I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.
– Allen Ginsberg, after dropping acid at Timothy Leary’s house[i]
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land –
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain
– Jim Morrison, “The End”
I spent the Summer of Love in a mental hospital ten miles from Disneyland. On my first day, I walked into the glass-walled staff booth overlooking the ward room to introduce myself. A stern-faced nurse moved quickly to block my way. “This is for staff only,” she said. “Please go back out to the ward.”
I gave her my best smile. “Um, actually, I’m going to be your chaplain intern for the summer.” Her expression froze while she took this in. Only her eyes moved, slowly scanning me from head to toe. My appearance clearly said “mental patient”––long hair, suede cowboy jacket, Beatles boots, no tie. A chaplain? The cognitive dissonance was frying her circuits. “I’ll get the doctor,” she said curtly.
The ward psychiatrist seemed amused. He told me I didn’t have to cut my hair. “Just put on a tie, and people will know you’re not a patient.” Was the boundary between sane and insane really so slight––just a narrow strip of colored silk?
In the Sixties, boundaries were no longer what they used to be. It was a time to tear down the walls, break on through to the other side, explore the wildness beyond the prison house of the social imaginary. It’s a mythic quest as old as the biblical exodus from slavery to the Promised Land, and its American lineage goes back to the Puritans, Utopians and Transcendentalists.
“Let us….work and wedge our feet downward,” urged Thoreau, “through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance….till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we can call reality.”[ii] The Sixties at their best fostered this kind of aspirational, transformative work.
And I opened my heart to the whole universe
And I found it was loving
And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made:
Scientific delirium madness
– The Byrds, “Fifth Dimension”
In reading Charles Perry’s fascinating history of the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon (published 17 years after the Summer of Love), I was struck by the degree to which even the chaotic extremes of play and pleasure were grounded in serious intent. The sobermindedness of New Left activists was easy to see: Let’s get to work, fight the oppressors, and change the world, no matter how long it takes. But the seriousness of the “psychedelic community” of Haight-Ashbury, cloaked in levity and joy, was harder for outsiders to fathom: Let’s be a new kind of world here and now, they declared––tolerant, communal, liberated from money and convention, celebratory, blissful, loving, peaceful, whimsical, turned on and tuned in to the infinite harmony of Being.
As Perry writes, many of the ideas and practices of the Haight “held out the promise that this world is an illusion as conceived––the real world is here and now, but it is as different from what appears to be the real world as being stoned is from being straight, and it’s just around some mysterious corner. Creating a grand synthesis often revolved around finding a verbal formula that would unite everything, if only verbally; the word ‘together,’ which could suggest being organized and effective in one’s personal life as well as united with other people spiritually or politically, or even united with God, came in for heavy use.”[iii]
One resident of the Haight described “a super-curiosity on the street in ‘66. We thought there was going to be a breakthrough, and that it was imminent. I thought, There might be some room in this neighborhood where they’ve found a tunnel out. So I got into as many scenes as I could.”[iv]
Those scenes really started in 1965, when I was a junior at Stanford, 45 minutes down the Peninsula from San Francisco. I’d go up to the City to hear Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix, or the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore. I didn’t do drugs––I was wary of their downside, and didn’t really believe in their necessity––but my capacity for attentive wonder and ecstatic play caused some to think I must be on something. I did attend one of Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” where I joined people beating a resonant metal sculpture with sticks for an hour or so. I didn’t know they were all on LSD. I thought they were performing an experiment in noise music.
By the time the San Francisco scene really heated up in late ’66, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying theology and working as a youth minister in a local parish. When a friend at Harvard organized a West-Coast style be-in the next spring, I took my youth group to share the experience. In the theatrical spirit of the times, it seemed just the thing to wear costumes from the church Christmas pageant. So it was that Mary and Joseph, shepherds and Wise Men danced hand in hand with hippies and flower children on the banks of the Charles River. Afterward, I took the teenagers, still in costume, to hear a lecture at Harvard by the controversial Episcopal bishop, James Pike. Our biblical couture made quite an impression when we entered the packed hall.
By June of ‘67 I was back home in southern California, doing the mental hospital gig and, in my free time, experiencing L.A.’s own Summer of Love. I danced to the Byrds, the Doors, and Love, wore flowers in my hair at be-ins, saw young girls coming to the canyons, and made a trippy experimental film. Meanwhile, a seminary friend was helping to feed and house 150 young people per night at a West Hollywood church. Like the 75,000 pilgrims to San Francisco, they had come in search of the Land of Peace and Love. My 80-year-old grandmother organized the ladies of her retirement home to make them sandwiches.
I managed to get up to the Haight once that summer. A friend gave me his brother’s imaginative depiction of the Jefferson Airplane as characters in Alice in Wonderland. “If you run into [their manager] Bill Graham,” I was instructed, “show it to him and ask if he’d consider it for their next album cover.” And when I arrived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, there was Graham, and with him the Airplane’s lead singer Marty Balin. They politely declined the drawing. A year after the Sixties ended, the artist would die of a heroin overdose.
In 1967, the ubiquitous music, crowded dance floors, playful be-ins, alternative newspapers and distinctive dress were the most public evidence that “something’s happening here,” but in the Haight you could pick up the communal vibe by just walking the streets, sharing a free meal with the Diggers, hanging out in the art-shaped environments of the local stores and eateries, or grooving on “Hippie Hill.” As Perry summarizes, “it seemed that all this energy had to lead to something amazing.”[v]
And did it? Or was it a doomed vision with no lasting effect? We’ll wonder about that in my next post. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with an inspirational word from Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s an experience I wish I could have given my charges at the hospital, an emergence into clarity to which we all might aspire:
And when the fog was finally swept from my head, it seemed like I’d just come up after a long, deep dive, breaking the surface after being under water a hundred years.[vi]
[i] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 109.
[ii] Henry David Thoreau, Walden: One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004), 82-3
[iii] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 257.
[iv] Greg Riesner, quoted in Perry, 257.
[v] Perry, 264.
[vi] Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in Williams, 40.