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Jordan Franklin

Hist366-001

2 April 2004

Class Project

The American Imagination on Acid:

The San Francisco Sound from Monterey to Altamont

 

            It was an event to start a tradition.  It was the momentous beginning to an unparalleled San Francisco summer—1967, the Summer of Love.  The Monterey International Pop Festival, held June 16th through 18th seemed to herald the hippies’ official dominance of the international and local music scene, with special emphasis on the fledgling San Francisco sound.  Like the scene in the Haight, the San Francisco sound was heavily influenced by the use of psychedelic drugs like LSD.  The tradition would continue with the summer of love and beyond, lasting until a hate-filled murder at another musical event in December 1969 at Altamont.  Because a central feature of their musical style was the use of drugs like LSD that permanently altered users’ consciousness, it would take such a violent and bloody murder to bring the counterculture revolution to an effective end.

 

The San Francisco Sound

            The Bay Area of Alta California was the center of the counterculture.  It was the focal point around which nearly all of the radical movements of the era coalesced.  Drawn there by the tradition of the Beat generation, the hippies made the area around Haight street of San Francisco their home.  1967 looked to be the apex of the nationwide pilgrimage of the believers.  The Monterey International Pop Festival, planned for the weekend preceding the summer solstice, was the perfect event to mark the beginning of the celebrated Summer of Love. 

            As Alice Echols writes of the bands of the area, “For better or for worse, they were committed to eclecticism and experimentation, drawing on everything from free-form jazz and jug band music to Indian ragas” (37-38).  Extensive borrowing was one feature o the San Francisco sound.  Echols continues with a dimmer view of the style.  “To the extent there was a ‘San Francisco sound,’ it consisted of extended jamming and soloing.  Even if the bands had wanted to perform tight, concise songs, they lacked the chops to do so” (38).  Despite critics like Echols, the San Francisco sound was very popular in the area.  But the style would not reach the American public until the Monterey Festival.

 

The Monterey International Pop Festival

            June 16th through 18th, 1967, the Monterey Festival was supposed to be the first in a series of possibly annual events.  Nearly all of the area’s most popular bands performed, along with a few invited guests.  “Although [Otis] Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Who gave knockout performances that weekend, the real star of the festival was the San Francisco scene—its music, light shows and groovy vibe” (Echols 39).  The area bands were the most popular of all the acts, and the even garnered national attention for the local style of music.

            It was the Monterey Festival that brought the San Francisco sound onto the national music scene. “In June 1967, they [Jefferson Airplane] were invited to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival.  This event brought national attention and eventually substantial financial rewards to some of the bands who created the ‘San Francisco Sound’” (Cavallo 159).  The nation’s curiosity and interest were piqued by the Monterey Festival and the sound it promoted.  Echols describes the Festival:

Everything changed with June 1967's Monterey International Pop Festival.  Woodstock grabbed all the headlines two years later, but Monterey, which was attended by 55,000 to 90,000 people, was a landmark, the festival that made the ‘San Francisco sound’ and signaled that what was happening on the streets of Haight-Ashbury was going national.  America was turning.  (39)

It was through this sudden popularity that the San Francisco sound unexpectedly captured the American imagination.

 

LSD

            A central feature of the San Francisco sound was the use of lysergic acid diethylamide, usually called LSD or simply acid.  LSD use produced an experience like no other.  As Alice Echols put it, the LSD experience was “mostly spiritually cathartic, even transcendent” (23).  In his book Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960's, author Nick Bromell speaks from experience as he states, “the psychedelic experience is not so much an object of knowledge as an alternative form of consciousness that is entirely different from that rational mode through which we customarily believe that we know the things we know” (68, emphasis in original).  He describes the experience as one of heightened awareness that is difficult to relate in words.  Clearly, the experience is one that the LSD user never forgets.

            This experience became almost religious in nature.  Bromell explains, “As research in the fields of psychopharmacology, religion and anthropology makes perfectly clear, psychedelics do something no other drugs can, and that mysterious something lies very close to the human sense of wonder that is formalized in the world’s religions” (62).  LSD is able to stimulate the same areas of the brain to produce the same response as a deeply personal religious experience. 

            Through this type of experience, LSD succeeded in permanently altering the consciousness of its users.  “People who dropped acid returned to ‘the real world’ with an altered sense of reality” (Farrell 210).  The change, it seemed, triggered such a strong psychological response that it became permanent.

            It was this sense of altered reality which musicians attempted to convey in their music with the San Francisco sound.  Echols states “Psychedelics also affected the music people listened to and played.  Folkies began to pick up electric guitars to make noise. . . .  Electricity and acid were a perfect match” (23-4).  The new sound caught American attention after the Monterey Pop Festival.  Bromell states, “Rock ‘n’ roll brought psychedelics into popular culture even for the millions of Americans who never knew what marijuana smelled like” (61).  Through the San Francisco sound, the American public began to experience something like the acid trip, which permanently altered the consciousness of all those who used it.  However, because that change was permanent, the demise of the San Francisco sound would require something dramatic to awaken actual and vicarious LSD users from the acid trip that had become their lives.

 

Political Radicals

            A previous wave of rebellion, earlier in the sixties, was marked by political radicalism.  Like the hippies, these political radicals were reacting to the military-industrial complex which permeated the Bay Area.  However, when they had run the course of their rebellion, these radicals awoke as if from a bad dream.  With the counterculture, it would be impossible to return to their former lives as if nothing had ever changed.  To a large extent, this is due to the LSD experience.

