Assault on the Haight-Ashbury
“Summer of Love and Haight:
The Assault on the Haight-Ashbury”
Dr. William Schnabel
Copyright © 6 March 2017 William Schnabel
All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from Le Diable Ermite, the publisher, except in the case of brief passages in reviews and critical articles.
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Love and hate are two things that most people think they know something about, but when you are talking about the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, it’s a whole new ballgame. “Peace and Love” was the great shibboleth of the sixties psychedelic counterculture, also known as the “flower children,” although it seems likely that few stopped to think about the aphorism’s deeper meaning or its social consequences.
“Love was by far the most often used word by the psychedelic counterculture. For Time magazine “the key ethical element in the hippie movement [was] love–indiscriminate and all-embracing, fluid and changeable, directed at friend or foe alike” (7 July 1967, p. 20). This generalization, albeit idealized, seems to describe the behavior of a significant number of young people in the Haight-Ashbury in the mid-sixties.
Some tried to model their evocation of love after Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and believed that people who expressed hatred should be pitied. The psychedelic counterculture, often referred to as hippies by the straight culture, wanted to believe that love was the panacea that could solve the world’s problems, though, as a whole, they were not proselytizing. Their catchword was “do your own thing,” which has an effect on one’s perception of the idea of love. Any feeling of reaching out to the straight community to promote change in any meaningful way did not really exist, and this, coupled with a sense of anarchy, spelled the failure of their utopian vision. One of the surest ways of changing something meaningful into a cliché is to repeat it too often, and that’s what happened to slogans like “peace and love” or “all you need is love.”
Love may be universal, but it is also largely determined by cultural mores, attitudes and semantics. There are at least six kinds of love in Greek: eros, or sexual desire; philia, or loyal and truthful friendship; ludus, or affection between children or young lovers; agape, or selfless love; pragma, or love that has grown over time; and philantia, or narcissism.
In totalitarian regimes, the population is required to love its dictator. Oceania, one of three superstates in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, requires party members to love Big Brother. The same was true in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, and is true today in North Korea and, to some extent, elsewhere.
For the psychedelic counterculture of San Francisco, love meant a variety of things including non-violence, sharing, tolerance, community, ecology, compassion, and God. These people also felt we need to start with ourselves, for if we are true to ourselves, then we cannot be false to anyone. Hippies usually met each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love. LSD and marijuana were the yeast that helped love rise. If you asked Diggers like Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, Nina Blasenheim or Judy Goldhaft to define love, you would probably get a different answer.
Hate and hatred describe different forms of aversion, enmity and the expression of physical or psychological violence to make people suffer. The national news networks make sure we get our daily dose of that. Hippie love was the antithesis of the War in Vietnam and its ruthless destruction of the Vietnamese people, the culture and the land. That extreme form of hatred actually fueled the peace and love generation. For millions, ending that cruel war and putting an end to the Cold War were mobilizing forces on college campuses such as U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Kent State. With his fanatical escalation of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson unified, to some extent, the youth of America.
The Love Pageant Rally should be seen as a psychedelic expression of love. It was held on 6 October 1966, in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, a special place in San Francisco that was often used for countercultural gatherings. On that day, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, became illegal in California. The hippie counterculture interpreted the three sixes in the date as an archetypal sign of universal evil, since 666 is the symbol of the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation 13:16. Michael Bowen and Allen Cohen, who had the idea of organizing the gathering, wanted it to be an alternative to hatred and violence, hence the use of the words love and rally, rather than demonstration or sit-in.
The first issue of The San Francisco Oracle published on 20 September 1966, chose the “Love Pageant Rally” for its title. “A Prophesy of Declaration of Independence” addressed the issues of archaic social paradigms, being out of touch with one’s consciousness, creating “revolutionary communities,” the equality of all things, and individual rights, notably the freedom to dispose of one’s body by taking drugs and by expanding one’s consciousness. LSD, manufactured by Sandoz laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, was legal until 6 October 1966. So why was it outlawed? Langley and Washington decided it was time to stop expanded consciousness with psychedelics.
The Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967, was heralded as a gathering of the tribes, and many felt it epitomized the love generation. Though that may in part be true, not everyone who attended the pseudo-happening was a hippie of the counterculture. Far from it.
From the outset, a great deal of spiritual emphasis was placed on the Be-In, as though the organizers were trying to create some kind of psychedelic Eucharist. At first, the basic idea was to bring the politicos from Berkeley in the East Bay and the hippies from the Haight-Ashbury together to promote unity and interaction, but that objective somehow miscarried. Another goal was to rejuvenate the human spirit, and some believed that was possible. Choosing the date was no minor affair because you had to be sure the planets were in the right houses and the alignments favorable, so Arthur Gavin and Ambrose Hollingsworth, two local astrologers, were consulted to pick the most favorable date. January 14 was chosen as the best day for people to get together and communicate in a positive way to promote the general good (Anthony 159).
The poster by Michael Bowen, Casey Sonnabend and Stanley “Mouse” Miller depicting a sadhu, or Hindu holy man, was indicative of the intention of organizing a spiritual gathering. The sadhu is an ascetic whose life is devoted to achieving total liberation from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. In Sanskrit the word means “good man.”
Poet Gary Snyder, a practicing Buddhist, energized the religious motifs by blowing on a white-beaded conch shell to announce the opening of festivities. The conch shell is highly symbolic in Hindu culture and religion because it is associated with Vishnu, the formless God called the Preserver and the Protector. Moreover, the sound created by blowing on the conch represents the sacred mantra om.
Before the Be-In began, the Polo Field and the surrounding space had to be sanctified to protect it against profanation. To do that, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder led a parikrama around the field, in other words they walked clockwise around the Polo Field to ward off evil spirits and purify the space. Apparently, this symbolic ritual was not done in vain because meat had been impaled on the fence surrounding the field (Perry 124-25). In Hinduism and Buddhism this would be an invocation of God’s adversary.
Ginsberg led the crowd in a popular Hindu mantra, the Hari om namah shivaya, the most important mantra in Shaivism. In general it can be said that the parikrama, mantra chanting, conch blowing and other religious rites were attempts to ward off evil and genuine expressions of benevolence.
At the beginning, however, someone on stage shouted “Welcome to the first manifestation of the Brave New World.” It was incongruous to have said that because Aldous Huxley’s futuristic dystopia, Brave New World, is about the enslavement of the human race, and religion in the novel is a parody of the union with God sought by the psychedelic counterculture.
Lenore Kandel, author of The Love Book, was invoking Maitreya, the rebirth of the Bodhisattva. “The Buddha will reach us all through love,” she said. “Not through doctrine, not through teachings, but through love. And as I’m looking at all of you, all of us, I feel that Maitreya is not this time going to be born in one physical body, but born out of all of us. It’s happening perhaps today. This is an invitation for Maitreya, that he come. To invoke the divinity in man, with the mutual gift of love.”
Timothy Leary, the High Priest of psychedelia, was there, though he did not captivate the pulsating throng with his “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra. He had arrived in San Francisco to promote The League for Spiritual Discovery and the use of psychedelic drugs. The Reverend Suzuki Roshi, from the Zen Temple, was apparently on the stage the entire afternoon, meditating, even while the rock bands were roaring.
Owsley Stanley III, also known as Bear, handed out his latest batch of synthetic love called White Lightning, and the Diggers used it as seasoning in the turkey sandwiches that were donated by the psychedelic chemist.
But the Be-In was also organized for the media, not just for the hippies. In the words of one press release: “For ten years, a new nation has grown inside the robot flesh of the old. Before your eyes a new free vital soul is reconnecting the living centers of the American body. Berkeley political activists and the love generation of the Haight-Ashbury will join together . . . to powwow, celebrate, and prophesy the epoch of liberation, love, peace, compassion, and unity of mankind. Hang your fear at the door and join the future. If you do not believe, please wipe your eyes and see” (Summer of Love and Haight 36-37).
