I was back in San Francisco in April and went to the de Young Museum to see their exhibit “The Summer of Love,” and I’ve got a complaint. It’s a small one, perhaps, but it bugs me. I want to yell at someone about it, and I’ve got you. Somehow, I saw a Facebook page called “The Summer of Love.” They’re getting ready to celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary this year, but I was there that summer of 1967, and I know they’re wrong. They’re preparing some activities for this summer, and, y’know, they’re welcome to their celebrations, but I was there in the Haight in 1967, and there was little to celebrate
Whoever organizes these things celebrated the Summer of Love’s twentieth anniversary back in 1987. I know what they were celebrating; they’re right that it was a remarkable time, but it just didn’t happen when they say it happened. Here’s what happened, and honestly, I’ll try to do this part briefly:
The end of the Second World War saw millions of happy, horny, proud American troops return to a country that welcomed them with parades, waiting wives and girlfriends, a booming economy and a plenitude of jobs. The government was ready to show its gratitude with money for college, business and home loans, all of which fed an unprecedented sense of superiority and optimism. Plus we had just kicked the enemy’s ass and had the only Atomic Bomb in the world. We ruled the roost. The warriors came home and had children, and having survived not only the war but the Great Depression, they
spoiled indulged their offspring with more freedom, education and expectation than any generation before it, which, unknowable at the time, engendered an unprecedentedly culture-wide sense of entitlement. As if you didn’t know that already. Added to that mix was the advent of mass communications like radio and later television, and oh, my God, the Pill! Then add The Beatles and their outdated standards-exploding brethren, an insanely unpopular war, a few other things, and you had the Sixties. Whew! One paragraph and we’re through it, and we’re closer to my complaint.
Everyone knows about the hippies and their hair and the clothes and the pot. And the hash and the LSD and the hair and the living together and the hair. As the Beatles knew: yeah, yeah, yeah. Then, in January, 1967, Time magazine published an article about what was going on in the Bay Area, its focus clearly on what was happening in the Haight. Yeah, it was happening in Berkeley, too, and in spots elsewhere, but the Haight was the center of the scene. That’s where the bands lived, where the hip stores were, and that’s where everyone came to hang out or gawk. The Diggers and the Free Clinic were right off Haight Street, the hippie newspaper, The Oracle, had offices around the corner. Buses used to take tourists through Haight Street so they could see the shocking scene they’d read about. People—and parents in particular!—wanted to know what was going on out there. And what a scene it was!
It wasn’t just the way they dressed or wore those flowers literally in their hair or painted their faces, it wasn’t just the diffraction discs and the patchouli oil, it was something new: they were trying something new. Kids who would never have thought about this before were now living together, trying to make a go as a couple. Trying other things, too. The ubiquity of “free love” was exaggerated, and clearly not universal, but let’s say… plentiful. Permissions seemed to have been given, so for many the era was a time to experiment, and even more, it was a time to experiment in new ways of thinking. Perhaps too much of it turned out to be naïve, but much of it was worthy of our better natures, and that alone is laudable. But if they’re going to celebrate the spirit of the time, they’re off by a year. Again, I was there.
In the summer of 1966, I was working in San Francisco and living in Berkeley, which scene might need no elucidation. Sure, I hung out in the Haight, I went to the shows at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom and I’ve still got the posters. I dressed up in my anti-work clothes for the hanging out and the shows. Couldn’t wear that shit at work, boy, oh no. And it wasn’t just the clothes or the hair, and to be sure, the hair was causing incalculable consternation among adults, aka “straights.” It was more: people were taking on new identities. I knew a guy who wore only black and called himself Black Bart; I never learned his real name. I remember Mark from my hometown on Long Island before I went west, and when I got back there, he was Cinnamon. I forget the other names, but people took on identities and tried to live as them. Outside of undercover operatives, that was new. Back to Time magazine.
