Everything Changed, Nothing Changed (Summer of Love, Part 3)

Victor Moscoso poster (1967)

The riptide of The Revolution went out with the same force it had surged in with, the ferocious undertow proportionate to the onetime hopes.

– Todd Gitlin[i]

Everything changed; the world turned holy;
and nothing changed:
There being nothing to change or needing
change; and everything
Still to change and be changed….

– Thomas McGrath[ii]

In The Limey (1999), a Steven Soderbergh film set in contemporary Los Angeles, Peter Fonda plays Terry Valentine, an aging pop music producer, now cynical and corrupt, for whom the idealism of the Sixties is a very distant memory. His young girlfriend asks him what it was really like back then. “Mmm,” she murmurs. “It must have been a time, huh. A golden moment.”

Lem Dobbs’ fine script gives Valentine a wistful reply. “Have you ever dreamed about a place you never really recalled being to before? A place that maybe only really exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half-remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew the way around. That was the Sixties.” He pauses, frowning slightly as his disillusion kicks in. “No. It wasn’t that either. It was just ’66––and early ’67. That’s all it was.”

When did “the Sixties” end? Kent State (1970)? The Summer of Love (1967)? Or in the helter skelter of Charles Manson (1969), when we “looked into Manson’s eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far.”[iii]

Zebra Man (1966), Stanley Mouse & Alton Kelley.

On New Year’s Eve, 1969, I fled an uninspired party and drove to the beach. I wanted to give the last hours of the Sixties my undivided attention. I parked in one of those big empty lots in Santa Monica, in a pool of lamplight where the asphalt meets the sand. I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write whatever I could remember about my own Sixties. Out in the darkness, a hundred yards away, the tide was going out, wave by wave.

Just before midnight, a police car pulled up next to me. The officer got out, walked over to my window, and aimed a flashlight at my face. In those days, the Zodiac Killer was on the loose, and a single young man parked all alone at the beach on New Year’s Eve was a definite person of interest.

– What are you doing out here?
– Writing in my journal.
– Mind if I take a look?
– Sure. Why not?

Even then, I was eager for readers. He flipped the pages, reading a few lines out loud. He smiled faintly and shook his head. Lucky for me, it wasn’t the sort of thing a serial killer would write. He handed back my journal and wished me a Happy New Year. By then it was 1970.

Whenever the Sixties did end, and the high tide of cultural upheaval, political activism, youthful idealism and millennial hope began to run out, many were left to wonder what it had all meant. Was it a dead end, or a door opening into something larger and more lasting? Did it change the world? Did it change our lives?

Alice Jaundice (1968), David Warren

Writing about the utopian social experiments of Haight-Ashbury, Charles Perry asked, “How did you deal with the fact that the million visions of the possibilities of life you saw were humiliatingly tied to the perversely unchanging self you brought into the experience?”[iv] And in soliciting the reflections of Sixties people 20 years after the Summer of Love, Annie Gottlieb tried to address her own questions about the decade’s long-term effects on their lives: “Where are the millions of comrades in each other’s arms, the warm bodies that packed every rock concert, college campus, and demonstration, the tattered and colorful armies of love? Forever dispersed into castles of bourgeois comfort and pockets of principled despair?”[v] 8

But as many of us have learned, resignation and despair are not the only options. We may have lost our innocence about the world––and about the traces of darkness in our own hearts––but we are still prisoners of hope. Our formative glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth may have come and gone, but their influence still lingers. However chastened or weary we may be, a sense of expectation remains. What Jesus called the Kingdom of God is a future of human flourishing and divine blessing that still pulls on us with gravitational force. Its current absence doesn’t dim our faith. It only intensifies our longing.

  • Part of the message board at the Psychedelic Shop, Haight-Ashbury (1967)

So when I consider the transformative dimension of the Sixties, and the ache of its disappearing, I call to mind a late summer morning in 1969, when I was awakened at dawn by a pounding on my door. It was the Rev. Craig Hammond, one of my colleagues in campus ministry at the University of Michigan. “The circus is in town!” he said. “If we help them raise the tent this morning, they’ll give us free tickets for tonight’s show.” I threw on some clothes and hurried to join my friends at the circus grounds. And so it was that I was admitted that night––absolutely free––to a world of wonders and impossibilities.

