Golden daze: 50 years on from the Summer of Love

It’s the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Here five people who were at the heart of the counter-culture movement tell Aaron Millar how flowers, LSD, music and radical ideas changed youth consciousness forever

Fifty years ago this summer there was talk of revolution. Protests against the Vietnam war were popping up all over the US, the civil rights movement had found its voice and a new vision of the world, fuelled by free love, psychedelics and rock ’n’ roll, was being embraced. It was in San Francisco, in a small neighbourhood called Haight Ashbury, where it found its perfect form.

The Haight, named after the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in north central San Francisco, became the home of alternative living in America. Born out of the Beat Generation of the 50s, with its writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who railed against the conventionality and materialism of their time, a new generation of bohemians – no more than a few hundred artists, activists and musicians including the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin – began congregating in this small enclave of the Bay area. They put on parties and experimented, with communal living, psychological transcendence and a rejection of material values. It was, for a while, a kind of utopia, the antithesis of the war they were protesting against and the inequality they saw in the deep south. The Beatles were on the airwaves, Jimi was playing guitar, the world was on the cusp of radical change: it was a good time to be young.

On 14 January 1967, the Haight Ashbury community threw a party in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, called the Human Be-In. What ought to have been a relatively small “gathering of the tribes”, as they called it, suddenly exploded into a full on festival, attended by more than 20,000 people. Jefferson Airplane, whose song White Rabbit became an anthem for that summer, played for free and LSD guru Timothy Leary stood up and told the youth of America to “turn on, tune in, drop out”. The youth listened: as many as 100,000 young people descended upon the city, from April through the summer, all with flowers in their hair. A small under-the-radar experiment was transformed into a spontaneous rising of radical youth culture unlike anything ever seen before. The Haight’s cover was blown, the hippies went mainstream and they called it the Summer of Love.

Fifty years on it remains one of the largest counter-culture movements in history, one which changed the world.

Carolyn ‘Mountain Girl’ Garcia, former Merry Prankster and wife of Jerry Garcia

In the groove: Carolyn Garcia, second wife of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, holds her daughter Sunshine.
In the groove: Carolyn Garcia, second wife of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, holds her daughter Sunshine. Photograph: Henry Diltz/Getty Images

In 1966 I was on the bus with Ken Kesey, who was instrumental in laying the foundations for that next summer. Our crew, the Merry Pranksters, had been busy doing Acid Tests up and down the coast, where we’d stage freeform events and have LSD available for those who wanted it.

President John F Kennedy had been assassinated three years previously and that unhinged the country in a lot of very profound ways. We were dreadfully concerned about nuclear war and that released people from their social concerns or any duty they might have felt as up and coming straight citizens.

When word got out in ’67 that something magical was happening in San Francisco the streets suddenly filled up with young kids, many just out of high school, looking to be a part of this radical new rising of youth consciousness. But there weren’t enough services for everyone and that was kind of scary. Those of us that were already embedded here tried to address it with free food giveaways and free medical clinics; we did guerrilla music shows in the street. It was about community. We wanted to change our values and find a different way to engage with reality.

I don’t know if the Summer of Love would be possible today. We’re a different country now. Nobody sat around and watched TV. No one carried a phone unless they were a cop. It was about building a culture rather than just observing one. If you were to take a walk through Golden Gate Park that summer, you’d see hundreds of people just sitting on the grass talking to each other. And that’s what we still need in America today: people talking to each other.

I believe that love can change the world. But it can also be pretty abstract. Liking something on your social media page is not the same as practising love. Love is a practice and that’s what we need more of right now.

William Hedgepeth, journalist

On assignment: William Hedgepeth gets in the mood.
On assignment: William Hedgepeth gets in the mood. Photograph: Jim Marshall

I lived in the Haight Ashbury for three weeks during the Summer of Love. When I first arrived I was stunned: guys were walking down the street with shoulder-length hair. I knew what to expect, but it was still a total shock. I bought an Indian blanket and some old army clothes; by my second day I’d joined a commune. Later that week, as I was walking into Golden Gate Park, two hippie girls with long flowing clothes came up to me on the street and told me to close my eyes and open my mouth. Next thing I knew they’d put a tab of LSD on my tongue. I spent the entire day lost in a rhododendron trail. When asked later if I took drugs on that assignment, I admitted I did, but figured I was doing so on behalf of the American people [Inside the Hippie Revolution, Hedgepeth’s article for Look magazine, inspired young people from across the country to come and experience the scene].

The whole scene had to do with a breakdown of traditional values. It was a total inspiration of openness, a new orientation of people toward one another. It wasn’t about rejecting society; it was about trying to build a new society. That same counter-cultural spirit continues to shape the way people perceive the world today. That’s what makes the Summer of Love so special. When you come upon a new way of seeing things you don’t go back to the old way. Consciousness is irreversible. I never wore a suit again.