They ran the story, with photos, of course, in January, 1967, and it set off a viral reaction around the country, and by that summer, one figure I’ve seen said that 300 people moved into the Haight every day. Yes, every day. That would be 27,000 people. The estimate I think I saw at the de Young Museum was 100,000 people moving into the Haight that summer. Whatever the figure, that summer was when the sudden overcrowding generated a wave of hunger, filth, rip-offs, bad drugs, hard drugs, and ill will, which engendered increasing police intervention and a general sense of fear, hostility and paranoia in the area. By the summer, the bands had left, the stores were closing, and the beautiful people moved (mostly) north. Hello, Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino.
By that summer, the magic had left the Haight to the degree that no less a beautiful person than George Harrison showed up one day on Haight Street to see all the beauty he’d heard about, and he was appalled. Recognized immediately, a crowd gathered and followed him as he walked the street, but he’d seen enough and wanted to leave. Like… now! ‘No, man! Here, George, play a song!’ the crowd called as someone handed him a guitar. He took it, gave it a brief check for tuning, sang the just-recorded “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” which asks the question, “How does it feel to be one of the Beautiful People?” Then he handed the guitar back and left town.
That was what George saw in the summer of 1967, and that’s what they’re celebrating these fifty years later. I saw it and I understand Mr. Harrison. What I saw in 1966 was quite something else. There were few enough people in the scene to make it a comfortable place to be, a place where you could go to find other people like the rebel, the individualist that you were. The place was for us, it was ours, and the shops knew us and catered to us, (okay, except for Bruno at the Persian Aub Zam Zam), the cops kept a wary distance, and while others might dispute it, my experience was that of a community. The press wasn’t on to it yet, so it was comfortable. I remember the Village in New York City back before the British Invasion. This was the time of the beatniks, and they had a scene in lower Manhattan and a scene in San Francisco’s North Beach. Just before The Beatles showed up, I remember the article in Life magazine in 1963 about the beatniks and their culture. I remember reading the translations of the new “beat” terminology and memorizing them, thinking I’d need it sooner or later. Yeah, it sounds dorky, but that was me. It was a scene unto itself, but smaller and harder to get to, and not for everyone. Then in 1967 the whole nation found out at once about the scene in the Haight, and while few had run away to become beatniks, just four years later there was a ready market for those who aspired to hippie-ism, and they did it at home, or hit the road. They were the Baby Boomers, and there were millions of them ready for a little revolution, especially one that promised all kinds of personal freedoms.
In 1966, the people I met in San Francisco were open and friendly, and rife with the idea of Free Love. This all happened in the immediate wake of the introduction of the birth control pill, which put risk-free sex into play and left us only to deal with our guilt. The impact of “The Pill” was immeasurable, and in addition, pot was popularized and new ideas were floating freely, un-moored by the past, and admittedly, sometimes un-moored to logic. But there were so many ways to try new ideas, new possibilities, so much…possibility, that there was an excitement in the Haight, an optimism in 1966 that was gone by the summer of 1967. Also, LSD was legal in ’66, but not in ’67, and I remember a panel truck parked on Haight Street in 1966 which had a big sign over it: LSD. And that changed things, even if you never took it. Parents were already seriously worried about pot, but LSD just freaked them all the way out. Every parent seemed to know someone who knew someone who knew someone who’d taken LSD and jumped off a tall building, thinking they could fly. Leave us have no more about what happened back then; you’ve probably heard too much of it by now. Also, lest you think I was saying it all was beautiful in the streets back then, I’m not. There were assholes, jerks, rip-off artists and other bad-karma generators around, and I met some of them. So now to my complaint, which will appear as both minor and major premises.
The minor premise:
I went to the de Young with my sister, who I love like a sister, and it was a disappointment. I thought the museum handled the major trends and events of the period ineffectively, and there was no sign of what I expected would be, at least in part, an “immersive experience.” I’m sure they had it in their budget to be more creative. It needn’t cost much. People who come to the exhibit want to know than a little of what happened; I think they’d want more of the why, how, who and who was affected. They had some screens facing each other in a circle, and you could walk inside where some unidentifiable film was projected onto the screens, but the light in the room was too bright to see clearly what was on the screens. My best guess is that it was shot from inside the Fillmore, and I say that because I saw a lot of bodies waving around and a brief shot of a drum kit, but if that was supposed to give any sense of being inside a show at the Fillmore, it was woeful. Put some music in there, de Young!
