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Summer of Love changed music and culture

The Summer of Love produced some of the most important works of popular music in history. Some of it represented a direct protest of the war, some simply reflected the yearning for peace and love. By Michael Ventre

Where have all the flowers gone?

Usually, they don’t last long. Dunk them in a vase and they’ll hold up for a few days before the wilting process begins. They’re temporary by nature.

Somehow, someway, the flowers introduced in conjunction with the Summer of Love of 1967 have held strong, at least philosophically. They were a mightier breed. It’s been 40 years, and they still make an impact today on the culture.

The Summer of Love celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The exact date is sketchy, lost somewhere in the psychedelic haze of historical memory. Some events that presaged that summer include a “Human Be-In,” which took place in January 1967, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and included performances by local bands the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. And by the fall of ’67, some of the bloom had come off, rifts in American life had deepened and cynicism was on the rise.

But the Summer of Love endures today, because it represents a time like no other in American history. While there were societal upheavals before, there had never been the tremors that began in the West and shook the status quo from coast to coast, for better and for worse.

‘You’re going to meet some gentle people there’The Summer of Love’s most recognizable denizens were the hippies, immortalized in the Scott McKenzie song “San Francisco” (written by John Phillips) with the words, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair; if you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna meet some gentle people there.”

And indeed, there were gentle people, awash in new ideas, fresh attitudes, boundless energy and free love. There were also grimy, seedy, drug-addled loners and drifters who used the spirit of the Summer of Love as an excuse to avoid responsibility. There were all kinds, who gathered at the epicenter that was San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. That’s what happens when tumult envelops a nation with a population at the time of about 200 million.

In practice, the Summer of Love had a dark side filled with cracks and fissures, duly noted over the years by critics who blame it and the attitudes it engendered for everything save for fluctuations in weather patterns. In spirit, though, it was a bellwether for profound change. And change, whether desired or not, is indeed inevitable.

The anniversary of the Summer of Love comes at a significant time. It sprung largely from dissatisfaction with an unpopular war that seemed to have no end. In March 1965, 3,500 Marines were sent to Vietnam, which essentially began the ground war, and by December of that year the number of total U.S. troops had stretched to 200,000. By 1969, there were more than 500,000 American troops involved in combat operations.

The Summer of Love was a backlash to that war. The nation had been set in its ways, and that period shook it by its roots. Some wanted progress, others resisted. Some methods of change proved healthy, others were damaging, depending on which social observers are to be believed.

But the anniversary hits at a time when a “surge” strategy by the United States is taking place in the Iraq war. Surge now, escalation then.

The music in and around 1967 provides the most indelible reminders of that era and the outrage directed at the Vietnam War. The Summer of Love produced some of the most important works of popular music in history. Some of it represented a direct protest of the war, some simply reflected the yearning for peace and love.

A sign that change was comingBut the inspiration was there. And the touchstone event occurred in June, when the Monterey International Pop Festival took place. It was an event that served as a coming-out party for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat and Steve Miller; it showcased The Who in all the band’s rebellious fury; and it boosted established acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds.

The Monterey International Pop Festival was a seminal event because, although there had been similar gatherings, this was considered the first real rock festival and laid the groundwork for Woodstock just over two years later. Monterey, and the release earlier in June of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Paul McCartney was a member of the board of advisors at Monterey and a champion of Hendrix) were the two most influential happenings that came out of the summer of ’67.

But groundbreaking music wasn’t the only child of that summer. The Summer of Love helped accelerate a counterculture movement that had a widespread impact in fashion and art; in the use of illicit drugs and of vitamins, herbs and natural foods; in the increase in earnest spiritual quests and in philosophical hogwash; in yoga, hiking and other activities that focused on the Earth and the universe; in sexual experimentation and the abandonment of inhibitions, and in the spread of venereal diseases; in the environmental movement; in civil rights; in women’s rights; and in a willingness to question authority.

All of that emanated essentially from one American intersection, at the corners of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco, where both Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead once resided, where thousands of restless young people descended leading up to ’67, and where now merchants and longtime residents today bemoan the roving packs of homeless punks and runaways.

But the Summer of Love was about a mindset, which lingers today in both the idealistic twentysomethings of 1967 who are now wistful sixtysomethings, and in the heirs to that revolution of thinking and behavior. The Summer of Love continues, fresh flowers and all.