January 14, 2007 was the 40th anniversary of the great Gathering of all Tribes for a Human Be-In at the Polo Grounds in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
I was teaching English at Fresno State College on January 14, 1967 that year, 33 years old, married six years to my second wife Shirley, living in a basement flat at 903 Ashbury Street, a couple of blocks from an intersection that had recently become known all over the world. A lot of people were dying in Vietnam that Saturday morning when we left the apartment and walked down the hill to Haight Street, but there were no helicopters above the trees that framed what was known locally as the panhandle of the park. It was a bright, warm, sunny day and people were all heading in the same direction. We turned the corner, glanced into Ron Thelin’s Psychedelic Shop, and fell in step with the crowd of costumed people on their way to what was anticipated as the greatest happening yet. The Be-In was announced in the Berkeley Barb and other underground papers, notably the San Francisco Oracle, and there were flyers and posters in the windows of numerous magazines and head shops listing the celebrities and performers who would be present to entertain the community.
Tim Leary would be there. Leary, a Harvard psychologist, had been going around the country lecturing on the wonders of LSD, telling his audiences to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Problem was, the majority who followed Dr. Leary’s prescription for expanding consciousness were teenage runaways who had never dropped in, kids who had no work experience. For them, the appeal of psychedelic drugs was purely hedonistic. While an educated psychologist and Harvard teacher like Leary might use psychedelic drugs to explore the parameters of his own consciousness and enhance his writing ability, the average teenager dropped acid to get high. He blows his mind, that barely formed repository of parental and society rules of behavior, and once acid had helped rid him/her of Establishment restraints, he was ready for colorful trips into inner space, not to mention technicolor orgasms and an instant understanding of the lyrics of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and Positively Fourth Street.
Acid was passed around as casually by local teenagers as it had been by CIA agents attached to MK-ULTRA a few years earlier. Yes, though we didn’t know it in 1967, Johnny Acidseed actually worked for the CIA, seeding the unsuspecting populace with LSD in hopes it would prove to be an effective crowd control substance. Didn’t work that way, naturally, and it was so easy to make that it quickly circulated among the hip population as the ultimate high. Acid did, however, work quite well as an antidote to activism. Turn on by dropping acid, tune in to your inner self, and drop out of external social games, including organizing against an illegal, undeclared war. Hippies or Heads were never in phase with activists, though after a year or so they might appear similar because of their long hair and beards. While the activists, defamed as “militant students” by a corrupt establishment press, held meetings and organized marches and demonstrations, acidheads got high, listened to rock music, turned singers and lyricists into prophets, had unsafe sex as often as possible, and rejected the parental generation as “unhip,” “straight,” “uncool,” “out of it,” and, generally, “the brainwashed victims of the establishment.”
Those parents were, naturally, in a state of despair and bewilderment, because they could not understand what had happened to their children so suddenly. Religious Catholics could not understand why their children should reject their religion out of the blue only to join Eastern religions like Krishna Consciousness which had even more rigid codes of behavior. The middle class in general could not understand why their children turned against all the material things they had (except their stereos) and went to live in squalor. To the parents, the Rolling Stones were history’s worst roll models, encouraging their children to look like savages and talk worse, but the kids loved the Stones and listened to their albums for hours. The Stones played erotic music to ball by and parents did not like to think that their children were anything but virgins.
Drug rap was epidemic. No one could escape it. The younger people were pressured at every turn to experiment with psychedelic drugs. Nearly everyone I know from college was dropping acid and talking about their trips and I could not get through a single conversation with a couple of my best friends without hearing about someone who had just gotten back from Taos where they made the rounds of the communes and ate peyote buttons and had visions like those written about by Carlos Castenada in his books. I had to listen to long raps about a psych prof up in Sonoma County who was leading his students through “some groovy pscilocybin trips.”
“Hey, man, you read Burroughs’ book about Yage? He got it from a real Shaman. That’s for me, man.”
“Oh, wow, whatta trip!”
Though my wife and I were never into drugs, we soon found that everyone we knew, including some of our straightest friends, now teachers and social workers like ourselves, were smoking marijuana fairly regularly and dropping acid on the weekends. Shirley and I were going through a period of monogamy and we were surprised to find that some of our friends had been to meetings of groups like the Sexual Freedom League and talked openly about having had group sex down at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Stories and articles about drugs and sex trips were common. People often wrote journals of their LSD experiences and published them. Peter Fonda made several drug movies. The Trip was a dud, but Easy Rider drew a cultic audience. Acid became a fad, a craze, and when celebrities like The Beatles, the Stones, Allen Ginsberg or Cary Grant dropped acid it was a media event covered by all the papers and tabloids. The establishment press went nuts covering the antics and pranks of folks like Neal Cassidy, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Jerry Rubin. Fashion spies copied all the externals of hipness and capitalism assimilated, packaged and resold it all as fast as possible. Polyester people in the suburbs were soon wearing bell-bottomed slacks, body shirts, “granny” glasses, and FRODO LIVES buttons. Their teenagers had acid rock posters on the walls of their bedrooms and went around saying “far out” and “groovy” as they considered the parents who bought them all that crap to be “uptight.” Those near enough ran away to San Francisco for a weekend, while others who hitched back to their homes in the midwest tossed marijuana seeds out the windows. Before long, marijuana was growing wild along the highways of Nebraska and Iowa and the highway patrol was busting hippie busses that stopped to harvest a bit on their way through. That grass was polluted with malathion and other pesticides just like everything else in Nebraska, but the hippies never seemed to think of that when they saw those familiar leaves.