Love and joy were shared peacefully that afternoon in Golden Gate Park and the different tribes, if you could call them that, even left the place clean. In retrospect, the Be-In should probably be considered the apogee of the psychedelic movement in the Haight-Ashbury. From that moment on, the mass media converged on the once peaceful neighborhood and everything changed. Linda Gravenites of 710 Ashbury Street, the Grateful Dead house, said the Be-In was a watershed (Echols 156-57). After it the Haight-Ashbury mimicked the media and became a caricature of hippiedom. Many of the newcomers, she said, were criminals and misfits who wanted to take advantage of the peace and love ethos. In other words, they expressed hate rather than love.
It is certainly no surprise that Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, John Shelley, Joe Alioto and other prominent politicians saw the hippies as degenerate and a danger to American values. There was animosity within the community, too. Some Diggers had a reputation for being fractious. Emmett Grogan, in particular, was well known for his sardonic portrayals of the HIP merchants. Max Scheer, editor of the Berkeley Barb, saw the Be-In as just one more “blown opportunity” to get young people politically involved. Berkeley radicals were often suspicious of hippies and felt they were too politically apathetic to work with.
But there was at least some hope in the beginning. The January 1967 issue of the Oracle spoke of “a union of love and activism.” As many as fifty thousand people were expected to attend the powwow and peace dance that would be celebrated with the leaders, guides and heroes of the counterculture. A revolution of form and unity for all mankind was envisioned (Oracle 90). At last, they rejoiced, the “humanization of the American man and woman can begin.”
Today, The San Francisco Oracle represents a gargantuan slice of psychedelic history. Like many underground papers, it appeared at a time when they were flourishing because of the political climate of the country. The newspaper’s staff wanted the paper to represent the vision and the voice of the sixties in the Haight-Ashbury. To some extent it certainly did.
The counterculture believed in dreams because they were the gate to eternity, and the Oracle literally began as a dream, Allen Cohen’s dream. In it, he “was flying around the world” and everywhere he looked–Beijing, Moscow, Paris, New York–people where reading “a rainbow newspaper” (Oracle xxiii). Allen told his companion, Laurie, about the extraordinary dream and so she went for an early walk along the Panhandle, sharing Allen’s oneiric vision with the people she met: artists, merchants, dealers, everyone. As a result, the Haight was vibrating with “rainbow newspaper consciousness.”
Ron Thelin of the Psychedelic Shop was eager to help out with a financial gift. He phoned his brother Jay who was taking care of his “weekend car parking business,” and Jay promptly sent about $500, a sizeable amount in 1966. This was before the mass media really knew about the Haight, though Michael Fallon had published “A New Paradise for Beatniks” on Sunday, 5 September 1965, in the San Francisco Examiner. Life was cheaper then, and some could get by selling dope to pay the rent and have something left over to live on. The rest of the time they could study, if they were students, or write, draw or play music. The campus of San Francisco State College was situated on lower Haight Street before it was moved south, so there were a lot of students, teachers and dropouts there, and they usually shared a large Victorian.
People were invited to attend several meetings in the summer of 1966, probably the real Summer of Love, to discuss creating a newspaper. A number of the people that came had dropped acid. Lysergic acid diethylamide spawned creativity and imagination in the mid-sixties and the Haight-Ashbury was all about the drug. The Summer of Love would never have happened without LSD. After taking it, many realized that existence and consciousness were not the way they thought they were, and that there was a whole new universe to be explored, if you knew how.
Everyone in the Haight had heard about the Harvard Psilocybin Project and Leary, Alpert and Metzner, so they wanted to see for themselves what the psychedelic experience was like. As Allen Cohen remarked in a resounding understatement, hallucinogens accelerated change, and without positive change there can only be decay. The Haight-Ashbury was a good place for it to happen because it was somewhat isolated from the rest of the city. Those that used the drug felt they had been to the other side of eternity and back again. The San Francisco Oracle was printed for those people and it sought to orient them in a positive direction by helping them to see who they really were. “Know thyself,” γνῶθι σεαυτόν, is the Greek dictum attributed to Chilon of Sparta and inscribed on the temple at Delphi.
A social revolution had begun in the sixties and the Oracle was smack dab in the middle of it. The staff wanted to share their visions of joy and bliss with the bourgeoning community, albeit without necessarily being millenarians. It was simply fun to imagine new expressions of love, compassion and empathy in a world on the eve of destruction.
