History & Society

Summer of Love

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hippies during the Summer of Love
hippies during the Summer of Love

Basking under San Francisco’s summer sun, an immense kaleidoscope of youths thrummed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet the Summer of Love was so much more than that three-pronged cliché. Flowers, fashion, posters, theater, panhandling, commercialism, revolution, anarchy, freedom—all these and more were overflowing among the young Americans packed into the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. They arrived to take part in a community that valued freedom, nature, and art over capitalistic mores. The hippie experiment ended in ruin, but it calls to mind the epitaph of Ovid’s Phaethon: “And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.”

That summer in 1967 between 75,000 and 100,000 young Americans flocked to Haight-Ashbury to protest the Vietnam War and materialism, experiment with drugs and sexuality, practice alternative religions, or otherwise seek and experience the hippies’ idealized view of enlightenment. The media followed them to the region to document the festivities, producing a mix of criticism and praise.

1960s counterculture in San Francisco

The phenomenon of that summer was rooted in the disaffection and revolt that came to define the decade. Before the hippies there were the Beats, a counterculture partly concentrated in San Francisco’s North Beach area that paddled against the current of materialistic society in the wake of World War II. Members such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were sometimes labeled as “hip” since they embraced jazz culture. Perhaps a hint at what would befall their successors, the Beats were ultimately commodified and adopted into the pop culture they strove against. As the movement evolved, bohemians took root primarily in the Haight-Ashbury district, and the hippie subculture was born.

There intricate and vibrant Victorian houses already framed a sense of freedom: the location offered public transportation and easy access to Golden Gate Park for the ethnically diverse community of students, writers, and musicians. Haight-Ashbury was home to music legends including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.

The hippie lifestyle was inextricably tied to drug culture. Hippies believed that the euphoria induced by the psychedelic drug LSD (also called acid) brought visions and feelings of “cosmic oneness,” instilling a sense of love and belonging for everything in the universe. Although the novelty and impact of LSD on the hippie movement has been widely discussed, cocaine and marijuana were also present, while alcohol remained largely absent. Novelist Ken Kesey, author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), organized the first of San Francisco’s many “acid tests” in 1965. Attendees would pay a small fee and were offered LSD while musicians played extended improvisational songs. By January 1966 the Grateful Dead was playing for 2,000 attendees at an acid test that featured a baby’s bathtub filled with LSD-spiked punch.

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Brothers Ron and Jay Thelin opened the Psychedelic Shop, selling drug paraphernalia—though, because the brothers so valued peace and freedom, they eventually gave their merchandise away. Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 song “White Rabbit,” one of the tracks that defined the Summer of Love, was inspired by drug allusions in the animated film Alice in Wonderland (1951).


“And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice / I think she’ll know,” sings Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick on “White Rabbit.”

Hippies, in some cases under the influence of LSD, spawned psychedelic light shows, new forms of dancing, improvisational music (“fo-jazz,” a portmanteau of folk and jazz), groundbreaking fashion, and eye-catching poster art. The subculture grew beyond art with branches into spirituality and politics; for example, hyphenates such as “actor-anarchist” were used to describe some members of the Diggers, an anti-capitalist and antiestablishment group active in Haight-Ashbury’s multifaceted youth movement.

The subculture snowballed, its gatherings growing in size and scale. October 1966 saw a rally protesting the criminalization of LSD and was followed in January 1967 by the first “be-in,” a festival dubbed “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In” that filled Golden Gate Park with more than 40,000 people. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and other San Francisco bands performed, and hippie intellectuals spoke to the crowds. Notably, Timothy Leary, a former Harvard psychology professor fired for distributing LSD to students, told those at the park to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” He called for believers to drop out of society to live a life in tune with nature and with each other (and with LSD).

The Human Be-In and similar events attracted the media, which gave Haight-Ashbury residents the platform to invite young people from across the country to join the San Franciscan revelry as soon as school let out for the summer. A press conference was held on April 5, 1967, announcing the formation of a Council for the Summer of Love. Scott McKenzie’s song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” (written by John Phillips) served as the soundtrack for the migration.


“For those who come to San Francisco / Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair / If you come to San Francisco / Summertime will be a love-in there,” sings Scott McKenzie on “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair),” released in May 1967.

Bob Stubbs, the owner of a prominent Haight-Ashbury coffeehouse at the time, wrote of the neighborhood leading up to the Summer of Love:

We have a private revolution going on. A revolution of individuality and diversity that can only be private. Upon becoming a group movement such a revolution ends up being imitators rather than participants.