All of us had read Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and anything Kesey did was fascinating to us. We followed his travels, went to hear him talk at the Experimental College at San Francisco State, loved the way he trashed the establishment, admired the way he outwitted the FBI by putting on a blue suit and tie and going down to the financial district. Kesey wore a gold space suit at his Trips Festival in 1965, and they were probably looking for that gold suit.
Allen Ginsberg got into his Hindu trip after his stay in India, and drove his American audiences nuts chanting mantras, but that didn’t change the way many of us felt about him. Allen bridged the gap between hippie and activist as well as that between gay and straight. He was present at the marches and he spoke at political events and he was never wishy-washy about anything. His critique of modern capitalism is devastating and “Howl” is as valid today as it was in the mid-50s when he wrote it.
They were all present at the Human Be-In, all the icons of hip, the psychedelic pioneers, the performers, and the way you see them or remember them depends on where and who you were at the time. If you were a parent whose daughter or son was somewhere in Haight-Ashbury and you didn’t know where they were or what they were doing, it is unlikely you think well of those who might have played a part in luring them there. I’ve talked to people who consider Tim Leary worse than Simon Legree and hate his guts, people who cheered when he died on the internet. I’ve always considered this a bit strange because there were so many other people promoting psychedelic drugs at the time that it seems a little unusual to act as though Leary were the ultimate villain.
I’ve yet to hear anyone say anything negative about Ken Kesey and I heard Ken personally promoting acid more times than I can remember. His acid parties down in Woodside are legend. taking acid was practically a rite of passage during the mid-60s in Haight-Ashbury and there were few who could resist. Even if you did, you were likely to be spiked and sent on an unexpected trip. I never took acid and I was at parties when just about everyone was stoned but me.
I went on only two trips and both were spikes. The first was at Mike Corrigan’s wedding reception. Someone thought it was cute to lace the frosting on his wedding cake with acid. I started seeing colors and my vision shifted while I was driving across the hills to my apartment on Noe Street. I knew enough about the drug to know what was happening, but I could have been killed just the same. There were many people who considered it their duty to try to turn other people on to acid in 1967 with or against their consent. After that cake experience I was careful about what I ate or drank at someone else’s house, no matter how well I knew them.
The Human Be-In in 1967 was an important event in my life. For the first time I realized how many people were involved in what everyone felt was a movement toward a new lifestyle, toward retribalization. When we reached the Polo Grounds (where Rugby is played now), there were people covering almost every inch of space. I had never seen so many people in one place in my life. We made our way toward the stage, stepping over blankets and people tanning themselves. Tim Leary was talking to some people behind the stage. Allen Ginsberg was nearby. Both wore East Indian clothing. Jerry Rubin wore the uniform of a soldier of the Revolutionary war. Lenore Kandel was there. Her “Love Book” had been called obscene and she had been through a trial over it. I saw her on-stage with Ginsberg and Leary later in the day.
I saw Ken Kesey’s bus in the distance, some Harleys guarded by Hell’s Angels, a lot of varied costumes, and a few members of Sopwith Camel waiting to take the stage. Marty Balin and Jerry Garcia were sitting against the tires of a vehicle, passing a joint back and forth. Paul Kantner was nearby tuning his guitar. Jorma Kaukonen was there, but I didn’t see Grace Slick. Many of the band members lived on Ashbury Street and we often saw them during the day. I was headed down to the Haight the day Jack Cassidy drove up in his new red Mustang. It was a day of poetry and music and general celebration and the political people kept their lines to a minimum.
When the music started people got up and danced and it was easily the biggest dance on earth to that point. It would be upstaged in 1968 by Woodstock and in 1969 by Altamont, and I’m sure the crowds would have continued to get larger and larger if certain promoters could have figured out a way to do it. There was a group trying for a Be-In in Grand Canyon and after People’s Park in April and May of 1969 there were people promoting Earth People’s Park. I dunno.
How many of you would like to go to a party to be attended by, say, five billion people?