The display of “Hippie Clothes” weren’t worn by anyone I ever saw in the City. They had a Wavy Gravy onesie, but scant information as to who he was or why he merited being in the exhibit. They had a suit from one of The Charlatans, who are credited with being maybe the first bands of “the San Francisco Sound,” but gave no explanation of their significance. Just a suit and a hat. They had only a small space for the display about Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, which many credit as the start of The Sixties. LSD was freely and abundantly distributed and the band that played those parties was The Warlocks, soon to change their name to The Grateful Dead. The information there was so inadequate that I started filling my sister in on what was missing, and I wasn’t talking loudly, but people nearby started listening to me and asking questions, then following me to other displays as I explained what was missing. My sister and I were probably not alone in wondering “where were the docents? Where were the people to explain this stuff?”
Also, as much as I hate the stuff, if you wanted a cheap and easy immersive Haight Street experience, you’d post a sign outside a room saying that this was a room with a mist that might be offensive to some, and those with allergies might think twice, and then they’d walk into a room with a gentle aroma of patchouli oil. You don’t need a lot! And I hate the smell of fucking patchouli oil, but if you want to know what the Haight smelled like, there you are. Fucking patchouli oil!
Maybe it’s like the rule about Woodstock: if you remember it, you probably weren’t there. Yes, that’s a spurious standard, but if you’d been there in 1966, and been there in 1967, and you were looking to celebrate a spirit, a zeitgeist, if you will, then they wouldn’t be celebrating it in 2017. Missed it by a year. Fie on you, de Young. And I saw more that was lacking, but now to the major premise, and thanks for staying with me.
So the Time article appeared in January, 1967, caused a sensation, and the rush westward was on as soon as school was out. Right around that time, a well-known San Francisco Disc Jockey named Tom Donahue got fed up and quit his gig on the highly-rated Top 40 station, KYA. Back then, all anyone listened to was AM radio; no one I knew had an FM radio- not in the house and not in the car (two-band radios started showing up in cars around 1974 when the hippies grew up, got married, got jobs, got rid of their VW Beetles and started buying cars). The radio gig paid well and all, and he was famous, but it had gotten to the point where Donahue could no longer stand the insipid songs and inane ads. So he quit. One night in March, he was sitting at home with a friend, smoking a joint and listening to the new Doors album, and he bemoaned aloud, “Why can’t we hear music like this on the radio?” His friend agreed, then said something like, “well, you know, FM has stereo.” BOOM!
The next day he started calling FM stations, hoping to find one in trouble, and he found KMPX, whose phone was disconnected. He went to see the owner, whose station was struggling, renting out blocks of time for foreign language programs—mostly Filipino—and because Donahue was a known entity in San Francisco radio, a deal was struck. That was in March. Starting in April, Donahue brought in hip records and hip people to play them, and as more foreign language programs’ contracts expired, Donahue took over those hours, putting on more people, and soon KMPX was the hippest show in town, and running 24/7. It wasn’t just a success, it was an explosion. Within weeks, every hipster in the Bay Area was listening exclusively to KMPX. It was all anyone listened to. There simply was no competition.
KMPX played the music the hipsters wanted to hear, and it was so successful that Donahue’s “Underground” format was quickly duplicated in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and everywhere else. Now there was a revolution in the culture and there was a revolution in music, and we all listened to the revolution on the radio whenever we could. In San Francisco, the revolution was on KMPX, but all over America, radio became the soundtrack of the Sixties, and it started in San Francisco. They played the bands we went to the Fillmore or Avalon to see, and the bands also listened and came by for chats, and KMPX, more than almost anything else in the hippie pantheon, made the scene a community. The PSA’s concerned almost everyone, and the ads and other notices were meant for us, too. Was it KMPX or KSAN who had the reports from the drug lab about the purity of the acid or speed that was going around? Does anyone remember “window pane” acid? I think I remember the report that said it was excellent. And it was. And the music was incredible. Today it would be called narrowcasting, but it was a specialized demographic and it worked spectacularly. KMPX was the common sound woven throughout the community and all of its members.
