SUMMER OF LOVE REDUX, All Over Again
by John Pietaro
San Francisco, June 1967 (Mercury News)
This piece, a combined essay, recollection and review, was composed in late June, 2007, as the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love had moved into public consciousness. I intended it as a piece for “Z”, a magazine I’d frequently been writing for at the time, but it was left unpublished until three years later when I established my blog The Cultural Worker and included this article within it’s archive. Somehow, with the passing of a decade and so much attention thrust upon the half-century mark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as well as that summer in question and its West Coast festival, my thoughts drifted back to this piece.
A bit of dusting is all it took, and upon reading it in light of the nightmare going on in the White House right now, I almost found myself a bit nostalgic for the Bush years. Almost.
In the wake of late 1960s’ mass uprisings, it’s clear that we can do a lot better than George W’s—or LBJ’s--mindless guffaws. But considering the crushing blows that civil rights, women’s rights, workers, the environment and TRUTH have taken in just a few miserable Trumpian months, reaching back to a time of relentless activism as a means of inspiration can only do us a hell of a lot of good. We cannot just flash the peace sign, we must believe it. Liberation must cease to be a concept and once again take on the role of tactic. And when we speak of taking the streets, we’d better mean that we are taking them back. There’s something happening here and it is frighteningly clear.
So, onto my now 10 year old article on the happenings of 1967, ‘Summer of Love Redux’ and take a few moments to consider how far we’ve both come and fallen.
Hey, so it’s been forty years since the Summer of Love. Wasn’t that a time? An illegal war coming to a raging boil, hatred of the US in many parts of the world, an ignorant lame duck southern president flailing about the White House, and of course rising popular unrest. I read the news today, oh boy, and its déjà vu all over again.
But there’s more: how about the struggle against racism? Though the Voting Rights Act passed the year following the Summer of Love (natch), Americans can still be counted on to seek out blame in other. Oh, and the environment has also made a return. And Labor struggles are coming back, too, but now instead of workers throwing bricks at anti-war protestors, they’re often joining up with them---if this radicalism keeps up, we may grow back the union teeth we lost during the Cold War. Corporate America envisioned world domination during the 1960s and now of course there’s Wal-Mart. And while abortion is not currently illegal, given the climate, who knows how long that may be the case. Still, peace marches go on with earnest tenacity. And I Spy mentality is running rampant, but this time focusing on everyone instead of just the Commies. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is reading my email. This may not exactly be COINTELPRO, but it nearly makes me feel nostalgic for it.
Speaking of nostalgia, what about the music of 1967? This summer marked the middle age, if you will, of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as well as the debut albums of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Velvet Underground, Donavan, Taj Mahal, Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees, the Buffalo Springfield, Procol Harum, Ten Years After, and the Doors. The Stones released “Their Satanic Majesties Request”. Traffic gave us “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. The Moody Blues took over the symphony orchestra and brought forth “Days of Future Past”. The Beatles also released the singles “All You Need is Love” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” shortly beforehand, offering both a theme to the summer’s proceedings as well as a backdrop for general tripping. All this while Aretha’s 45 RPM “Respect” was burning up the airwaves. Our pocket radios would never recover.
And while ’67 also saw Brian Wilson walk out of the studio before he could finish his legendary masterwork, “Smile”, that year marked a change in popular music that would not be reversed—until we were force-fed daily Britney Spears reports on cable news shows. But I digress. Dylan began experimenting with the power of roots music in a Woodstock basement with the Band. His “John Wesley Harding” hit record stores later that year, as did the Band’s “Music from Big Pink”. And “Alice’s Restaurant” established the career of Arlo Guthrie, son of the man who made Dylan possible. All this while Dylan cohort Phil Ochs expanded his own palette by releasing “Pleasures of the Harbor”, an expansionist view of folk so different than “going electric”. This year also saw the coming of Ochs’ friend Victor Jara, the Chilean protest singer; neither Ochs nor Jara would survive the 70s or revel in the nostalgia. Neither would Otis Redding ---he was deeply relevant, making the scene in both R & B and rock venues and penning classics that do not allow for stylistic boundaries. Likewise, in ‘67 Sly and the Family Stone were preparing for their first album, offering a fusion of everything—but now it all had groove. Ooooh, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Nuff said. And Blood Sweat and Tears were in rehearsal, as was an earlier version of Chicago, then called The Big Thing, forging the jazz-rock that screamed needles off of turn-tables.
The Electric Flag throbbed with the same vibe—edgy brass and woods laying it down for harrowing electric guitar solos--though from a more Blues-based approach. But then John Coltrane blew them all away with his “Live at the Village Vanguard Again”; jazz-rock couldn’t stand up to this. And Miles’s “Nefertiti” drove the point home. “Disraeli Gears” by Cream then took the Blues and turned them inside out, but Janis Joplin reclaimed the music, adding a southern authenticity forged through guttural overdrive. Primal scream therapy coming through your hi-fi.
Love beads may have lost some of their impact, but, shit, that was some great music. Recently we saw the 40th anniversary of Scott McKenzie’s hit “If You’re Going to San Francisco”, which had actually brought so many wannabes to Haight-Ashbury that most of the originals, like the Diggers and Dead, needed to consider moving on before long. But who could think of that detail, as the anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival is all the rage? Here was the original benefit concert; a professionally organized be-in that featured some of the very best that rock and pop had to offer. Allen Ginsberg’s vision of an amorphous body of social change had been realized, for the better or worse.
The newly released fortieth anniversary edition CD makes full use of today’s technology (extra tracks and all re-mastered) while reminding us of exactly how we got here. The selections scorch their way through your speakers when they are not offering an ethereal, almost escapist means for us to relax. Hendrix, Joplin (with Big Brother), the Airplane, Mamas and the Papas, Butterfield, Simon and Garfunkel, Otis, the Flag, the Byrds, the Who! There’s Ravi Shankar’s mastery and Hugh Masakela’s multi-culti sounds. The usually mellow Association is actually kicking, while Booker T grooved us to death.
This event, and the anniversary disc, demonstrate the power of song in a period of societal transition. Monterey gets overlooked in light of Woodstock, but its time to recognize the foundation the former laid for the latter’s realization of the youth movement. The musicians may not have always known it, but that summer they were singing the soundtrack to a painful, vital graduation.
-John Pietaro is a writer and musician from New York