A Gathering that Launched the Summer of Love
Adapted by Nicole Meldahl from “The Polo Fields and the Birth of the Rock Festival” written by Arnold Woods for the Western Neighborhoods Project quarterly, SF West History
Fifty years ago today, thousands gathered at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park for the Human Be-In–a happening that launched California counterculture on its path towards the Summer of Love. Organized by San Francisco Oracle co-founders Allen Cohen and Michael Bowen, the event was intended to gather diverse “tribes” from within the San Francisco Bay Area’s counterculture community, but it also caught the attention of curious (straight) locals, who brought their kids to see the fuss, and far-flung travelers. Beat messiahs and an LSD prophet shared the stage with future rock and roll royalty, but why did it happen and what did it all mean? So much more than the organizers could have ever dreamed…
The idea for the Human Be-In emerged from a smaller but similar happening that took place in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park on October 6, 1966. Called the Love Pageant Rally, it was organized by Allen Cohen and Michael Bowen to peacefully mark the day California made LSD illegal with a “celebration of innocence, [the] beauty of the universe…[the] beauty of being.” Between 1,000 and 3,000 people swarmed the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and into the nearby Panhandle where they saw The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring a new young singer named Janis Joplin), and Ken Kesey with his Merry Pranksters on the Further Bus.
At the end of the event, Bowen stood with Cohen on a Panhandle path near Oak and Clayton Streets, and they reveled in their success. Seeing Richard Alpert (later known as spiritual leader Ram Dass) walk by, Bowen yelled “Isn’t this far out? People are sure hungry for some communicating. They love it. It’s a joyous moment. What do you think, Alpert?” He agreed, and Cohen told Bowen he should do it again. “Yeah,” Bowen replied. “But next time, I’ll bet we could get ten times the people.” Cohen then asked Alpert what they should call their next rally, and Alpert said: “It’s a hell of a gathering. It’s just being. Humans being. Being together.”
“Well,” said Bowen, “we’ll just have another rally. Only bigger. And next time we bring all the tribes together;” thus the Human Be-In began to take form. The happening was subtitled “A Gathering of the Tribes” because the organizers planned to bring thousands of people from different movements together, although Bowen later noted his regret for appropriating Native American symbolism in the event’s promotion. Specifically, Cohen was concerned about a philosophical split between the anti-war/free speech movement and psychedelic hippies, and wanted to stage an event to bring the two sides together. In addition to unifying the tribes, Cohen and Bowen wanted to raise awareness for issues gaining momentum within 1960s counterculture–personal empowerment, ecological awareness, and higher consciousness, among others.
As with most large events, there were some early logistical issues for the Human Be-In organizers. Cohen applied for a permit to hold a peace rally in the Polo Fields, but City Hall wasn’t too keen on another big hippie gathering in the park. Luckily, Bowen was able to call on his good friend, renowned attorney Melvin Belli, for help; Belli sent his secretary to City Hall, and easily obtained a permit to hold his birthday party in the Polo Fields. Expecting a celebration for one of the City’s upstanding citizens, San Francisco was totally unaware that hordes of people would soon descend upon Golden Gate Park for a counterculture event unprecedented in scope and size.
As artistic director of The San Francisco Oracle, Bowen created posters for the event–as did rock poster icon and frequent Oracle contributor, Stanley Mouse. The posters promised performances by “all San Francisco’s Rock Bands;” pivotal Beat Generation writers and poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure; LSD advocate Timothy Leary; and social activists like Dick Gregory and Jerry Rubin. Cohen and Bowen publicized the event with a special edition of The Oracle, and attendees were asked to bring flowers, incense, feathers, flags, animals, and musical instruments. Underground press and radio stations around the country also promoted the Be-In, which Bowen conceived as epic performance art to be remembered and imitated in the future.
Humans of the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967 / Photos by Herb Greene, Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project
Planning culminated on January 14, 1967 when throngs of people descended upon the Haight-Ashbury District and Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields for the Human Be-In. It was a beautiful, warm winter day with cloudless skies. Noted rock photographer Herb Greene and his wife walked to the happening, and found the Polo Fields filled with people. Friends with some of the organizers and bands, Greene stayed close to the stage, but he was fascinated with the attendees and spent much of the day taking pictures of people in the crowd.
