The Summer Of Love: Not Exactly Hippie Paradise

Never mind what the calendar says. 1967’s legendary “Summer of Love” was over before it even started. That’s what David Freiberg told Gary Duncan as the Quicksilver Messenger Service bandmates surveyed the scene at a festive flower child gathering in the winter of ’67.

“Goddamn it. It’s over, man.”

Such was the story revealed by rock journalist and respected author, Ben Fong Torres, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the now-legendary San Francisco Summer of Love. In the Cal Alumni Association publication, California, Torres noted how an eclectic mix of more than 20,000 relatively apolitical Haight Ashbury hippies and Berkeley Free Speech Movement veterans from across the bay collided in a “two-headed” scene that culminated in the Summer of Love.

A one day “happening” touted as “A Gathering of The Tribes” and “The First Human Be-In” was organized by Psychedelic Shop proprietors, Jay and Ron Thelin along with Oracle editor, Allen Cohen. The event inspired tens of thousands of young and not-so-young people to put flowers in their hair and join the party. Cohen enchanted Haight Street denizens with colorful pages that read:

“A union of love and activism previously separated by categorical dogma and label mongering will finally occur ecstatically, when Berkeley political activists and hip community and San Francisco’s spiritual generation and contingents from the emerging revolutionary generation all over California meet for a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park on Saturday, January 14, 1967, from 1 to 5 p.m.”

Guitarist Gary Duncan was integral to the now legendary Human Be-In where Freiberg declared the demise of Haight Ashbury’s underground music scene. In 1967, Duncan was an erstwhile North Beach beatnik who generally preferred folk music. He loved playing with the more rock ‘n’ roll inclined Cippolina, but freely admits he was never interested in adopting the hippie lifestyle full time. And he wasn’t exactly enchanted with the Be-In nor the Summer of Love. Did Gary shock anyone when he revealed his blase attitude in Rock and Reprise magazine in 2007? Probably not.

“Hey, I was a musician, not a street person. I played shows and made money. It was my job. I stayed away from the hippie culture as much as possible. When I was younger, I hung out a lot with the Beatniks, with whom I got along with fairly well, but not the hippies.”

In 1967, Duncan and bassist David Freiberg, along with drummer Greg Elmore and guitar virtuoso John Cippolina, comprised Quicksilver Messenger Service. More musically proficient than most of their peers, QMS presented tight performances in a neighborhood known for looseness. They performed at pulsing dance halls and played countless free concerts in Golden Gate park.

One such outdoor show, dubbed the “Human Be-In,” was different from the others. Although not everyone knew it at the time, the First Human Be-In heralded the fade of the short-lived Shangri-La that shimmered so brightly and briefly in long ago San Francisco.

“When they had the Human Be-In, David Freiberg and I were living somewhere in the city with our families and he said, we have to go play this gig in the Park today. We drove down there and the closer we got, the more people we saw until we had to just park the car and walk. When we got there, there were all these people — thousands and thousands of them — and all of these news people. David looked around at the whole thing and said to me, “it’s over.” When these guys [news people] get involved, it’s the end. And it was. There was no more underground scene in San Francisco. From that point on, it was all out in the open.”

Eye witness accounts not in harmony with half-remembered history

By 2007, Quicksilver founder Gary Duncan had evolved far beyond the music that captured his imagination in 1967. He told Rock and Reprise magazine that he was weary of the whole Summer of Love anniversary business. Duncan described revisiting his old stomping grounds.

“Recently, I did an interview with someone who took me over to Haight Ashbury to take photographs and walk around and it’s still the same. Kids sleeping on the sidewalks, drunk, stoned, obnoxious. That was pretty much what Haight Ashbury became back then. I don’t know what people thought it was like, you know? They call it the Summer of Love. I didn’t really feel a lot of that love. I saw a lot of kids being victims and a lot of people victimizing kids.”

