When Counterculture Went Pop

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An overview of the "hippie" movement in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Includes important figures such as Timothy Leary, Mario Savio, Janis Joplin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Alan Ginsberg.

Text of When Counterculture Went Pop

  • 1. When Counterculture Went Pop The Human Be-In and Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco 1967 Brett Ruffenach 1201748370 30 April, 2012

2. The election of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1960 served as a milestone for a new generation. Filled with charisma, intellect, and a type of pragmatic political rhetoric that caught the ears and imagination of young people around the country, President Kennedy served as a beacon of hope for the future of the United States. For the young, Helen Swick Perry notes in her book The Human Be-In, President Kennedy was the earliest classic example of someone at the highest level telling it like it is.1 As the first president born in the 20th century, Kennedy clearly understood the magnitude of the moment when he stated in his inaugural address that the torch has been passed to a new generations of Americansunwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed,2 President Kennedy wanted to galvanize the youth of America to act for a better tomorrow. Most notable of those who saw President Kennedy as the first to tell it like it is were the politically active intellectuals of elite higher learning institutions throughout the country the best and brightest of their generation. These students, inspired by Kennedys message, began to work with political associations in an effort to create change both locally and nationally. Among the most effective of these organizations was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was a product of the larger American Civil Rights Movement. SNCC began to have significant success in civil rights efforts throughout the south and ultimately attracted like-minded college students from across the country. Among these was Mario Savio, a Berkeley student who, after spending a summer organizing political activities with SNCC in 1Perry, Helen Swick. 1970. The Human Be-In. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 43.2Kennedy, John F. "Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961." John F Kennedy Presidential Library andMuseum, http://tinyurl.com/c3bv3jn (accessed April 23, 2012). 3. Mississippi in 1964, brought his newfound political activism back to his own college campus in California. Savio and his fellow students began to speak out against the Berkeley administration with accusations that they were treating their students as objects on an assembly line rather than human beings. This newfound consciousness and activism ultimately led the university, in an attempt to quell the growing sense of unrest, to ban the distribution of all political materials on the university campus. This only further motivated Savio and his fellow students to be heard. Savio went on to lead the Free Speech Movement, a protest effort on the Berkeley campus that aimed to reverse the limits of free speech imposed by the University.3 Consistent with other on campus civil rights efforts across the country, the Free Speech Movement illustrated the consciousness developed amongst college students in the late 1960s. Having grown up in the prosperity of post-WWII United States, the move to a college campus found many students shocked and saddened upon exposure to racial strife domestically and a misguided war effort internationally. This led thousands to reconsider their lives and the implications of a commercialized American life. For many of these students the first choice was to act and attempt to change the system. But this idealist mindset soon ran into harsh political reality. Activist students experienced violence and even death during their time volunteering for SNCC. In addition, resistance from the Democratic Party in adopting their proposals on the national level, and continual oppression by the Republican Party to stop their 3Chafe, William Henry. The Unfinished Journey: America since World War II. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 310. 4. various protests and demonstrations made meaningful political in-roads all but impossible. In 1964, many new young activists were disheartened. By 1966, after the escalation of American forces in Vietnam and combined with the recent Republican victory of control over the Senate in the Midterm elections, these young individuals found themselves disillusioned, disheartened, and disengaged by the entire American political process. To many students, the only choice that seemed available was to step outside of the establishment and rebel from mainstream society. The disenfranchised students decided that maybe it would be best to follow the expression coined by Marshall McLuhan and ultimately made famous by Timothy Leary; turn on, tune in, drop out. It became the battle cry for a new alternative: If the establishment refused to be reformed, give up on it.4 Fortunately, at the very same time, a new culture was developing just across the bay, which presented these disillusioned students with opportunity to indeed drop out. With a similar mindset to those at Berkeley, many young people in San Francisco in 1966 looked at the mainstream culture of the United States, a society that they saw entrenched in the middle-class opiates of television sit-coms, swimming pools, and alcohol,5 and decided that this not only was something that they did not want to associate with, but also something that was literally harmful to their mental health. These people looked at the grey-flannel suited, married-with-children middle class American population and chose to create their own culture; a culture counter to those of mainstream society. While this counterculture was born out of many smaller reactionary movements in San Francisco and other parts of the 4Perry, Helen Swick. The Human Be-In. 495Greene, John Robert. 2010. America in the Sixties. Syracuse, NY, USA: Syracuse University Press. 139. 5. country, it fully bloomed in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, where it gained full momentum in the summer of 1967. Importantly, months before that famous Summer of Love, the Oracle, a local paper based in the area, announced an event to be held in Golden Gate Park on January 14th, 1967 called A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In. this event gave not only full traction to the counterculture movement that was brewing in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood but also led to important national exposure. Some 30,000 people of all paths, so-called hippies, as well as families, students, middle-class workers, and journalists attended this event, which was covered with intense interest by print and television media alike. It would ultimately serve as the major jumping off point for the inevitable immersion of counterculture into pop culture. Shortly following this event, San Francisco was viewed as the place to live, denim became the de rigueur style of clothing, and Jim Morrison and the Doors showed up on the Ed Sullivan show the following September.6 The very thing that these young tribesmen had wanted to get away from was the thing from which they could not escape. The Human Be-In, because of what it was and what it represented, served as the nexus between counter and pop culture. It was the first step towards the commercialization and eventual demise of the counterculture movement. The Arrival of the Seekers From as early as the 1940s, Haight-Ashbury had served as an epicenter of cultural diversity. Although populated by a wide range of different ethnicities that would ultimately give it its passion and politics, those who would lay the path for the counterculture movement actually did not live in Haight-Ashbury. Rather, they 6The Doors | Ed Sullivan show." SOFA Entertainment. http://www.edsullivan.com/artists/the-doors 6. lived in North Beach, an area just northeast of the neighborhood. This small bohemian area served as the home of the Beat Generation throughout the late 1950s. Here resided many counterculture pioneers, including Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassidy, who developed their mindset, style, and beliefs, and eventually laid the foundation for what would occur in Haight-Ashbury years later. Beginning at the east entrance to Golden Gate Park and extending east until it hit Market Street and is redirected northeast, Haight St. was originally surrounded by a smaller neighborhood with traditional bars, shops, and stores occupying the storefronts. The Haight-Ashbury moniker was applied in the late 1800s in memory of two San Francisco city planners.7 Because of location and inexpensive rents, Haight-Ashbury quickly became known as a melting pot of different ethnicities, with its very own unique culture. Helen Swick Perry, a psychology researcher, was one of many who came to Haight-Ashbury in 1966 to see and study its culture. Her personal account of the transformation of the neighborhood as well as herself from an outsider to a self-proclaimed hippie is beautifully documented in her book The Human Be-In. At the beginning of her experience in the fall of 1966, Perry found herself as a stranger in a strange land. The new bohemians of the neighborhood with whom she quickly identified and joined, initially numbered less than 1,000 in a district of 30,000 people8, but they flooded the streets daily and brought a very visible culture with them. Along with the growing sense of freedom and change, the opening of new shops in the area brought radical changes to the Haight-Ashbury scene. By 1966, seekers or flower children their original names before the onset of the widely 7Carlisle, Henry C. "San Francisco Streets Named for Pioneers" Virtual Museum of the City of SanFrancisco. http://www.sfmuseum.org/street/stnames4.html (accessed