unusual spelling of its name because city officials wouldn't let them use the word "Drugstore," has been shuttered for decades; a brewpub will soon go in its old space. The Red Vic Bed & Breakfast, an 18-room hippie hotel at 1665 Haight that served as a crash pad in the Summer of Love, is still around, but the current owner didn't take over until 1978. The Red Vic (actually an Edwardian) still keeps the hippie flame alive, featuring exuberantly decorated rooms with such names as the Summer of Love Room (tie-dye canopy over the bed and '60s posters on the walls) and the Flower Child Room (rainbows and clouds painted on the ceiling). But at $86 to $200 a night, the Red Vic offers a hippie experience at Establishment prices.

The experience of the Haight confirms what most people already suspected: Hippies are lousy at business. The tattered tie-dyed remnants of hippie culture have been stripped from their originators and sold off to the highest bidder. Even the phrase "Summer of Love" is on the trading block. Bay Area concert promoters Bill Graham Enterprises have filed an "intent to use" application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, requesting a service mark on the phrase "Summer of Love."

So far, Graham's organization isn't asking anyone to cough up money to use the term, but groups have been advised to add the following phrase to their promotions: " 'Summer of Love' is a registered trademark of Bill Graham Enterprises, and is used with their permission."

The legal wrangling over who "owns" the Summer of Love has many shaking their heads, including Chet Helms, the longtime Bay Area concert promoter who's organizing the 30th anniversary show in Golden Gate Park. Helms says that even if Graham's company is granted a service mark, he'll continue to use the phrase without permission. Helms and the late Bill Graham in many ways embody the clash between idealism and commerce that has played out in the Haight for the past 30 years. Graham, a relentlessly shrewd businessman, built one of the country's largest and most successful concert promotion companies. Helms, on the other hand, never made a dime on the Avalon Ballroom shows he put on in the 1960s, nearly went broke a few years ago paying off medical bills for a serious heart condition, and is still scrambling to line up sponsors for the 30th anniversary event.

"I'm not the best businessman in the world, but I did employ 20 to 40 people for seven years putting on shows," says Helms. "We were more interested in building a cultural revolution."

Helms, whose shoulder-length hair still waves the freak flag, bristles at the notion that the Summer of Love produced no lasting monuments. In fact, to hear Helms talk, there's not much the 1960s counterculture didn't inspire.

"I think there are a lot of legacies from that time, everything from organic food and recycling to women's issues and the fall of the Iron Curtain," says Helms. "The youth culture in Eastern Europe was influenced by what started in San Francisco and that created a lot of internal pressures that brought about the fall of Communism."

Haight Ashbury Free Clinic One of the few tangible legacies from the Summer of Love still stands at 558 Clayton St., the birthplace of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. The clinic was started in June 1967 by physician David Smith in response to the medical needs of the young seekers who descended on the Haight from all over the country. Initially, the clinic spent most of its time medicating the overmedicated, providing a "Calm Room" for kids wigging out on too much LSD. Since those trippy days, the clinic has blossomed into a respected community health-care provider, with more than 20 treatment sites in San Francisco and a $13 million annual budget. Unlike everything in the Haight that used to be free, the clinic is still in operation today; unlike everything in the Haight that's in operation today, the clinic is still free.

"If you want something to survive, you have to take it seriously and take care of business," says Smith. "You can't pay the rent on good intentions. Bill Graham had that business structure and his company is still producing high-quality shows. Chet Helms, whom I dearly love, was out dancing on the dance floor when he should have been counting the money."

The Summer of Love was destined to be ephemeral, something its more perceptive participants realized at the time. The official end of the Summer of Love took place Oct. 6, 1967 – hippies even then not being big on chronological time – with an event known as "The Death of Hippie." A noisy crowd paraded down Haight Street carrying a coffin on their shoulders, and in a brief ceremony the store sign from the Psychedelic Shop was buried. The event was meant as a recognition that the hippie phenomenon had become a victim of its own popularity; it was time to move on.

But the hippies wouldn't be killed off so easily. Thirty years later, they still walk the streets of Haight-Ashbury, and the crowds still come to chase the dream. The Summer of Love lives on, only now as a registered trademark of Bill Graham Enterprises, and is used with their permission.

The Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour (P.O. Box 170106, San Francisco, Calif. 94117, 415/863-1621) costs $15 for the 2 1/2-hour tour. It's offered at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays. For information on Sunday's free Summer of Love concert in Golden Gate Park, call 415/487-4628, or check out the Web site at http://www.summeroflove.org.


Today's Hip Spots
At times, Haight-Ashbury is to the hippie movement what "Beatlemania" is to the Beatles – an amazing re-creation of the real thing years after the fact. But there are still places in the San Francisco Bay Area that pulsate with an authentic counterculture vibe:

The Lower Haight: A dozen blocks east of the Haight-Ashbury lies a funky neighborhood known as the Lower Haight. No Summer of Love souvenirs here (although Courtney Love used to live in the area), just a neighborhood full of pierced slackers creating their own scene. Cafe International (508 Haight St.) features strong coffee and strange conversation, while the Toronado (547 Haight) and Mad Dog in the Fog (530 Haight) boast the city's best selection of microbrewed beers. Naked Eye (533 Haight) has a great collection of weird 'zines, magazines and videos.

Fillmore Auditorium: The famous rock venue at 1805 Geary Blvd. is still one of the best places in town to see a concert. The setting is cozy, the sight lines are great and the walls are lined with hundreds of original posters from more than three decades of shows. But the hall doesn't wallow in nostalgia – it still books the top acts of the day.

Bolinas: What if the hippies ran their own town? The answer can be found in Bolinas, a tiny seaside community about 25 miles north of San Francisco. That is, if you can find it. The locals have removed the highway signs along Route 1 pointing to Bolinas so many times that the state has given up trying to replace them. Bolinas residents, many of them hippies who fled San Francisco, are fiercely protective of their space, so be mellow, man. Take an environmentally sensitive walk along Bolinas's secluded beach, or check out Smiley's Schooner Saloon (41 Wharf Rd.), a local hangout that features live music on weekends.

Berkeley: It's 1967 without the tear gas every weekend in Berkeley along Telegraph Avenue (between Dwight Way and Bancroft Way), where dozens of street vendors sell clothes, pottery, leather goods, incense, handmade jewelry and other stuff you'll never find at Wal-Mart. Buy a hand-knit shawl from Guatemala and reflect on how U.S. multinationals continue to oppress the indigenous people. While you're in the area, check out the excellent bookstores that line Telegraph Avenue, especially Moe's Books (2476 Telegraph) and Cody's Books (2454 Telegraph).

Mill Valley: Nestled at the foot of lovely Mount Tamalpais, this Marin County village at first seems too upscale to be a hippie enclave. But on closer inspection, Mill Valley reveals itself as the place where successful hippies come to nest. Grace Slick and Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, among others, once had palatial residences here. The music lives on at Village Music (9 E. Blithedale Ave.), home to an incredible collection of vinyl LPs and memorabilia, and at Sweetwater (153 Throckmorton Ave.), a club whose tiny stage has featured the likes of Jerry Garcia and Santana.

Haight-Ashbury Map

   
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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