A Meatfeast took place in the Haight Ashbury on Thanksgiving Day 1966. Steve Leiper attended the event, which was held at the Page Street storefront of The Diggers. These actor-activists, as many here know, had broken off from RG Davis’s San Francisco Mime Troupe. They had taken up the name of millenarian Protestant English radicals from the 17th century and become leaders in the neighborhood that was just beginning to garner attention as a new home for bohemian hipness and anti-conformity against mainstream postwar American life.[i] In an article published in The Oracle, just into its fourth issue as the underground newspaper for the Haight, Leiper described two rooms at the Meatfeast, a front room and a back one. Fifty years later, the two rooms might serve as a metaphor for beginning to make sense of the Summer of Love phenomenon as a whole.[ii]
The front room, as Leiper described it, was “filling up with beautiful people, full of smiles and amazement”; they “flowed around and through themselves, happy, grooving, eating, smiling, turned on, digging each other and what was happening.” As “food was brought out from the back room,” there were, Leiper noted, “slabs of roasted meat, pieces of chicken, loose-leafed lettuce, sprouts of Brussels, globs of sweet potato, chunks of baked taters, nuts, candy, tobacco.” To Leiper, “there was more than enough for all in this slow, writhing meat feast/dance.” It was impossible, he remarked, “not to feel the spirit, to partake in it, to add to it. Whatta gas!”
But then Leiper stepped into the back room, where he found “a totally different spirit…a dark one….I felt I had intruded.” Five or six of the Diggers stood there, as Leiper, in his words, “took in the ooze of garbage, a collage of chicken bones, vegetable matter and flesh on the floor, extending up to the walls, a solid layer of mire.” He felt that “the vibrations and visual scene took me to the flipside of what I had felt in the outer room, and to the brink of cosmic horror.”
These rooms—out front, the public storefront of cosmic joy, a place of sustenance, abundance, plenitude, ease, discovery, good vibrations (as the phrase went), community, peace, pleasure; within, a darker, more ominous space within strewn with carcasses, blood, rot, mire, death, and bad vibes—remind us of that the Summer of Love as it emerged in San Francisco and around the world some fifty years ago was always a potent mix of oppositions—a combination of the two.
The Summer of Love was a complex intersection of play and work, innocence and experience, light and darkness, peace and war, community and commerce, sobriety and debauchery, disciplined action and passive spectacle, harmony and dissonance, the global and the local, the religious and the secular, the otherworldly and the quotidian, the weird and the conventional, politics and culture, life and death. Stay in one room, enjoying the cosmic joke of the Digger Meatfeast, and you miss the doorway that connected it to the other room, “on the brink of cosmic horror.” Linger on the bad vibes alone and you miss the powerful politics that emerged in the party of seemingly spontaneous ecstasy and joy.
Perhaps we might understand the micro and macrocosmic oscillations that defined the Summer of Love a good example of what happens when people embrace the pursuit of “hot fun in the summertime,” as Bay Area rock and soul superstars Sly and the Family Stone called it in their fabulous, instant-nostalgia hit of 1969.[iii] Hot fun, as Sly slyly labeled it, was the heady combination of entrancing Little Richard rock and roll piano boogie-woogie triplets with something more artsy, avant-garde, and savvy, like a startling chord change from a basic C to an A-flat-major. It was the mix of voices male and female, low and high—a commitment to the ensemble, but with each individual also finding a way to shine in her or his own way. It was tension and release. Hot fun was what Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart would later refer to as “serious fun,” which he and others in the Summer of Love valued above all else.[iv] They possessed an abiding curiosity about —a passion for—discovering whether pleasure might provide a path to social change, whether fun, if done right, might be transformative. Revolution for the hell of it, as Yippie Abbie Hoffman would eventually declare, much of his approach and style in fact lifted wholesale from the San Francisco Diggers.[v]
Here was a very different sort of take on party politics. But critics often make the mistake of overlooking the work it took to generate the heat of hot fun. A Digger Meatfeast on Thanksgiving was, as Steve Leiper perceived when he entered the backroom of the Digger Store, no free lunch. Yet, as he was quick to notice, it also could produce tremendous delights—and just as importantly, important insights. The labor necessary for creating the conditions for hot fun, serious fun, fun with a purpose, was essential to the Summer of Love’s ethos of honoring the impulsive.