For one of the largest happenings to ever be held in Golden Gate Park at the time, infrastructure was surprisingly minimal. There was no set program for the Human Be-In; poets recited, activists incited, and musicians excited from a flatbed truck with a gas-generated amplifier that functioned as the makeshift “stage.” Beat poet Gary Snyder got the crowd’s attention with a horn and then he sat cross-legged on stage with Allen Ginsberg, both leading the crowd in Hindu chanting. Ginsberg then played small cymbals while singing a song about peace in America, Vietnam, San Francisco, and other locations around the world. Michael McClure joined them and played an autoharp he had received as a gift from Bob Dylan the year before. Publisher and City Lights bookstore owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, also recited his poetry. Timothy Leary sported flowers in his hair, beads around his neck, and notably encouraged the crowd to “turn on, tune in, drop out”–a call for radical change he had begun espousing the year before.
Beat poets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg on stage at the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967 / Photos by Herb Greene, Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project
Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people assembled in the park 50 years ago today. It was a multi-generational crowd, dominated by young people but also filled with parents and children, anti-war activists, hippies, and elder beatniks–many holding banners or artwork. According to Greene, everybody was smoking weed or dropping acid. The Grateful Dead’s sound engineer and underground chemist, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, produced and distributed large quantities of “White Lightning” LSD. This was done in relative safety since, thinking the event a bucolic birthday celebration, no police were present at the happening. The Hells Angels provided “security,”, handed out refreshments from a station wagon, and, ironically helped return lost children to their parents. In her book about the event, author Helen Perry noted that the Hells Angels were “well-equipped for the task of serving as a clearinghouse for lost and strayed children, since they had walkie-talkies and were well organized.”
And, of course, there was music. Although festivals featuring jazz or blues artists sometimes occurred, there was no precedent for so many rock bands appearing together in the U.S at the time of the Human Be-In. As promised on promotional posters, many notable San Francisco rock bands did perform: Jefferson Airplane covered the Martha & the Vandellas’ hit “Dancing in the Street” with Allen Ginsberg dancing wildly on-stage; Country Joe McDonald joined the psychedelic folk band, The New Age; and Quicksilver Messenger Service played a set. The Grateful Dead performed three cover songs in their usual free-wheeling, jamming style, and were joined onstage by legendary jazz musician Charles Lloyd, who played flute during a rendition of “Morning Dew.” All the bands played for free, and dancers filled the stage while other musicians like Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Doors (who were friends of Michael McClure) and Dizzy Gillespie–in town for their own, separate shows–likely watched from the audience.
Poster and announcements for other local shows the weekend of January 13-14, 1967 / Courtesy of Rock Prosopography 101
In the middle of the day, a parachutist appeared as if from the heavens and touched down in the Polo Fields where he was treated by the crowd like a “latter-day miracle.” Greene believes that Owsley set up the stunt, but never found out if that was true. At the end of the day, the masses were asked to turn toward the setting sun and encouraged to “open their minds” so that all places would turn into a thing of beauty. A speaker told “members of the establishment” that they were happy and proud to have them there in this “brave new world,” and then Ginsberg and Snyder led the crowd in some final chanting. Local resident Dennis O’Rorke remembers a lot of conscientious people who were sensitive to the “leave the park clean” attitude, and, as per the organizers’ request, the attendees did; police later reported that no group of such size had ever before left an area so clean.
The media went wild over the Human Be-In, and the event was covered throughout the country. Greene, who was immersed in San Francisco’s counterculture at the time, believes this event is the moment the movement first realized its strength. The Be-In organizers used the success of the happening to their advantage, but also realized that the huge influx of people descending upon the Haight-Ashbury stressed communal resources and could complicate future events. A group that included The San Francisco Oracle, the Diggers, the Straight Theater, the Family Dog, and other counterculture heavy-hitters formed the Council for the Summer of Love to deal with these issues. The Summer of 1967 was designated the Summer of Love by the Council, which coordinated with various groups and churches to ensure that there would be housing and food for the impending youthful invasion of participants. These efforts assisted groups like the newly opened Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which provided medical care for the masses. It was a magical time period, as Greene remembered, and San Francisco became the undisputed focal point of the 1960s revolution.