The establishment of the mid-sixties degraded and perverted this utopian vision, just as the ruling elite in seventeenth century England had debased the original Diggers’ “Agreement of the People.” Dr. Strangelove, busy counting nuclear missiles and playing war games for strategic domination of the globe, did not want to hear a radical counterculture espousing peace and love or expanded consciousness, and so the harassment and the repression began.
The Oracle promoted LSD as a means of achieving expanded consciousness. Of course not everyone experienced God or acted benevolently; there were some bad trips, too, but nowhere near the thousands of deaths caused every year by alcohol.
Because of their advocacy of hallucinogens, it was not unusual for the paper to give column space to Timothy Leary, and issue number five was no exception. On page nine they ran an advertisement for his Death of the Mind, a “psychedelic religious celebration” based on Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf (Oracle 97). Eleanor Lester of the New York Times raved about the show. This advertisement was typical of the paper’s editorial policy and epitomized the love versus death antithesis. For Leary and his acolytes at Millbrook, you had to turn off your mind to experience love. Buddhists would say you needed to create a void because ideas create confusion. In Zen Buddhism the void is called sunyata. The Indian philosopher John Krishnamurti had on several occasions said essentially the same thing: “Thought has divided the people as the Christians and the non-Christians, as the Arab and the Jew, as the Catholic and the non-Catholic, the Communist and the Hindu, divided people, thought has done this” (First public talk in Saanan, July 1973). In that same issue, Allen Ginsberg was telling every American over fourteen in good health to take LSD (Oracle 102). LSD was the magic potion that could liberate mankind, or so many believed.
Love for the psychedelic counterculture was about being free and feeling free, but straight people were afraid of overzealous expressions of freedom. In a column devoted to letters, “Love Haight Ashbury Bush,” Carol Lind at 1090 Page Street addressed the issue of hate in the form of police harassment, cops banging on people’s doors at four o’clock in the morning and being arrogant, as though ordinary people had no Constitutional rights. Carol was warning the paper’s readers about fascism, an extreme form of political hatred and suspicion that existed to some extent in San Francisco, and elsewhere in the mid-sixties, if you believed the Oracle and underground papers like the Berkeley Barb, The Great Speckled Bird, Rat, The Rag or the Los Angeles Free Press.
Cleverly inserted after the subscription form on page nineteen was an announcement that the paper was gathering a portfolio of reports of alleged police harassment, instances of illegal search and seizure, and police brutality, all occurring in the Haight-Ashbury. Naturally, the San Francisco police did not like to hear or read about stories of police brutality.
For the psychedelic counterculture, love was what was happening at the Blue Unicorn, the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore Auditorium, the Pooh Coffee House, the I-Thou Coffee House, the Cedar Alley Coffee House, the Print Mint, the Intersection, the Coffee Gallery, 1090 Page Street, 710 Ashbury Street, 1535 Haight Street, the Panhandle, Ocean Beach and other hip places in town.
In issue number four, published on 16 December 1966, there was also a feature story about Lenore Kandel’s Love Book which had caused such a stir. Local and state authorities decided to attack the counterculture in the Haight-Ashbury. Kandel’s book on the spirituality of sex was a pretext to harass the Psychedelic Shop at 1535 Haight Street and The San Francisco Oracle at 1371 Haight Street.
Ronald Wilson Reagan had just been elected governor of California by promising “to clean up the mess at Berkeley” and by putting “the welfare bums back to work.” His victory gave the local police the go-ahead to start “cleaning up” the Haight-Ashbury. Two officers from the San Francisco Vice Squad bought the book in The Psychedelic Shop and then promptly arrested Allen Cohen.
On November 23, 1966, six English professors at San Francisco State College–James Schevill, Patrick Gleason, Jack Gilbert, Leonard Wolf, Mark Linenthal and Maurice Bassant–read Lenore Kandel’s Love Book, along with passages from The Beard by Michael McClure, in protest of police actions against so-called obscenity laws. The San Francisco police had seized both works it seems in “a wave of homebred puritanical neo-fascism” (Oracle 66).