With the cosmos seeming to arrive at a previously nondescript neighborhood street corner in San Francisco by 1967, and participants referring to the City by the Bay as the new Mecca of an international youth movement—and so too because this was a milieu in which fun was paradoxically taken seriously, pleasure understood to be a pathway to powerful transformations—the Summer of Love phenomenon remains disorienting for historians. Part of this is precisely because it defies the scales at which we typically historicize the past.
By the spring of 1967, the members of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, a group that predated the arrival of the Summer of Love, noticed this, writing in a Statement of Concern that the Haight Ashbury had become, in their words, “a state of mind as well as a geographical area.”[vi] Richard Alpert, soon to become Ram Dass, noticed the combination of microcosmic and macrocosmic elements as well. The neighborhood was to him, “as far as I can see, the purest reflection of what is happening in consciousness.”[vii] Rather than a stable middle ground of forces, the Summer of Love as it intensified in the Haight Ashbury possessed a more disorienting, one might say psychedelic, relationship between the immediately local and the distantly global or celestial levels. If anything, the Summer of Love might best be understood as an effort to reorient perception, understanding, and (to use that word from the time) consciousness, of the interplay between the intimate, private, even the infinitesimal, and the grand, publicly minded, and world-historical. One pill makes you smaller and the other makes you tall.
For participants, these seemingly wild oscillations of scale between the micro and macrocosmic were far better than what previously existed, when the pill that mother gave you didn’t do anything at all.[viii] Perhaps it is best, then, to consider the Summer of Love through this framework of the microcosmic and macrocosmic, glimpsing how, most of all, the two kaleidoscopically shot through each other like so many swirling streams of liquid at a psychedelic light show.
Michael J. Kramer (Ph.D. University of North Carolina, 2006), Visiting Assistant Professor, Northwestern University, is a historian, writer, critic, teacher, dramaturg, and editor. His book, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013
[i] For more on The Diggers, see Michael William Doyle, “The Haight-Ashbury Diggers and the Cultural Politics of Utopia, 1965-1968” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1997); Dominick Cavallo, “‘It’s Free Because It’s Yours: The Diggers and the San Francisco Scene, 1964-1968” in A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 97-188; Bradford Martin, “The Diggers: Politicizing the Counterculture,” in The Theater Is In The Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 86-124; and the wonderful resources of The Diggers Archive, http://www.diggers.org. On the San Francisco Mime Troupe, see RG Davis, The San Francisco Mime Troupe: The First Ten Years (Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts Press, 1975); Claudia Orenstein, Festive Revolutions: The Politics of Popular Theater and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1998); and Susan Vaneta Mason, ed., The San Francisco Mime Troupe Reader (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).
[ii] Steve Leiper, “At the Handle of the Kettle,” The San Francisco Oracle 4 (December 1966), reprinted in Allen Cohen, ed., The San Francisco Oracle Facsimile Edition/CD-Rom (Berkeley: Regent Press, 1991), 71.
[iii] Sly and the Family Stone, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (Epic 5-10497, released as a single in August 1969).
[iv] “Serious fun is what the Grateful Dead is up”—Mickey Hart, quoted in David Gans and Peter Simon, Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), back cover.
[v] Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It (New York: Dial Press, 1968). For The Diggers’ influence on Hoffman, see Jonah Raskin, For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 100-128.
[vi] Reprinted in a Communications Company leaflet, March 1967, http://www.diggers.org/Communication-Company-Archives/Chester_Anderson_Papers_BL_Folder_03_March_1967/index.html.
[vii] “EES Setisoppo [See Opposites] with Dick Alpert,” interview reprinted in Allen Cohen, ed., The San Francisco Oracle Facsimile Edition/CD-Rom (Berkeley: Regent Press, 1991), 91.
[viii] Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit,” Surrealistic Pillow (RCA Victor LPM-3766, released February 1967).