Remembering the Summer of Love, 50 Years After

By: Ben Fong-TorresMon, 07/03/2017

Author’s Note: In and around San Francisco, it’s all about the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Exhibitions in museums and libraries; concerts and special events in Golden Gate Park and around town; a return of the musical, “A Night with Janis Joplin.” It’s the endless summer of love, and it’s happened every decade.

In 1987, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the 20th anniversary with several articles, including this one, which I’ve edited for space. I have not updated it but should note that since then, we’ve lost three of the people I spoke with: Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia, and Paul Kantner.

"I never felt that the music coming out of San Francisco was so revolutionary," said record producer David Rubinson, "but I think it was a revolutionary attitude of the bands and of the audience that swept the country."

In the mid-'60s, the San Francisco Bay Area delivered unto the world a mind-blowing array of popular bands, among them Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin, Moby Grape, Blue Cheer, It's a Beautiful Day, Steve Miller Blues Band, Great Society, and the Charlatans.

Before the Summer of Love was over, however, many of the bands had been signed by big record companies, new recording studios sprang up in San Francisco, in Marin, and on the Peninsula, the Airplane was on the cover of Life magazine, and "acid rock" and "the San Francisco Sound" had joined the trend-watchers vocabulary.

The music -- first played at parties, then on the streets and in the parks, then in clubs and concert halls, and finally on radio and records -- was the constant backdrop for the times. "Rock 'n' roll," said promoter Bill Graham, "was one of the means of expression for people who were looking at life differently."

The music said Paul Kantner, now with the Kantner-Balin-Casady Band, "was a good clarion call to action." It was, said Country Joe McDonald, "a very important part of solidifying the community. It was a morale booster; it'd make everybody feel good, and they'd go home being more convinced than ever."

But, as some of the musicians will admit, there never was an actual "San Francisco Sound." There was a volume level: way up. Before there was such a thing as a "lifestyle," there was a style and an attitude -- a combination of laissez-faire and too-stoned-to-care.

One of the first bands on the scene, the Charlatans, was put together by a designer, George Hunter, who was far more interested in image and style than in music.

The Grateful Dead never expected to be commercial: "We never had that glamour flash,” Jerry Garcia said, “that was sellable."

These days, sex, drugs, and politics rarely make the charts, there's no identifiable new wave of San Francisco bands, the barriers are back up between bands and fans, radio is formatted as tightly as in its Top 40 years, and the Beatles' "Revolution" is being used to sell Nikes. And, oh yes, the Airplane's "White Rabbit," having been used in the Academy Award-winning movie Platoon, is out again, complete with a video on MTV.

Did anything really change?

"No," said Grace Slick. "I thought that, with an incredible amount of media blitzing and books and knowledge, you could change people. But you can't. The only person I can change is me."

Maybe, said Country Joe, who now sings and works for Vietnam vets and against ongoing wars. "Life is more interesting now, and more amusing and entertaining."

But as he thinks back 20 years, he grows wistful. "We really thought we were going to convince the whole world to love each other by getting them to listen to rock 'n' roll music and taking a drug called LSD. Our generation had a lot of casualties; we paid a heavy price. And when you look back at the beginning of the end of the Summer of Love, to the battle going on in America, you realize that the Establishment did not voluntarily relinquish its control over the government and the culture. And that we survived that, is unbelievable."          

Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.

This article was originally published on Reproduced with permission from the author.