Allen Cohen evoked his arrest and trial in “Notes of a Dirty Bookseller,” in prose reminiscent of Henry Miller. A kind of trial was held and The Psychedelic Shop and City Lights Books were found guilty of violating state obscenity laws. The book was judged obscene in 1967, but this ruling was later overturned by a higher court as a violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. Interesting to note that, at the time, a multitude of porn shops in San Francisco were thriving with impunity, not to mention the pornographic newspapers sold in vending machines on the streets of the city for everyone to see, including children, and they put everything you could imagine on the front page. Clearly, there was a double standard on pornography in San Francisco and other major cities in the United States and the implicit message was “organized crime’s ok, but hippies are out.”
Issue number twelve, the last issue of the Oracle, was published in February 1968. The paper’s demise coincided with the social collapse of the Haight-Ashbury. It was the year the dream died for the counterculture. Peace and love seemed to provoke an incredible amount of suspicion and hatred on the part of the establishment that still believed it could win the War in Vietnam.
Things changed a lot when Joe Alioto was elected mayor of San Francisco, too. Allen Cohen said Alioto hated the hippies (Oracle li). The same could be said about mainstream America, which felt the ungrateful, communist hippies were destroying the values that made America great.
The last issue of the Oracle reflected the joy and freedom that the neighborhood had once known, and the frustration of having lost them. After the arrival of tens of thousands during the Summer of Love, there was a great hejira to communes in an effort to keep at least a few of the movement dreams alive.
The San Francisco Diggers played a significant role in the Haight-Ashbury in the mid-sixties. Among other things, they were radical anarchists that performed street and guerilla theatre to raise the level of consciousness. They were also anti-capitalists and anti-consumers that believed in community and communal living. Their seminal ideas involved money and buying: everything should be free, and if that were the case, the relationships between people would naturally change for the better. So they distributed free food, opened free stores, provided free lodging and believed people should have the freedom to live their lives the way they wanted.
They borrowed many of their ideas from the seventeenth century English Diggers who believed the land belonged to the common people as a right because God created all men equal. The British monarch and the House of Lords were oppressors that had to be ousted from power. In 1647, they drafted a political document entitled The Agreement of the People in which all power was invested in the people, including the right to recall all members of Parliament, and immediate distribution of the land to the people.
The idea of “freeness” goes back a long way and is expressed in Isaiah 55:7: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
The Diggers were spurred into action by an odious act of hatred. Matthew Johnson, a sixteen-year-old African-American was shot and killed by the San Francisco police on 27 September 1966, for allegedly having stolen an automobile. Riots erupted in the black community, and as a result Mayor John Shelley ordered a curfew and Governor Edmund Brown mobilized the National Guard to protect property and quell the rioting and looting.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) told residents to disregard the curfew. Haight Street merchants urged people to avoid confrontations with the police and asked them to stay indoors. The Diggers disseminated one of their early broadsides telling people to do what they wanted to do.
The Diggers, who were neither hippies nor radicals, used their leaflets, fliers and broadsides to have a voice in the community and attempt to establish some ethical standards of integrity. They also felt it was necessary to remain anonymous and not publicly take credit for the services they rendered, the feeling being that personal recognition would only feed one’s ego and prevent a person from becoming free. Their theory for social change involved focusing their efforts on the culture, rather than on politics because they believed that if you changed the culture, the politics and the economics would follow.
Guerrilla theatre was a powerful tool in their hands and they used it to stage the Death of Money and the Death of Hippie. Free was an expression of love, just as money was perceived as a source of corruption, deceit, and ultimately hatred.
The Communication Company, usually abbreviated Com/co, collaborated with the Diggers by printing and distributing notices, handbills, leaflets and broadsides. It was an information service, a hippie information service. The first Digger broadsides appeared in October 1966 to criticize the establishment, assess social problems or exhort people to do certain things. The tone of the broadsides and leaflets was often aggressive, militant or sarcastic.
Com/co was essentially Claude Hayward and Chester Anderson. H’lane Resnikoff, Claude’s companion, helped out, too, as did sometimes people right off the street. Anderson was born on 11 August 1932, so he was about twelve or thirteen years older than Hayward. It’s uncertain how they actually met, but they ended up sharing the same flat and working together.
