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Summer of Love 50 Years Later: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

Summer of Love 50 Years Later: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

In the summer of 1967, America found itself in a very similar place to where it finds itself today, 50 years later.

The country was bitterly divided, torn asunder by a generation gap; glaring racial, cultural, political, economic, educational, and lifestyle differences; a seemingly endless and possibly unwinnable war in a distant foreign land; and an increasingly unpopular president in the White House.

However, first in San Francisco, and soon spreading around the country and much of the western world, a movement blossomed where a group of rebellious dreamers were convinced they had discovered a way to reject materialism and find peace, love, and happiness.

They were called hippies and they unleashed what is called today the Summer of Love. In a 7-part series, Booming Encore is examining that special summer of 1967 and its lasting effects today. This is part 3.

By Dave Price

Despite the prevalence of free sex and a new form of music – later entitled acid or jam rock – that emerged in the San Francisco scene in 1967, the single most powerful new orce driving The Summer of Love was drugs, as the hippies flocking to the new Eden readily adopted the slogan that best captured the new lifestyle of the times – “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

And if you wanted to identify the one individual who became the most visible popularizer and priest of the burgeoning, youth-dominated, psychedelic drug culture it was ex-Harvard Professor Timothy Leary, who preached aggressively to anyone who would listen that hallucinogenic drug experiences allowed spiritual and intellectual seekers to expand their individual consciousness.

In fact, it was Leary himself who coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

And if you wanted to further narrow your search to the one new drug that was being heralded as the best way to “turn on” the growing number of willing young people, it would be Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD or acid.

Actually, LSD was discovered in Switzerland in 1943.

The U.S. Army conducted several series of experiments on unaware subjects to find if the drug could be used either as a truth serum or a weapon of war. LSD, which catapulted the altered sensory perception of users into a multitude of melting, shifting shapes; radiant details (some real, most not); vibrant colors; and cascades of swirling, penetrating sounds, was actually legal in America until 1966.

But despite, or maybe even because of, its new illegal status, acid became the second most used drug of the period, bested only by an even heavier use of marijuana, aka grass, pot, or weed. It’s estimated that by the end of 1967, more than 95 percent of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district were smoking marijuana and/or its more potent partner hashish. By the end of the decade, more than 10 million youth under 21 had or were still smoking marijuana across America.

As the editor of The Psychedelic Review and the organizer of the LSD-based League for Spiritual Discovery, Leary, in 1966, outlined his view of the varying states of consciousness and how they related to drugs to Playboy magazine:

“The lowest level of consciousness is sleep – or stupor, which is produced by narcotics, barbiturates, and our national stuporfactant, alcohol. The second level is the conventional wakeful state, in which awareness is hooked to conventional symbols: flags, dollar signs, job titles, brand names, party affiliations, and the like. In order to reach [the third level], you have to have something that will turn off the symbols and open up your billions of sensory cameras to the billions of impulses that are hitting them. The chemical that opens the door to this level has been well-known for centuries … It is marijuana. But to go on the fourth level, which I call the cellular level, you need stronger psychedelics such as mescaline (or its natural form, peyote) and LSD to take you beyond the senses into a world of cellular awareness. During an LSD session, enormous clusters of cells are turned on, and consciousness whirls into eerie panoramas for which we have no words or concepts.”

The brilliant journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who would later be credited with inventing gonzo journalism while writing for Rolling Stone magazine, was one of the first to chronicle the San Francisco drug scene.

In a long 1967 New York Times article entitled “The Hashbury Is the Capital of the Hippies” Thompson wrote:

“A serious problem in writing about the Haight-Ashbury is that most people you have to talk to are involved one way or another in the drug traffic. They have good reason to be leery of strangers who ask questions. ‘Love’ is the password in the Haight, but paranoia is the lifestyle,”

“At the same time marijuana is everywhere. People smoke it on the sidewalks, in the doughnut shops, sitting in parked cars, or lounging on the grass in Golden Gate Park. Nearly everyone on the streets is a ‘head,’ a user, either of marijuana, LSD, or both. To refuse a proffered joint is to risk being labeled a ‘narc’ – narcotics agent – a threat and a menace to almost everybody.”

Not surprising, the massive amount of drug use had several collateral effects on the San Francisco scene. In music, the new emerging groups such as The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane began playing longer and longer songs, extended tunes where they jammed to mesmerized stoned listeners, nodding and noodling to the guitar and drum-driven sounds.

As drug use spread, clothing became more colorful and outlandish, a real-world counterpart to the vibrant colors witnessed during tripping.

In a letter to her family, a young Janis Joplin, who would burst into national prominence with her electrifying performance at the fabled Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, described the fashion of the Haight this way:

“The girls are, of course, young and beautiful-looking with long straight hair. The beatnik look, I call it, is definitely in. Pants, capes of all kinds, far-out handmade jewelry, or loose fitting dresses and sandals. The younger girls wear very tight bell-bottoms cut low around the hips and short tops – bare midriffs.”

“The boys are real peacocks. All the hair is at least Beatle length. And very ultra-mod dress –boots, always boots, tight low pants in hounds-tooth check, stripes, even polka dots! Very fancy shirts – prints, very loud, high collars, Tom Jones full sleeves. Fancy print ties, Bob Dylan caps. Really too much”.

We leave the final description of the 1967 San Francisco Summer of Love drug scene to the masterful counterculture icon Thompson:

“There is no shortage of documentation for the thesis that the current Haight-Ashbury scene is only the orgiastic tip of a great psychedelic iceberg that is already drifting in the sea lanes of the Great Society. Submerged and unaccountable is the mass of intelligent, capable heads who want nothing so much as peaceful anonymity. In a nervous society where a man’s image is often more important than his reality, the only people who can afford to advertise their drug menus are those with nothing to lose.”

“And these – for the moment, at least, are the young lotus-eaters, the barefoot mystics and hairy freaks of the Haight-Ashbury – all those primitive Christians, peaceful nay-sayers and half- deluded flower children, who refuse to participate in a society which to them looks like a mean, calculated, and soul-destroying hoax.”

Next Week: The Psychedelic San Francisco Sound and the Beginnings of Jam Bands and Acid Rock

Booming Encore Encore
Here’s a list for further reading about the drug culture of the Summer of Love and the late 1960s/70s

1. Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow
2. Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III by Robert Greenfield
3. The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary
4. The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
5. We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against: The Classic Account of the 1960s Counter-Culture in San Francisco by Nicholas Von Hoffman

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.