The summer of 1967 forever changed American culture.
It was a summer of anti-war protests, peace movements, love, flowers, drugs and rock and roll that became known as the “Summer of Love,” which had a lasting impact on America.
Scott McKenzie sang what would become one of the summer’s theme songs:
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…”
Fifty years ago, thousands of people gathered in San Francisco, California, where they heard new music by groups that went on to write songs that are still famous today. And they protested the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, saying, “Make love, not war.”
Singer Grace Slick shot to fame with her band Jefferson Airplane and spoke with VOA about life there during the summer of 1967.
Now 77, and a painter, Slick says she and others did not call it the “Summer of Love.” They were just doing “stuff,” Slick said — creating art and music and making jewelry and other things.
“It was actually just a whole bunch of people playing music and hanging out and having fun," she said. "It was pretty much that simple.”
Jefferson Airplane, along with the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and others, started what is known as psychedelic rock music. One of that summer’s best-known songs was Slick’s “White Rabbit.”
“One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small and the ones that mother gives you...”
Grace Slick says her idea for “White Rabbit” came from the book “Alice in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll. The story is about a girl who finds herself in a strange place. Slick says living in San Francisco in the 1960s was, for her, similar to Alice’s Wonderland.
“She went from very proper Victorian England down the 'rabbit hole' into this nut, you know, wonderland, which is just crazy. I went from very proper 50s, United States, into the 60s, which is very similar to her experience.”
Dennis McNally was the long-time publicist for the Grateful Dead. The band started in San Francisco in 1965. He helped put together a new exhibit called “On the Road to the Summer of Love” at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. The exhibit is part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love.
McNally says two big things led to the Summer of Love: psychedelic drugs and rock music. The psychedelic drug of choice was LSD, also called acid. It causes people to hallucinate— to see things that seem real, but are not.
And rock and roll? He says the 1964 introduction of The Beatles helped start the rock “revolution.”
"She loves you yah, yah, yah..."
San Francisco has a tradition of being open to new ideas and different lifestyles. Fifty years ago, it was not today’s costly, high-technology center. Housing costs in the 1960s were low in “the Haight”— the neighborhood around Haight and Ashbury streets.
In January of 1967, bands and poets threw a party called the “Human Be-In.” Around 50,000 people went to the event, held in Golden Gate Park. Psychologist Timothy Leary, who supported the use of LSD, repeated his famous line to the young crowd. “Turn on. Tune In. Drop out.” The saying was about taking LSD, tuning into one’s self, and dropping out of the mainstream lifestyle of the time.
When American media began covering what was happening in San Francisco, young people from all over the country started coming to the city by the thousands. Many of them were high school- or college-aged, McNally says.
“People without a lot of resources, emotional, not very worldly showed up. And a lot of them said 'take care of me' and they did, and it worked.”
Suddenly, San Francisco became one big social experiment. It also became “hippie central.”
Bright colors were everywhere. Pictures, posters, clothes, and even houses and cars, were painted in new bright psychedelic colors and patterns.
Hippies — both the men and the women — had long, flowing hair. They wore “love beads” around their necks. The women wore flowers in their hair. They desired peace instead of war.
Area musicians who once played quiet folk music started playing electric instruments — loudly. People experimented with new ways of living, too. They lived in groups called communes. They shared housing, money, food and sex.
Such experiments became known as the “counter-culture.” And they changed the way young people lived.
“It was genuinely a challenge to American mainstream thinking about materialism and how you are supposed to live your life,” said Slick.
They didn’t call it socialism, she adds, but “more or less” it was. They lived together and tried to help each other.
In the summer of 1967, the women’s equal rights movement was about to take off. Slick says that many women wanted a different life from the one their mothers lived in the conservative 1950s America.
"So a lot of us look at it and went, ‘too flat. Let's make it a little more interesting.’ And in our each individual way that's what we were trying to do.”
Some women began burning their bras at marches to protest women’s oppression. Slick says more work still needs to be done. And she says that if women want to get ahead, they should study.
“Same thing a man has to do, only we have to do just a little bit more. Still," she said. "And we get paid less so we’re still pushing.”
Also in the summer of 1967, the Vietnam War was raging. More than 480,000 American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. That year, over 11,000 of them were killed in action.
Musician Country Joe McDonald is known for his anti-war songs. He formed a band called Country Joe McDonald and The Fish.
“I-Feel-Like-I'm- Fixin'-To-Die Rag" is his most famous protest song:
"And it's one, two three four, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam..."
McDonald was different from other musicians in California at the time. He had served in the U.S. military before the Vietnam War. He says the experience influenced how he wrote his protest song.
“The unique thing about the song is that it does not blame soldiers for war, it blames politicians,” he said.
Many young people in the late 1960s were critical of the U.S. government.
“The leadership of America was completely out of touch with the problems and desires of the youth of America at that particular time.”
Spreading the music - and the message
Both McDonald and Slick shared good memories of playing to large crowds that summer, like the Monterey Pop Festival in June. The festival introduced the counter-culture’s music to a wider audience.
Dennis McNally says many of the movements and ideas that began 50 years ago in the Summer of Love still live on today.
“If you do yoga, you’ve been influenced by the summer of love, if you eat organic food, if you are concerned about the environment, if you are part of feminism or almost any kind of challenge to the most traditional gender roles, you’re influenced by the summer of love.”
He says the 2016 U.S. presidential elections set the country back. McDonald and Slick agree.
Even today, Americans are generally divided between those in support what happened during the Summer of Love and those who oppose its message to “make love, not war.”
So, is another Summer of Love possible in America? Slick hopes so.
"Yeah, I was going to say probably not with me. I'll probably be dead by the time they do it again. But let's push for that again. Stop war; open up to each other; appreciate different races, different religions, different styles different colors. Open it up,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”