Tuning In, En Masse

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San Francisco’s Human Be-In was held fifty years ago this week, an estimated 25,000 assembling in Golden Gate Park to, as instructed by Timothy Leary’s newly coined mantra, “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.” This January 14, 1967 “Gathering of the Tribes” is regarded as the kickoff to a foundational year in the history of the 1960s counterculture. A few months later tens of thousands from across the nation were back in San Francisco for the Summer of Love; by autumn, “Flower Power” had blossomed into a protest movement, as captured in the iconic photo of a demonstrator placing a carnation in a National Guardsman’s gun barrel during the October 21st March on the Pentagon. On the last day of the year, sensing the opportunity for “an organic coalition of psychedelic hippies and political activism,” Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and others formed their Yippie Party, and by the summer of 1968 it was not San Francisco but Chicago that had the world transfixed — the street riots and bloodied protesters at the Democratic National Convention, the polemics and theatrics of the Chicago Seven trial, the bound-and-gagged Bobby Seale a new icon for the embattled Age of Aquarius.

The perspective of a half century offers little consensus on the “whole generation with a new explanation” (John Phillips, “San Francisco”) — whether it offered “the fitful dreams of some future awakening” (Jackson Browne, “The Pretender”), or just the jingle-jangle of a Strawberry Alarm Clock (“Incense and peppermints, meaningless nouns / Turn on, tune in, turn your eyes around”). Memoirs written by those present at the creation reflect both nostalgia and skepticism, and often survivalist relief. In Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and off the Grid, Joshua Safran describes how his mother went to San Francisco for the Summer of Love and stayed on to help build Hippie Nation, under a “flag of a thousand tapestries”:

Her citizens gathered and whirled and danced to a rainbow harmony. Sandalwood and patchouli wafted through the air. The street corners called out poetry. Arm bangles jangled to the bleating of tablas and the lowing of dijimbes. In the park, the Dream Weaver sat on a blanket next to the man bartering bolts of cloth from the Orient next to the man in the dashiki dispensing fucks.

The result, on the free-love side, was Joshua: “I was born in 1975 in a commune in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to a coven of witches.” When the lifestyle and the larger tapestry unraveled, the Gathering of Tribes now an Exodus, mother headed for the anti-Establishment hills, son in tow and in bewilderment. For years they moved from cabin to tepee to ice cream truck, “lamenting the loss of a New America that had never been, running from a society I had never known, and searching for a promised land I would never recognize.”

In her essay “San Francisco: The Metamorphosis,” collected in Storming the Gates of Paradise, Rebecca Solnit comments that Northern California has attracted many tribes and visions throughout its history. A specialist in the exploration of place — see her unique series of city atlases — Solnit describes how, for example, Rancho Olompali in Marin County, originally a Miwok Indian settlement, became locus for a preliminary skirmish in the Mexican-American War and a Summer of Love makeover:

By the turn of the century, the ranch belonged to a wealthy dentist, who surrounded his house with exotic plantings — a pomegranate hedge and some palms live on — and by the late 1960s, it was a hippie commune called The Family, where Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia, speaking of assimilated Latinos, had an acid trip awful enough to make him swear off it . . . Olompali’s evolution from indigenous hamlet to battlefield to dental estate to bad trip sometimes seems like an encapsulation of Northern California’s evolution to me, where things are always mutating, where erasure and replacement are the only constants. What’s erased, though, tends to repeat. Maybe it’s easier to imagine this part of the state as a deck of cards constantly being reshuffled into royal flushes and losing hands, where we play poker with memory and identity and meaning and possibility, which are not quite four of a kind.