Anderson suggested they buy a good mimeograph machine to get involved in the Haight, and so they bought a Gestefax stencil cutting machine and a Gestetner 366 silkscreen stencil duplicator.
The fliers were posted everywhere in the neighborhood and the subjects chosen say a lot about the Diggers’ goals. There were leaflets against commercialism, such as “Money Is an Unnecessary Evil” and there were announcements for free food, comestibles and other necessities. Some broadsides might be about the way people spend their time, such as “What Part of the Day Do You Spend Running?” or perhaps about the power structure in the Haight-Ashbury. Com/co printed hundreds of leaflets and it printed several hundred copies of Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which was quite an accomplishment.
Chester Anderson and Emmett Grogan got in an argument over use of the machines. The Diggers apparently wanted complete control of them. Hayward, who was younger, sided with the Diggers, and when the summer of 1967 arrived, Anderson was no longer a part of Com/co. The Gestetner and Gestefax were ensconced in the basement of the Diggers’ store (Carlson 55). The rupture was announced by Anderson on 15 August 1967.
Com/co came about out of love for the neighborhood and the community. It disappeared, like the psychedelic counterculture of the Haight-Ashbury, because of animosity and dissension. Com/co cut through, or at least attempted to, the mainstream media hype that expressed no empathy for the hippies of the Haight who seemed to be thought of as exotic specimens in their native habitat. Com/co was part of the neighborhood, produced for the neighborhood, and that is why it was loved and respected by the neighborhood as an important institution.
Rock music was an integral part of the psychedelic counterculture in the Haight-Ashbury. San Francisco’s underground rock community wanted to listen to live music, but before the summer of 1965, there were not too many places to go. Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue, the FM radio disk jockey, opened a club called Mother’s, but it was probably more for beatniks than hippies and was definitely not what young people were looking for. They wanted an open, easy going atmosphere.
Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane used a lot of imagination and ingenuity to open the Matrix at 3138 Fillmore Street in the Marina district of San Francisco. It opened on Friday, 13 August 1965, supposedly for good luck. Balin wanted to use it as the home base for the band he created, Jefferson Airplane. Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, said it was his favorite place to go in San Francisco. Balin and Paul Kantner put a lot of love into the Matrix in the form of carpentry to renovate the former pizza parlor.
The Matrix was something new for the nascent psychedelic movement in San Francisco and the Bay Area. It exemplified the important social and psychological change that had occurred in youth who were deeply at odds with their parents and the establishment. It represented the greatest cleavage of its kind in modern, industrial times and perhaps the greatest scission of its kind ever.
There were, of course, inane bureaucratic ordinances that kept people from doing what they wanted to. For example, dancing was not allowed because no food was served. Maybe they should have kept the pizza ovens after all. But the Matrix was a good place to socialize, and the vibrations were right. Soon there were other places to dance and listen to music, like the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium.
Bill Graham, born Wulf Wolodia Grajonca, managed the Fillmore Auditorium and made it one of the most popular places for rock concerts. Graham got the idea of promoting concerts from the San Francisco Mime Troupe benefits, although he knew virtually nothing about rock music or the work of a producer at the time. Bill was a Latin music aficionado and loved musicians like Tito Puente, Esy Morales or Xavier Cugat. At the first benefit, he noticed that people started dancing spontaneously when they heard music. Because the benefits were so successful, he figured that it would be a good way to make money, so he resigned as manager of the Mime Troupe and became a promoter.
Chet Helms was the other main rock producer in San Francisco, and the Avalon Ballroom at 1268 Sutter Street was his principal venue. Chet and Bill had worked together for a while, but their personalities were so different that clashes were inevitable and Graham, who knew how to provoke those, reportedly got rid of Helms because he failed to bring his own tape and thumbtacks to pin up posters in the Fillmore (Seay 69).
The advent of the Matrix, the Fillmore, Winterland, the Avalon Ballroom and other venues ushered in a totally new era of San Francisco music, helping to promote what became known as the San Francisco sound. Groups like The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, The Charlatans, 13th Floor Elevators, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sopwith Camel, The Beau Brummels, Santana, Blue Cheer, and others, explored new sounds and rhythms that gave psychedelic rock its uniqueness.
