Surrealistic Summer Solstice Jam. June 21, 2017.
The Fiftieth anniversary of The Summer of Love could be the ultimate nostalgia trip. Big events in Golden Gate Park marked the Thirtieth and Fortieth Anniversaries of that historic summer. People were looking forward to what could be the biggest celebration yet. Fifty years! This was the generation that said that you can’t trust anyone over thirty.
There weren’t any advertisements for Love Burgers yet, but many businesses had jumped on the chance to have Summer of Love themed sales. There were Summer of Love spa and mattress sales. It was just too good of a marketing opportunity to pass up.
It was surprising to hear that The San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department had denied Boots Hughston a permit for a celebration of the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park. It didn’t seem right.
Boots Hughston and his company 2b1 Records had organized and presented the last two big celebrations of the Summer of Love. They also ran the memorial for Chet Helms in Golden Gate Park. The events drew big crowds and there were no major problems.
Park and Rec said that Hughston didn’t have the right experience and his plans looked primitive. They said his presentation was child like. Proper preparations were not being made. There were no solid plans for security, insurance or toilets. Hughston said he not only had the experience, he had the money.
It looked like The City that used to know how would not have a commemoration of the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park. It would be a shame. The Summer of Love was a big part of the San Francisco legend, even if much of it was myth. Tourists still go to the corner of Haight and Ashbury to take a photo of the fabled intersection and prove to the folks back home that they had been there. Something amazing had happened here.
People on the Facebook group the “Summer of Love 50th Anniversary” had talked about their plans for traveling to San Francisco for the event. I think they were just the tip of the iceberg. Previous commemorations had drawn crowds of well over fifty thousand.
The anniversaries of other Sixties events might be remembered and celebrated, but it won’t be the same. Would there be a reunion of the Rolling Stones and the Hell’s Angels to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Altamont? How about getting everybody who’s still alive back together in Grant Park to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Democratic Convention? The milestone dates will still get media coverage, but an event honoring the Summer of Love could be the last real chance at a celebration of the innocence of the Sixties. Would there be a Sixtieth anniversary celebration? How grisly could that be? Who would be left?
I’ll admit I was looking forward to this one. It could be a last chance to see some of these musicians. There will still be Sixties reunions. Nostalgia never dies. But it could be the last time members of the Sixties bands could play in Golden Gate Park like this. The way things were going with Park and Rec this might be the last free show ever. Did they even bother to get permits in the Sixties?
City and park officials have become used to getting big contributions from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Outside Lands Festivals. These events help pay for the Park’s upkeep. There won’t be another event like this year’s anniversary. The celebration of the Summer of Love is an event that the City should make happen. There should be an old fashioned psychedelic free show in the Park!
Boots Hughston claimed that the City hijacked his event, and it looks like he’s right. Shortly after the rejection of his appeal, the “Surrealistic Summer Solstice Jam” was announced. There would be a celebration, but it would not be run by the people from 2b1 Records. It would be held on June 21 at the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park. The Summer Solstice.
The DeYoung Museum had already started celebrating the anniversary with its exhibition, the Summer of Love Experience. The exhibit has posters, clothes and other assorted artifacts of the time. There is a room that simulates the light shows of the local psychedelic ballrooms.
It was amusing to see relics of the Sixties under glass in a museum. I overheard a docent who was leading a tour, “Now here’s a great piece of cultural anthropology.”
The exhibit is fun, but it may have whitewashed the events of San Francisco in the Sixties. Selective nostalgia is powerful. The Summer of Love wasn’t all flowers, fashion, peace, love and LSD. Local San Franciscans feared the invasion. Police and other city officials braced for the deluge of starry eyed teenagers. There has always been some hostility in San Francisco between the natives and new arrivals of any kind.
The longest day of the year was finally here! I walked over to the Park. It was early and people were settling into their spots. It was a great day. Warm and a little windy.
The area around the Conservatory wasn’t a good spot for the event. I know the festivities were centered on the lighting of the Conservatory in psychedelic colors, but that should have been a separate event.