Long-time San Francisco Chronicle music columnist and future Rolling Stone co-founder, Ralph Gleason, wrote that the Human Be-In was “an affirmation, not a protest … a promise of good, not evil. This is truly something new.” Emulative events were soon staged across the country, with Be-Ins in Los Angeles and La Jolla in March 1967, Boston in April 1967, Denver in September 1967, and Atlantic City in December 1967. Even some non-traditional hippie areas like Moscow, Idaho, and Fayetteville, Arkansas (both college towns) had small Human Be-Ins. They caught on abroad as well; in April 1967, London held a Free Speech Human Be-In as a benefit to save a favored underground newspaper, International Times. Some began calling any gathering of hippies a Be-In, much like every political scandal was referred to with a “gate” suffix following Watergate. There was a “Yip-In” in New York, a “Love-In” in Malibu, and a “Bed-In” in Amsterdam. A year after later, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which frequently featured politically conscious humor and satire, debuted on television. In was in.
The Human Be-In’s musical precedent was also quickly emulated. In June 1967, Mount Tamalpais in Marin County played host to the KFRC Fantasy Fair & Magic Mountain Music Festival featuring The Doors, Canned Heat, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller Band, Country Joe and the Fish, and many other rock bands. A week later, the first and only Monterey Pop Festival took place, which notably showcased Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas, and, once again, Jefferson Airplane. These shows, considered the first true rock festivals in the United States, could not have happened without Golden Gate Park’s Human Be-In. Aside from these happenings, the Be-In influenced James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who were then developing “Hair,” a pioneer rock musical that opened off-Broadway in October 1967.
The Human Be-In was the start of a beautiful year in San Francisco, one that changed the trajectory of our nation, and today we mark its 50th anniversary at the dawn of a new era.
The launch of this website by the California Historical Society, in partnership with San Francisco Travel, also begins a coordinated commemoration of the transformative Summer of 1967; this will feature major exhibitions at the region’s top museums, special events, and concerts looking back at the Summer of Love and what that period meant, then and now. We at the Western Neighborhoods Project will highlight local perspectives on how the summer that changed everything changed San Francisco as well, offering walking tours, interpretive displays at San Francisco History Days, and more.
As we enter a politically unsure time, the 1960s have never been more relevant and we have never had more to learn. California represented the conscience of America in 1967 and continues to do so today, promoting peace, love, equality, and dialogue. As Allen Cohen remembered: “Our dream of peace, love and community never died. We, as human beings, yearn for the dream of the Sixties, and despite many disappointments and failures, our dream…will live forever.” Here’s to building the dream together in 2017.
HERB GREENE – Rock Photographer
Herb Greene was at the forefront of rock photography in the 1960s. As part of San Francisco’s counterculture movement, Greene became friends with many of San Francisco’s nascent rock bands and began chronicling them with his camera. His work features photographs, among others, of Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart, the Pointer Sisters, Sly Stone, and, most notably, the Grateful Dead. Greene is considered to be the official photographer of the Grateful Dead and he has released two books of Dead photos, The Book of the Dead and Dead Days: A Grateful Dead Illustrated History. His photos are on the cover of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album and two Grateful Dead albums, In The Dark and Dylan & the Dead. Some of Greene’s photographs can be seen on his website: http://www.herbgreenefoto.com/
WESTERN NEIGHBORHOODS PROJECT – Local History Nonprofit
The Western Neighborhoods Project is a nonprofit organization formed in 1999 to preserve and interpret the history and culture of San Francisco’s west side.
Sources not hyperlinked in text:
- About the Human Be-In by Allen Cohen
- Permit Story for Human Be-In by Michael Bowen, San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 25, 2007
- The Human Be-In by Helen Perry, 1970
- January 13-14-15, 1967 San Francisco–Rock Weekend in Rock Prosopography 101, December 18, 2009
- “Recounted in Suddenly Last Summer” by Sheila Weller in Vanity Fair, July 2012