Rock music was an obvious extension of the counterculture of the sixties that was about freedom, drugs, peace and love and revolutionary social change. It was about kinetics, too, because people danced in the ballrooms. Dancing has always been a necessary expression of freedom for Homo sapiens. Sitting in a chair and listening to a concert could never have the same psychological effect, and recent studies have shown that dancing helps to maximize brain function.
Psychedelic rock in the ballrooms sought to create a total effect to help the participants transcend reality and expand their consciousness. It was primarily about music, but the light shows, the incense, the marijuana and the dancing were also elements of the total experience. Music was used and composed to enhance a drug trip, making it easier to break on through to that other side Jim Morrison sang about. The closing of the ballrooms marked the end of an era that many would never forget.
Lysergic acid diethylamide, usually called simply LSD or acid, was the sacrament of the psychedelic counterculture that believed expanding one’s consciousness was a God-given right, albeit a risky one because the severe laws made it a crime to use it or marijuana. After 6 October 1966, possession of LSD became illegal. Timothy Leary was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment for the possession of a ridiculously small amount of the Devil’s weed, as the establishment sometimes called it. But that made young people laugh more than anything else.
Dr. Humphry Osmond, the British psychiatrist doing research with Dr. John Smythies at Weyburn Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, on schizophrenia and mescaline, was responsible for coining the term “psychedelic” in 1957. It is a fusion of the Greek words psyche, which means “mind,” and delos, which translates as “manifest.”
The Good Friday Experiment, conducted by Walter Pahnke under the supervision of Dr. Timothy Leary on Friday, 20 April 1962, in Marsh Chapel at Boston University, dramatically demonstrated the religious potential of psilocybin. Nine out of ten subjects given the drug had religious or mystical experiences (Lee 76). But if Pahnke and Leary were ecstatic about the results, university administrators and professors were beginning to get nervous about authorizing drug experiments in an academic setting.
Timothy Leary was the media’s main proponent of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, but there were others, namely Ken Kesey, Owsley Stanley and Allen Ginsberg. Before them there was the “Johnny Apple Seed of LSD,” Alfred Matthew Hubbard.
It is often difficult for people to describe their LSD experiences because words cannot do it justice, but some accounts of the drug’s effects have been documented. People often experience an ecstatic perception of freedom and perceive their surroundings very differently. They become aware that they are much more than their physical bodies. The air around them often seems to pulsate with kaleidoscopic colors. Everything is alive and vibrating, as though with some divine purpose. People often feel a profound empathy with existence itself, as though they were fused with it. Some have referred to this mystical experience as Is-ness or Oneness, the feeling that everything is interconnected. It is not uncommon to experience a form of synesthesia, or combinations of sensory awareness: music and sounds may produce color, objects may become sounds, or different odors and fragrances might appear to be visual or auditory. One’s sense of time may also be altered.
By 1965, LSD had become a recreational drug for a growing number of young Americans from about age sixteen to twenty-five or so, mostly because of the notoriety of psychedelic heroes such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Owsley Stanley and others. Owsley did a lot of the manufacturing for Northern California. He said he did it so people knew what they were using. For Kesey, LSD was mostly recreational, though he did write his international bestseller One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on it. Leary’s goal was ostensibly mystical and spiritual, and he attempted to warn users about the consequences. John Lennon reportedly used it very often, and Bob Dylan took it as well, as did a majority of musicians and singers in rock bands. Numerous movie stars, including Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson, had taken it. President Kennedy apparently used it at least once, as he did marijuana, and according to reports, it had a profound effect on him (Flashbacks 156, 194, Lee 86).
From the very beginning, the CIA was obsessed with the drug, but they sought to use it for mind control, not to promote peace and love. They were using it in their secret and illegal MK-ULTRA program, which began on 13 April 1953. Sidney Gottlieb headed the program that was proposed by Richard Helms, who became Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) in June 1966. Shortly thereafter, on 6 October 1966, LSD became illegal in California. It was no surprize that the CIA was suspicious of other people using it and that they wanted the drug outlawed. Congress passed the Drug Abuse Control Act in 1965 and President Johnson signed it in March 1966. Mere possession of LSD became a felony, punishable by fifteen years in prison.
