Time marches on, from commemoration of one momentous 1960s cultural touchstone remembered fondly by baby boomers to the next. A big one that represents the flower-power counterculture in full bloom is now upon us: the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.
Never mind the calendar. The Summer of Love was an idea born at the first Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967. On the bill: Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and a whole lot of Owsley Stanley’s acid.
Five months later, The Beatles gave birth to the pioneering opus that’s long been recognized as the psychedelic era’s creative zenith: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which naturally means that the album long regarded as the greatest of the band’s masterworks — now more commonly (and correctly) ranked below both 1965's Rubber Soul and 1966's Revolver — is getting a plush 50th-anniversary release.
Due on May 26 are single-, double-, and 6-CD versions of Sgt. Pepper, the latter boxed set containing unreleased tracks from the more than 400 hours of sessions in Abbey Road’s Studio 2. Speaking of Abbey Road, in a pinch I’d personally take that, The White Album, and Help! over Pepper. Though maybe that’s because the rococo Pepper arrangements are too familiar. I’ve heard “With a Little Help From My Friends” too many times.
We come neither to bury nor praise Sgt. Pepper, however, but to consider its cultural moment, and how it relates to our own. Pepper is just one of a series of landmark releases from 1967. Some come out of the psychedelic playbook: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, Love’s Forever Changes, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced. Others followed their own path: The Velvet Underground & Nico, Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, The Kinks’ Something Else, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and the great Philadelphia soul man Howard Tate’s overlooked-at-the-time Get It While You Can.
What a year! The Summer of Love also gave birth to the rock festival as we know it. Monterey Pop was a breakthrough for Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding, who called the longhairs in his new white fan base “the love crowd.” This year, the Monterey Pop brand is being revived in California from June 16 to 18 with a bill including Philly-bred acts Kurt Vile, Dr. Dog, and Langhorne Slim. And for those without a travel budget, there’s a tribute at the Ardmore Music Hall — known as Ardmore Pop — on June 16, with locals including Ali Wadsworth as Joplin, Johnny Showcase as Redding, and Zack Djanikian as Simon & Garfunkel.
Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” lured pilgrims, and the lysergic message came back east. In Philadelphia, psych rock shows happened at two venues on the 2200 block of Arch Street, first at the Trauma (where Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention played on New Year’s Eve) and then at the original Electric Factory. By 1968, there were Be-Ins on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park, with bands like Elizabeth, Edison Electric Band, and the American Dream.
Monterey Pop became the festival model. It had its generational apotheosis at Woodstock two years later, and just months after that, the idyllic concept of “the Sixties” died along with four concertgoers at the Rolling Stones' free show at Altamont Speedway.
That Summer of Love festival model has been reborn with a corporate-branded vengeance this millennium, as music fests have become annual rites of passage for fans and an essential money-making circuit for artists with no other way to get paid given the collapse of record sales. They’re here, there, and everywhere, from the Firefly fest coming up in June in Delaware to Budweiser Made in America on the Ben Franklin Parkway on Labor Day weekend.
The sense of the modern music fest as a playground of the privileged — Coachella bros gone berserk in the VIP area — has a new symbol in the Fyre Festival. Last month’s Ja Rule-hosted soiree was pitched as a frolic with jet-skiing supermodels on a Caribbean island once owned by Pablo Escobar. Instead, concertgoers who forked over a $1,500 minimum were greeted by disaster-relief tents, no plumbing, and no festival. There’s your 1967 to 2017 comparison. Which do you prefer: The Doors' “Light My Fire” and Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at Monterey? Or the Fyre Festival?
Of course, the idea that the Summer of Love happened at a simpler, happier time than our own nasty, contentious one is itself simplified. It wasn’t all “Sunshine of Your Love.” Riots broke out in Detroit and other northern cities in 1967. (The Philadelphia riots on Columbia Avenue happened three years earlier). Four days after Sgt. Pepper came out, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War erupted.
The entire “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out” movement went hand in hand with drugs. (“Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,” Paul McCartney sang on “A Day in the Life” and got banned by the BBC.) But the real don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 generational battle was being fought over opposition to the Vietnam War.
Hippies were easily mocked as spoiled middle-class kids who refused to get with the conformist program. There’s a CBS News special accessible on YouTube called "The Hippie Temptation" from that summer with newsman Harry Reasoner featuring an interview with the Grateful Dead that’s Reefer Madness-worthy in its contempt for its subjects, who are treated like selfish children who refuse to grow up. Two years later, Merle Haggard had his biggest hit by speaking to Richard Nixon's Silent Majority with the tongue-in-cheek “Okie from Muskogee,” declaring, “We don’t make a party out of lovin’; the hippies out in San Francisco do.”
The innocence in the culture even as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating the year before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were shot is best epitomized by another Beatles song that wasn’t on Sgt. Pepper. “All You Need Is Love” was written for Our World, a live international satellite telecast that was the most-watched show in history at the time.
John Lennon, who plays banjo and harpsichord on the track, tailored the song to the global audience. “I’m a revolutionary artist,” he later said. “My art is dedicated to change.” “Love” marked the flowering of an idealism Lennon would return to in his 1970s solo career with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Mind Games,” and “Imagine.”
Listening to “All You Need Is Love” today, the immediate impression is: Right, another great Beatles song. But it’s also hard not to hear its pacifist utopianism — criticized at the time by activists who wanted the biggest band in the world to play a larger role in the “Revolution” — as naive, a quaint and dated relic of a fleeting utopianism.
Is love really all you need? It certainly doesn’t seem so these days. In last year’s presidential election, the “Love Trumps Hate” slogan played for the losing side. A signature headline of the fiercely divided country in these early days of the Trump presidency, from last month’s New York Times, reads like this: “How the Left Learned to Hate Like the Right.”
I don’t mean to denigrate the Summer of Love. Sounds like it must have been a blast, and as we look back on its communal, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along positivity, it mainly seems sad, if not tragic, that the open-hearted optimism and sense of possibility now seems so impossibly distant from our fraught, bitterly oppositional everybody-yelling-at-each-other-on-social-media times. Here’s hoping that 50 years from now, they're not remembering 2017 as the Summer of Hate.