            Political activists and politically-charged students of the early 1960's rebelled against “the Man” and “the Establishment.”  However, in After All These Years: Sixties Ideals in a Different World, Lauren Kessler tracks these same people from their avocations in the sixties to their jobs in 1989. 

  • Charles Dee, once a student socialist, is now a college instructor. 
  • Geoffrey Rips was an anti-war activist in the sixties; the eighties find him as a policy coordinator. 
  • Richard Shoeninger was a self-proclaimed itinerant hippie.  In 1989, he was serving as the mayor of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Although they may retain their former beliefs, these people have almost become the very thing they once rebelled against.  Another section of the book follows the “Cultural Activists” over the same time period.  A surprising number of them are doing the same thing in the eighties as they were in the sixties. 

  • June Millington still finds employment as a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. 
  • Joan Holden continues to serve as a playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. 
  • Terence McKenna, once a hippie expatriate, now calls himself a psychedelic philosopher. 

While the author may have tailored her findings to support her hypothesis, it still seems significant that the political radicals have mostly returned to “normal” lives, while the counterculture radicals are still living their “alternative lifestyles.”  Again, the LSD experience doubtlessly plays a large role in this dichotomy.  Once they experienced

 

Altamont

            That dramatic event came in the form of the open-air concert at Altamont on 6 December 1969.  “In the era’s lore, Woodstock [held only four months before] has become synonymous with the ‘good sixties,’ . . . while Altamont . . . has come to stand for the decade’s underside and the end of all that was hopeful in the hippie subculture” (46).  Hastily organized and poorly planned, the concert soon turned into a catastrophe.  It seemed the ideals of the Summer of Love, which had already been waning, were suddenly and violently expunged in the dark of the race track.  Even before the concert was organized, or the location selected, former Digger Emmett Grogan dubbed it the “First Annual Charlie Manson Death Festival” (Graham 294).  His words would prove prophetic.

Alice Echols described the event as “A hastily thrown together open-air concert at a speedway on the outskirts of San Francisco. . . . Altamont, which occurred fittingly in the last month of the decade, came to symbolize the final gasp of the sixties” (46).  The spirit of love and hope that was supposed to characterize the hippie community was effectively dissipated by the horrors of that night.

            Sol Stern, who attended the Altamont concert, reports that an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people attended the concert (122).  “If the kids at Woodstock were distinctive of the part-time drop-outs of the American middle class, Altamont seemed to have more of the sons and daughters of the silent majority” (118).  Rather than the usual San Francisco crowd of self-proclaimed hippies and freaks, the crowd at Altamont was composed of more working class kids, fans of the Rolling Stones who were headlining the event.

            For security, the Hell’s Angels were hired for $500-worth of beer.  The Angels took this as a free license to take a pool cue to anyone they disliked.  After dark, the Rolling Stones took the stage and the violence reached its peak as they started into their song “Sympathy for the Devil.”  Lead singer, Mick Jagger, stopped singing at the commotion near the stage.

The audience could tell someone was badly hurt; people were trying to pass a body up to the stage.  Mick Jagger, panic in his voice, pleaded, “Hey, we need a doctor here.”  After ten more minutes of turmoil near the stage, the Stones finally finished the song.

            While Jagger kept singing “Sympathy for the Devil,” directly in front of him the Angels were stabbing to death 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, a black youth from Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. (Stern 123-124)

            The murder had a profound effect on the community.  Organizers of the concert, like the Grateful Dead, refused to talk to “outsiders” for some time afterward.  Stern says, “Thousands of believers in the Woodstock ethic were emotionally, almost physically, shaken as by no other event of the decade. . . . Several people I know have serious anxiety attacks whenever they think of that day” (114-115).  The aftershocks reverberated throughout the community.  Even the altered consciousness produced by LSD proved insufficient to shield even the most “stoned” of the hippie community from the shock.  It was clearly the end of an era for them.

 

Conclusion

            The use of LSD, so vital to producing the San Francisco Sound, greatly influenced the American imagination as the San Francisco sound hit the national music scene.  When it came to Altamont, however, the hippies themselves were through.  Just a few months after Woodstock, the apex of their philosophy and their popularity, the brutal murder of a concert-goer became the shocking conclusion to the enchantment of the San Francisco sound.  The Berkeley Tribe, “the most widely read of the Bay Area’s underground newspapers” proclaimed “‘Stones Concert Ends It—America Now Up for Grabs.’. . . And that’s what Altamont symbolized to the hip Bay Area.  It meant the end of the love-community ethic at base of the rock counterculture” (Stern 115).  The San Francisco sound continued to be popular on the national scene, but the heart of the San Francisco sound had died.


Works Cited

Bromell, Nick.  Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

 

Cavallo, Dominick.  A Fiction of the Past: the sixties in American History.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

 

Echols, Alice.  Shaky Ground: The ‘60s and Its Aftershocks.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

 

Farrell, James J.  The Spirit of the Sixties: The Making of Postwar Radicalism.  New York: Routledge, 1997.

 

Graham, Bill, and Robert Greenfield.  Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

 

Kessler, Lauren.  After All These Years: Sixties Ideals in a Different World.  New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990.

 

Stern, Sol.  Altamont: Pearl Harbor to Woodstock Nation.”  Counterculture and Revolution.  Comp. David Horowitz.  New York: Random House, 1972.  112-131.