William Hedgepeth is the author of The Hog Book (University of Georgia Press)

Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane

Ready for take-off: Grace Slick performing with Jefferson Airplane in October, 1967.
Ready for take-off: Grace Slick performing with Jefferson Airplane in October, 1967. Photograph: New York Post Archives/Getty Images

The Summer of Love was basically a question. Do you want to hang out and experience the boredom of the 1950s, or do you want to turn everything on its head and live like they did in Paris at the end of the 19th century? Paris sounded like a lot more fun. So that’s what we did: turned things upside down.

It was also an extension of the understanding that to whom much is given, much is expected. We get paid very well as rock ’n’ roll musicians. So you give it back. You play free. And we played free in the park a lot that summer. It was a party.

The ideas we had in the 60s, leading up to the Summer of Love, are self-sustaining. Most people want to enjoy themselves. Most people want integration. Most people want to live a sustainable existence. With eight billion people in the world you have to care about each other. We were like a tank; we were going to keep ploughing through this thing until we effected change. It seemed inevitable.

But progress is slow. Right now, we’ve got a president who makes Richard Nixon look like Mary Poppins. It makes me sad because we’re making a joke out of an extraordinary idea: the constitution. But perhaps the silver lining is that the kids are starting to rearrange how it’s going again. Any time people are willing to put their nose to the grindstone for a better, fairer and more interesting life, there is hope.

I think of the Summer of Love as a kind of talisman. At its most basic, art is a reminder of who we want to be and how we want to get there. That’s how it changes the world. The Summer of Love is like that, too. It’s a talisman, a reminder of our own possibilities and the future we’re trying to build.

See Grace Slick’s artworks at

Stanley Mouse, graphic artist

Poster boy: graphic artist Stanley Mouse with some of the posters he designed at the time.
Poster boy: graphic artist Stanley Mouse with some of the posters he designed at the time. Photograph: Ted Streshinsky/Getty Images

San Francisco called me like a siren. The city was pristine and antiquated, with secondhand stores full of Edwardian clothes ready for the picking. Long-haired guys with beards and sandals filled the streets. Bands were forming around a strong anti-war sentiment that had a sound all of its own. They started playing parties in people’s houses, and the parties just got bigger and bigger. I was making psychedelic posters for them [including concert posters for the Grateful Dead].

In the summer of 1967 I had a studio in an old firehouse where Big Brother and the Holding Company used to practise and Janis Joplin once auditioned for a job. LSD appeared; it brought us out of the dark ages. It cured the 1950s. I started working with Alton Kelley, an outrageous idea man and artist who was part of a local collective called the Family Dog. They put on many of the parties around the Haight. He was a lefty and I was right handed. We could sit at the drawing board and work on the same piece together like a four-handed monster. We did a poster every week for a year and tore the graphics world to shreds. Great music. Great art. Everybody dancing. Galaxies and centuries drifting through our minds.

Then the media picked up on it. People came from all over the world to become “experienced”. Our beautiful scene turned into a zoo. Up and down the street: drums, cymbals, bongs, fire dancers. Sometimes we would lock the front door and line up chairs just to watch the parade.

See Mouse’s artwork at

Peter Coyote, founder member of the Diggers

‘It was a statement of a different kind of community’: Peter Coyote (left) of the Diggers.
‘It was a statement of a different kind of community’: Peter Coyote (left) of the Diggers. Photograph: PR

The Haight Ashbury was the first living theatre. People could dance out their new identities liberated from the stories of who they were. Just like early Californians coming to the gold rush they could announce themselves as something and become it.

I was one of the founders of an anarchist gang in San Francisco, at that time, called the Diggers. We had tasked ourselves with imagining a world in which we wanted to live and making it real by acting it out. We fed 600 people a day for free. We set up the first free medical clinics. We set up free stores. We set up all these invisible theatrical events to engage people in a kind of theatre of the future, without them knowing that it was theatre.

At first, most of us weren’t interested in the Summer of Love. We didn’t think they were doing anything that radical. But once we saw the vast gathering of people assembled in Golden Gate Park we had to recalibrate our thinking. It was very moving: a statement of a totally different kind of community.

The counter-culture may have lost every political battle – we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism, we didn’t end imperialism. But on a cultural level, we won every single battle. There’s no place today in the western world where there’s not an organic food movement, a women’s movement, an environmental movement.

Coyote’s memoirs are at

On the Road to the Summer of Love runs until 10 September, visit For information on 50th anniversary events in San Francisco, visit

Aaron Millar’s latest book, 50 Greatest Wonders of the World, is available on Amazon and other retailers. @AaronMWriter

Aaron Millar

The GuardianTramp

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