Display at the “Summer of Love Experience” exhibition (2017), De Young Museum, San Francisco

One of the things I remember most is my sense of letdown the next day, after the circus moved on. Where I had seen trapeze artists defy physical law and visual probability, and witnessed clowns die and rise again, there was now but an empty field. Like the Kingdom of God, the circus comes and goes. Its appearance is sudden and brief. And you can’t hold on to it. You can only look for its coming again.

At our campus worship service the following Sunday, I reflected on this analogous relationship:

It’s nearly useless to talk about it now. In a matter of days, it has faded like a dream. The powers set free within its tents seem but idle fancies. The attempt to talk now about the CIRCUS, so soon after its vanishing, comes with a price––acknowledgement of my separation from it.

And yet, it touched us as it passed, its mad motions opened a space between the calm routines and resignations of our everyday lives, allowing us the briefest glimpse of the darkness and the dance of divinity.

But the kingdom is not yet, and we are condemned for the moment to remain audience only. The circus priests of pain an laughter stand on the other side of an unbridgeable divide, though for a day and a night they seemed so very near. When the next morning found no trace of them, we tried to forget as best we could.

But we didn’t forget. Not really. In fact, when our worship team was invited soon afterward to curate a liturgy for a special “General Convention” of the Episcopal Church in South Bend, Indiana, we were inspired to employ circus imagery and metaphors in the construction of the ritual.

In the ordinary round of Episcopal business, a national gathering of clergy and lay representatives happens every three years, but this Convention was summoned in an off-year to address critical issues and questions posed to the Church by the struggles and tensions of the Sixties. The discussions would focus particularly on race, women, and war. A certain amount of disagreement and polarization was anticipated, and we had been given the mission of making ritual to move people from a place of difference into an experience of shared celebration.

We were scheduled to follow an evening concert in a coffeehouse setting, where about 400 people were seated around large tables. There were no obvious signs that a liturgy was about to happen––no procession forming at the back of the hall, no clergy vested in bright robes, no worship booklets distributed. Some began to wonder whether the liturgy, publicized only by mimes handing out flyers at lunchtime, was just an unfounded rumor.

Then the lights went down. A spotlight shone on the stage, where a lone figure came from behind the curtain to give the Ringmaster’s pitch: Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! See the eschaton under the big top! Three rings of grace! Come one, come all, everybody welcome! It seemed meet and right that this Ringmaster, a priest from Washington, D.C., happened to be P.T. Barnum’s great-grandson.

The spotlight switched off, and in the darkness an anonymous voice (in fact the Presiding Bishop, John Hines), read the gathering prayer: God of the Circus, Lord of the Dance, open our eyes to see your show when it comes to town. Amen.

The sermon featured a projection of photographs I had taken at the circus mixed with images of the human condition in the great circus of history, set to the music of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” At communion, the reception of bread and wine was followed by an anointing of each communicant with white clown makeup. Finally, after singing “I Shall Be Released,” we made a joyous communal dance.

Afterward, I wrote in my journal:

Now all of us had become the circus­­––we ourselves were the elephants, the high wire artists, the clowns––the circus in us, the circus through us. I saw monks weeping and bishops dancing, and for one bright moment there were a great many things which no longer mattered very much in the light of this One Big Thing.

 

The Summer of Love Experience, De Young Museum, San Francisco

All the photographs were taken July 20th at “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll,” featuring a wealth of artifacts on the 50th anniversary of the Summmer of Love. It continues at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, close to Haight-Ashbury, through August 20th. Pilgrims will be richly rewarded.

Related posts:

“I wanted heaven now” (Summer of Love Part 1)

Something’s Happening Here: Summer of Love (Part 2)

 

 

[i] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 420.

[ii] Thomas McGrath, Letter to an Imaginary Friend (Chicago: Swallow, 1970, p. 95), q. in Gitlin, p. 420.

[iii] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 215.

[iv] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 263-4

[v] Annie Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic? The Second Coming of the Sixties Generation (New York: Times Books, 1987), 8.

 

Something’s Happening Here: Summer of Love (Part 2)

Still from Cancel My Subscription, a film by Jim Friedrich (1967)

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.

The author in 1966.

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]

 

 

 

Related post:“I Wanted Heaven Now”- Remembering the Summer of Love in America’s Time of Trial

 

[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.