If you lived in the Bay Area, you might have gone to a show at the Fillmore or the Avalon, or in some park that summer, but whether you went to see live music or not, you always listened to KMPX. It was our music, it was the right programming for the right crowd. It was the only programming for that crowd. KMPX was nothing less than the soundtrack of the Summer of Love. It was everywhere you went: in restaurants, in shops, at home, at your friend’s pad, and in your car. And… are you ready for this?.... I didn’t see one mention of KMPX in the exhibit at the de Young. Nary a mention! No mention! Zip, zero, nothing, nada, none. Am I right, people? Are you angry? Well… disappointed? Damn right you are! As you should be! Thanks. I feel much better now, so let’s leave the museum and get to the song that I think most identifies with the Summer of Love, and a little of the history behind that song that I was surprised by.
Hendrix, Cream, Beatles and Stones. Quicksilver, Big Brother, The Airplane and The Dead. Yes, KMPX had them all, plus The Kinks, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne James Taylor, Terry Reid (who’s probably coming to this space) and the Mamas and the Papas when they were still good. We also heard from too many that I can’t remember, and you’re lucky for that. There’s a word I like called paralepsis, which is when you say you’re not going to list an entire category by name, and then you go and list them all. Sadly, I was about to do that when my memory failed, so that’s all I’ll say about who we heard a lot of in the summer of 1967, but if I had to concentrate on one song, one song to typify the period, I’m gonna have to go with “Let’s Get Together” by The Youngbloods. It’s still around, so I’m pretty sure you’ve heard it, We all knew it well back then, but I was surprised by its history.
I chose Let’s Get Together because it, like KMPX, was everywhere and everywhen back then. I think if you listen, it’s easy to see why it resonated throughout the time of the hippies, and has survived into today. If there was some way (and there probably is!) of seeing how many plays a song gets, I’d like to see the stats on this one. It was just… the right song at the right time, and I think that’s all you gotta say about it.
- The song was written in 1963 by Chet Powers, a folk artist who performed as Dino Valenti when he joined The Quicksilver Messenger Service, who more people have heard of than heard. When Valenti joined QMS, he became their singer-songwriter and leader, moving them from their earlier trippy acid-influenced ramblings into the more melodic. Here is QMS’s very Sixties song, “What About Me?” which is as emblematic of the Sixties as any song you’ll ever hear. Some might compare it to “Ohio” by CSNY, as both reference the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, but that was more about a specific incident, and this is more about the anguish of those who feel left out of the culture. Perhaps more than any other song of the period, this song speaks for the displaced and disheartened. If you’re looking for a hippie anthem, I nominate this one; listen to the lyrics and see if they don’t sound like it was written yesterday; it’s too bad no one knows it anymore. After today, it might go back into the dustbin of forgotten Hippiana, but see if you’re not humming it later.
- Interspersed with various reunion groupings of QMS, Valenti's career was blighted by several drug busts. After an arrest for possession of marijuana and while he was awaiting trial, he was searched again by police, who found more marijuana and amphetamines in his apartment. He received a one-to-ten-year sentence, served partly at Folsom State Prison. To raise money for his defense, he sold the publishing rights for "Get Together" to Frank Werber, the manager of The Kingston Trio.
- The song was originally recorded as "Let's Get Together" by the Kingston Trio and released on June 1,1964. While it was not released as a single, this version was the first to bring the song to the attention of the general public. The Kingston Trio often performed it live.
- A version of the song first broke into the top forty in 1965, when We Five, produced by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber, released "Let's Get Together" as the follow-up to their top ten hit "You Were on My Mind". While it did not achieve the same level of success as the other, "Let's Get Together" provided the group with a second top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 when it peaked at #31. It would be their last hit record.