Fish-eye view of the Summer of Love

Barry “The Fish” Melton is another influential musician who was up to his curl-covered ears in the Bay Area scene that led directly to the so-called Summer of Love. In 2007, the Country Joe and The Fish guitarist and Yolo County lawyer told the Hearst Journalism Awards Program that the Summer of Love was as much about ending the war in Vietnam as it was about growing long hair, dabbling in eastern philosophy, challenging societal norms, and exploring inner space via chemical means.

“It definitely was the kind of thing where I think people felt like ‘we don’t like this society, we don’t like where this war is going and we’re going to create our own alternatives. As we approached the summer of 1967, we were facing it with a great deal of idealism. From the long hair and rock and roll to being a single parent or a gay couple coming together and having a family. It was transported around the world.”

So what’s happening with the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love?

Four decades after the first Summer of Love, organizers pulled off a successful Summer of Love 40th anniversary celebration that was happily attended by thousands. In a quirky twist, the same organizers who pulled off a great public party in the park in 2007 were denied a permit to put on a free SOL 5oth anniversary concert in 2017.

Expecting that a permit would be granted, posters and press releases began circulating to promote the highly anticipated but now-cancelled June 4 concert at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park.

Why the San Francisco parks department said no

In a letter of denial from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, permits manager, Diane Rea, accused primary promoter, Boots Rolf Hughston, of obfuscating facts pertaining to the proposed Polo Fields concert. The department cited conflicting numbers about anticipated crowds as well as erroneous statements about security and on-site medical stations. The department also chastised Hughston for publicizing the event prior to receiving an official permit. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Given the ongoing uncertainty about basic safety elements of your plan and your unfortunate pattern of deception and misrepresentation about your planning efforts, we cannot put the public at risk and grant a permit for your proposed event.”

Hughston told The Mercury News that he’s promoted problem-free events around the Bay Area since the 1970s and that Ms. Rea’s letter was nothing less than “character assassination.” Business Wire quoted Boots as saying the permit denial was a cash based decision.

“Suddenly, it’s all about money. We’re a non-profit and cannot pay the same million dollar-plus fees some big, for-profit promoters now pay. We present this concert free to the public and we volunteer all of our services.”

Parks Department representative, Sarah Madland, said Hughston’s assertion that finances played any part of the decision was “patently false.”

“Scheduled bands” were not

Shortly after an impassioned public hearing that sought reconsideration of the park department’s permit denial, the San Francisco Gate explained that at least two of the bands Hughston claimed to have lined up to play the free concert were not even aware of their alleged participation. Marianna Burdon, wife and manager of Animals / War singer, Eric Burdon, told her Facebook followers on February 10:

“This world is full of deluded characters spreading false information for their own opportunistic purposes. I feel like I must burst their bubble and expose them to reality. Eric was never confirmed as I declined his involvement immediately upon request; and the fact is, War was never even mentioned in our discussion. FIGHT FAKE NEWS!”

And now a few further words about Quicksilver Messenger Service

A guitar player named Jim Murray played in the original five-piece Quicksilver lineup but parted ways with the band after the Monterey International Pop Festival and before Freiberg, Duncan, Elmore, and Cippolina recorded their eponymous first album. Produced by Nick Gravenites, Peter Welding, and Harvey Brooks, 1968’s Quicksilver Messenger Service brought San Francisco psychedelic confections “Dino’s Song” and “Pride of Man,” to suburban radios well after the Summer of Love was a done deal.

Vocalist/folk guitarist Dino Valenti joined (or rejoined, depending on who’s telling the story) the band in 1969 as did respected session keyboardist, Nicky Hopkins. Their respective contributions to Shady Grove, What About Me and subsequent Quicksilver albums are hailed as masterpieces by music critics to this day. In 2003, Duncan explained to Vintage Guitar magazine that he took a one-year sabbatical from Quicksilver after the release of Happy Trails and did not appear on Shady Grove.

[Featured Image by VIDOK/Thinkstock/Getty Images]

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