The CIA, FBI, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, were extremely interested in the consequences of prolonged use of psychedelics, just as they were very interested in the Black Panthers, SDS, the underground press and radical organizations in general. You can control radicals with guns, drugs, money or smear campaigns, but how do you control tens of millions of people who have totally different values and reject the structure of American society?
LSD was Love with a capital L for the psychedelic counterculture, but the hard drugs that were being dumped in San Francisco’s backyard after the Summer of Love, namely speed and heroin, were decimating the neighborhood. Owsley had been the main supplier of LSD in the city, and his product was pure. But on 20 December 1967, he was arrested; after that, the quality of LSD got very bad (Lee 188). Interesting to note that this coincided with the establishment of a mafia controlled network of production and distribution in the Bay Area. The local police and FBI must have been looking the other way.
The CIA, for its part, had never abandoned its fanatical interest in LSD. Agency personnel reportedly assisted chemists to set up laboratories in the San Francisco Bay Area during the Summer of Love, supposedly to establish a surveillance operation (Lee 188-89).
Everyone knew that there were repeated claims of bad acid, and accusations that somebody was “poisoning the acid” to make people have bad trips, and maybe worse. Unfortunately, many young people took whatever drugs they picked up on the street, without knowing what they were taking.
The American government had decided to destroy the sixties counterculture with programs like COINTELPRO that sabotaged the underground press and radical groups that opposed the War in Vietnam, or militants like the Black Panthers that wanted to decide how their neighborhoods should be organized and policed. The logical way of doing that in the Haight-Ashbury was with bad drugs, police harassment and repression.
A KPIX Eyewitness News report on 20 February 1968, spoke about an incident that had occurred in the Haight-Ashbury the day before. A young reporter gave firsthand evidence of “numerous instances of brutality” on the part of the San Francisco police who arrested a minister whose crime, in fact, was pointing out the flagrant cases of police brutality. They also arrested a man and his wife and left their child alone in the street unattended. No phone calls were allowed at the station and people who were bloody and seriously injured received no medical care whatsoever. The reporter, who was interviewed by KPIX, said he tried to show his press card, but the police refused to see it, then they violently jerked the camera off his neck, breaking the strap, and choked him with a club while he was being arrested. The reporter’s film and camera were confiscated to destroy evidence and his camera broken for good measure.
CS gas (chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile) was used during what Major Alioto called a riot. It is stronger than CN gas and can cause serious burns and fatal pulmonary edema. As expected, both Alioto and Police Chief Cahill denied there was any brutality on the part of the San Francisco police despite ample proof to the contrary.
Of course there were violent confrontations in the Haight-Ashbury before that and they continued for several weeks over the issue of excessive traffic and police harassment. A logical solution would have been to close Haight Street, but the Mayor’s office was opposed to that idea, though the people living there were directly concerned by traffic problems. City Hall and Chief Cahill seemed to perceive any local manifestation of popular democracy as a fastuous arrogation of authority.
“America is one vast terrifying community,” said Charles Reich. Maybe that is why the feeling of community was so important for the psychedelic counterculture. But there was also a terrifying decline of democracy and liberty in the sixties. The small but privileged elite demonstrated little concern for anything but its own selfish interests. Regulation and administration became the watchwords of bureaucrats and politicians who were manipulated by corporate oligarchs. The common people were, in practice, ignored, so their opinions, feelings and economic concerns were never heard, let alone understood. Dissenters who asked for change were repressed by a police force that acted more and more like a Gestapo, rather than as a respectable public service financed with the taxpayers’ hard earned money. During that same time, the gangrenous condition of American justice and politics became all too conspicuous.
The hippies were anathema to men like the Governor of California, the Mayor of San Francisco and the President of the United States, who believed it was their patriotic duty to destroy the counterculture and the radical left which, in their delusions, was communist inspired and a threat to the country. History tells us they succeeded in what they set out to do.
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