- "Let's Get Together" was the third song on side 2 of The Jefferson Airplane's first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, released in August, 1966. As Tim Jurgens said in his review of the album in the January, 1967 issue of Crawdaddy, "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off is the most important album of American rock issued this year; it is the first LP to come out of the new San Francisco music scene." He called "Let's Get Together" a "most sensitive, hopeful and contemporary ballad," and wondered why it wasn't sung in church. However, the song wasn't released as a single, although the album did make it to #97 on the top 100 of 1966.
- In 1967, the Youngbloods released their version of the song under the title "Get Together". It became a minor Hot 100 hit for them, peaking at #62 and reaching #37 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart. Renewed interest in the Youngbloods' version came when it was used in a radio public service announcement as a call for brotherhood by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The Youngbloods' version, the most-remembered today, was re-released in 1969, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Another version was released in 1967 by the Chicago psychedelic group H. P. Lovecraft on their debut album.
- In 1968, the Sunshine Company released a version of the song titled "Let's Get Together" as a single that reached #112 on the Billboard chart.
- Also in 1968, the Canadian group 3's A Crowd released their version of the song as a single, titled "Let's Get Together.” It peaked at #70 on Canada's national singles chart.
- In March 1970, the Dave Clark Five reached #8 on the UK Singles Chart with their version retitled "Everybody Get Together," which looks and sounds a lot like “Hey Jude,” if you wait 55 seconds.
- Later in 1970, Gwen & Jerry Collins released a version of the song as a single that reached #34 on the US country chart.
- In 1995, Big Mountain released a version of the song titled “Get Together” as a single that reached #28 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart and #44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- The Youngbloods version of the song has been featured in several films, including Purple Haze, Forrest Gump, The Dish, Stephen King's Riding the Bullet, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and most recently Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.
- In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror II", Lisa wishes for world peace and her wish comes true. All people on Earth start singing "Get Together" and dance in a large peace sign.
- 1989: Indigo Girls call it “Get Together” on the Epic Records release of their album Strange Fire.
- The song also appears on the soundtrack for The Wonder Years.
- Christian Slater echoes the chorus in the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume.
- The South Park episode "Smug Alert!" contains a parody of the song which repeats the line "come on people now" several times.
- In 2008, the Youngbloods version of the song was used in a commercial for Luvs diapers.
- A snippet of the Youngbloods version of the song was used in a 2014 commercial for KFC.
- A snippet of the Youngbloods version of the song was played in the beginning of Bart's dream in The Simpsons episode "Oh Brother, Where Bart Thou?"
- Krist Novoselic sings part of the chorus of this song at the beginning of Nirvana's recording of their song, "Territorial Pissings.”
- The Christian hard rock group David and the Giants released “Get Together” on their CD Giant Hits.
- On Inauguration Day, 2017, the group Bahari released their version of the song.
- Last Fun Fact: Did I mention KSAN earlier? Remember? Here’s a fun fact: Because KMPX was a huge, instantaneous hit, the station suddenly had great ratings, whereupon the owner got himself an attitude. After six months of success, he decided to issue standards like a dress code that were anathema to the hippie ethic. A dress code for hippies? Ha! And so they all went on strike. After eight weeks of striking, a classical-format station in the financial district was struggling; a call was placed, an offer was made, and the staff of KMPX moved into KSAN, which became the dominant rocker in the Bay Area for the next 25 years. KMPX was sold and became a footnote.
- Bonus Tracks: While everyone has heard “Let’s Get Together" ad nauseum, here are two of my favorite tracks by The Youngbloods that have fallen silent that I enjoy and think you will, too: Darkness, Darkness just rocks nicely, and when the bands and hippies moved out of the Haight, Jesse Colin Young moved to Marin, where he wrote Ridgetop, which was played frequently in the late sixties to general acclaim.
- Bonus Question: Does anyone remember diffraction discs?
If you’d like to hear what KMPX sounded like on May 5th, 1967, here's a sample:
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.