Thus, Stubbs accurately prophesied the consequences of 1967’s hordes—a subculture suffocated by its own growth—as visitors pooled into the neighborhood to experience the community without any commitment.

Summertime arrives

Haight-Ashbury swelled with the influx of visitors, prompting health officials to worry about disease. A free clinic run by a physician who lived in the neighborhood opened in June and saw 250 young patients daily. The city at large rejected the young travelers: city legislators passed resolutions condemning the hippies; the transportation commissioner redrew bus routes around the neighborhood; and editors at the San Francisco Chronicle treated the new arrivals as invaders, publishing headlines that made them out to be criminals. Police enforced vagrancy laws, searched for runaways, and conducted drug raids, while hippies attempted to direct their attention toward more menacing criminals entering the city. The newcomers found food and shelter wherever they could, sleeping on floors and taking advantage of free food and events organized by groups including the Diggers. That idealist group opened the Free Store, where those in need could get supplies for—as the name suggests—free. Like the Diggers, other flower children picked up the slack where San Francisco’s authorities failed, cleaning up the streets and establishing a HIP Switchboard telephone line to locate runaways, friends, and emergency services.

Still, support systems were overwhelmed and notices appeared in newspapers seeking aid. Sex and drug use happened openly in the streets, as youths struggled to find housing. Although the Diggers doled out what they could, there were still beggars searching for meals. Amphetamines and psychedelics, sometimes laced with tranquilizers or other toxins that compounded the harmful effects of the drugs, ran rampant. Handbills surfaced advertising a free “survival school,” a set of classes to instruct attendees on how to “keep from getting killed for kicks” and to avoid “becoming a psychedelic casualty.”

At the same time, San Francisco’s music scene thrived. Audiences were directed by posters or word of mouth toward the two major concert venues showcasing the burgeoning San Francisco psychedelic sound: the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. Also, one group of hippies raised nearly $60,000 and transformed a former movie theater into an environmental theater (which sought to remove the distinction between performer and audience) with multiple rooms for performances, dances, visual art, drama classes, and rehearsal spaces. On June 15, 1967, the Grateful Dead unofficially baptized the Straight Theater with rock and roll, though its grand opening wouldn’t be until July 21.

Inside these venues, while the lights swirled and the songwriters spread their countercultural messages, dancers revolutionized their craft. Gone were the structured “steps” of previous generations, as audiences ebbed and flowed in free-form movements with the music. Hippies doubled down on their individuality through their clothing, wearing garments of decades past or homemade ensembles.

On June 16, the three-day apogee of the summer began at the Monterey International Pop Festival, held in Monterey, California, more than 100 miles (160 km) south of Haight-Ashbury. Concertgoers driving to the festival grounds made headlines for disrupting travel for golf enthusiasts headed to a tournament also in Monterey. More than 30 performers—some international hitmakers, some known only in San Francisco—took the stage. An estimated 90,000 attendees witnessed sets by artists including Scott McKenzie, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Who, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, the Grateful Dead, and a guitarist then little-known among American audiences: Jimi Hendrix, who, true to character, played his guitar with his teeth, then behind his head, and finally lit it on fire and smashed it. Perhaps to fulfill McKenzie’s directive from his hit single, 10,000 orchids were shipped from Hawaii for the festival. The 1968 film Monterey Pop, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, documented the stage’s shining superstars.


“Purple haze all in my eyes / Don’t know if it’s day or night / You got me blowing, blowing my mind / Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?” sings Jimi Hendrix on “Purple Haze,” the introductory track to his 1967 debut album Are You Experienced? and one of the songs he performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival.

Despite plans for another Monterey International Pop Festival the following year, complaints that the first iteration brought “undesirables,” narcotics, and pornography to the area squashed any chance of a return. Members of the Diggers also lambasted the event, calling it a capitalistic sham because the ticket prices were too high for many Haight-Ashbury residents to afford. The festival was a charity event and nearly all the artists performed for free.

The groovy spectacle in Haight-Ashbury attracted untold members of the media as well as sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. The tour company Gray Line began a sightseeing bus route through Haight-Ashbury, calling it “the only foreign tour in the domestic United States.” Riders were handed pamphlets explaining the hippie slang terms teenie bopper, stoned, trip, and more. Celebrities including the BeatlesGeorge Harrison also visited the Haight-Ashbury scene. His bandmate, Paul McCartney, had snuck into the city in May, before the summer’s festivities, to meet with Jefferson Airplane, smoke DMT, and listen to a test pressing of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—which was essentially the Beatles’ stamp of approval on San Francisco psychedelia. McCartney later served on the board of directors for the Monterey International Pop Festival, alongside Mick Jagger, Smokey Robinson, and others.


“Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain / Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies / Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers / That grow so incredibly high,” sings John Lennon on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fans thought the song was about LSD in light of the acronym made by the first letters of title’s main words; however, Lennon denied this interpretation.

The San Francisco Oracle newspaper, which began in 1966 and ran until 1968, featured iconic visuals and articles dedicated to the counterculture movement. One author for the Oracle, astrology expert Gavin Arthur, sculpted the “free love” ideology from a captivating mix of Eastern psychology and astrological history. Though he was in his mid-60s, Arthur’s open mansion became an orgiastic diorama for hundreds of young people during the summer of 1967.

The hippie tenets of freedom were eventually commodified. Some decried that merchants co-opted hippie symbols to turn a profit, undermining the original message of the movement. For example, the eclectic poster art that became part of the iconography of hippie culture and music could be found for sale throughout Haight-Ashbury. In the case of one particularly beloved poster, outraged hippies stamped “Genuine Counterfeit” on any fakes they could get their hands on. As summer turned to fall, many original hippie idealists, members of the Diggers, and Summer of Love tourists left the unsustainable situation in San Francisco for a commune, a university, a home, or a job.

By October the tide of youths in Haight-Ashbury had receded, and a “Death of the Hippie” march commemorated the end of an unprecedented period in a remarkable location. It also symbolized a rebuff of the media craze that had instilled stereotypes of hippies into the national consciousness over the summer.


In San Francisco the summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love; in other major American cities it was the “long, hot summer.” The United States erupted with unrest and riots as civil rights activists fought for equality. Hippies generally came from white middle-class backgrounds; in their eschewal of the bounty given to them by society, they contrasted with Black Americans who fought to be participants in that same society. There were nearly 160 riots that summer. In July one of the largest riots in American history tore through Detroit: 43 died, 1,189 were injured, and approximately 2,000 buildings were burned or looted. Earlier that month in Newark, New Jersey, five days of rioting had led to 26 dead, more than 700 injured, and entire blocks razed. Chicago, Atlanta, New York City, Boston, and other major urban areas throughout the United States saw riots as well.

Some demonstrations protested the Vietnam War. Throughout October 1967 in Oakland, California, just across the bay from San Francisco, thousands of antiwar protesters surged against police who beat them with clubs and deployed tear gas. Other “teach-ins” and marches were more peaceful.

Back in Haight-Ashbury, the police increased their presence by late 1967, frequently conducting drug raids on homes in the neighborhood; members of the Grateful Dead were arrested for drug possession. With most of the hippies gone, the neighborhood succumbed to the dropouts and drug dealers who stuck around. Somewhere amid the cacophony of Haight-Ashbury in 1967, Charles Manson, freshly released from prison, attracted his first followers. Criminal gangs invaded the former kingdom of peace and love. Homelessness and addiction proliferated. “Free love” became a pretense for rape. Crime rates soared where murder and robbery became commonplace. Drugs would take the lives of some prominent hippies in the years following the decadence of the 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who in 1970 died of drug overdoses within weeks of each other.

In the wake of flower power, 1970s Haight-Ashbury sank under the weight of decadence and degradation; today the neighborhood has bounced back as an upscale area.

The flower children left Haight-Ashbury in social ruin, but the ripples of their far-out subculture, disseminated by the media frenzy surrounding the events of the summer in 1967, still reverberate decades later. Backlash against the hippies’ wide use of psychedelics discouraged serious research into their therapeutic value, especially following the onset of the War on Drugs in 1971; however, by the early 21st century, psychedelics had reentered mainstream medical research. The hippies’ wariness of artificial food products heralded the all-natural food industry; cosmic oneness influenced the environmental movement; and explorations outside the nuclear family structure resulted in a rethinking of gender and sexuality.

The Summer of Love turned the hippies into an enduring American archetype, akin to the cowboys of the Wild West. Renowned San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason was immersed in the music scene of the time and was an integral voice in convincing popular music acts to join the roster of Monterey Pop. He went on to cofound the music magazine Rolling Stone in 1967. Gleason wrote the following in the 1968 Britannica Book of the Year for a “special report” on the flower children:

If the hippies have done nothing else—and if they do nothing else—they have made the rest of us reexamine our lives, look again at what we are doing and why we are doing it. In the process they have challenged all the paradoxes and hypocrisies—as Bill Resner of the Straight Theater put it, “The dichotomy between what we’ve been taught and what’s going on.” This alone is a valuable service to humanity.

Dylan Shulman