The problem with having the event around the Conservatory is the expensive flower beds. During the Bay to Breakers foot race they had been closely guarded. Ropes and small fences had kept the hordes out of the precious soil. Private security guards kept a close eye on the patches of soil and flowers. There were other parts of the park that would have worked much better, especially Speedway Meadows, now named Hellman Hollow. It’s where many of the original free shows had been held.
The stage was set up on JFK Drive. It seemed to be a bit out of the way, like the stage was almost an afterthought. The stage and the musicians should have been at the center of this event. People were in a festive mood. As usual, the musicians would save the day!
Those arriving early were ready for a long evening in Golden Gate Park. This was a veteran crowd. There were blankets and small chairs. They had brought extra layers of clothes for the expected fog and wind. The stage faced east, so most of the audience would be looking into the setting sun. The crowd was excited and expected a great night of music.
Park and Rec predicted a crowd of ten to fifteen thousand. I think there are that many people that live near the park who would come out for an event like this if the weather was right.
The stage itself was well set up. There was a large screen in the back for the light show. A large banner read: “Surrealistic Summer Solstice Jam.”
The members of Moonalice were doing a sound check. They played some Grateful Dead riffs. They will act as the house band. Some of them would be onstage most of the night. Pete Sears has seen much of the musical history that would be celebrated today. He was onstage in his black cowboy hat for most of the show. The “musical director” is Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, from the band Alo. Roger MacNamee and Barry Sless are members of Moonalice. There are two drum sets. Jay Lane plays one, and John Malo is on the other. “Steve Kimmock is in the house.”
It’s a miracle anyone is left. This was a generation that hit it hard. Most of them are now over seventy. Some survivors wandered the crowd in Sixties regalia. There were more headbands than I’ve seen in a while. Women liberated long dresses from their closets. There were flowers in gray hair. It was a great day for Sixties fashion. There were even a few top hats.
The survivors had a knowing look. “I was there.” I did see some familiar faces from the Haight. People who I know lived in the neighborhood for a long time. It was a day to be proud to be a survivor.
I was in high school in Chicago that summer, and more concerned with surviving summer football practice. So I certainly can’t say I was there. The Seventies were my decade. In the Midwest the Summer of Love was a news story or a Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In sketch. We did get many of the songs on the radio. There were vague rumblings of what was going on in distant, exotic San Francisco.
Most of the survivors are a little older than me. Even two years was a huge gap back then. It could make the difference between someone becoming either a member of a fraternity or a marijuana dealer. Or going to Vietnam. Most of the people hanging out in the Haight were in their early twenties, which puts them in their seventies now.
Joel Selvin calls the proceedings to order. He was there and has written about the events of that summer. He has long white hair that is tied back under a fedora. “How many of you were on acid twenty years ago?” There’s a slightly amused reaction from the crowd. “How many of you are on acid RIGHT NOW?” This brought more of a chuckle. Most of the crowd admits to using anti-acid more now.
The first song is “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It’s odd to hear this song done live. This version has a bit of a grinding edge, and crowd is into it. The album that changed it all is also celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. It’s a great start to tonight’s music.
Everyone recognizes the first notes of “For What It’s Worth?” A woman in the crowd gushes: “This was a cool song!” It was still early and I was able to walk up one side of the crowd to the front of the stage. There I got the side view. I was on the house left, stage right. It was a nice spot, but it got more crowded as the day went on.
Chuck Prophet does a great version of Dylan’s “From a Buick Six.” Some of Prophet’s songs are about San Francisco history. He’s a great choice to appear at this event.
Among the members of the house band onstage is Melvin Seals from the Jerry Garcia Band. He plays some great Hammond B3 organ.
Mark Harron sings a great Bay Area tune: “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” The timeless song reminds us of the loss of Otis Redding. It’s an ominous fiftieth Anniversary coming up.
Long time radio DJ and writer Ben Fong-Torres acts as MC. He gives a “shout out” to the “Council of Love.” There are some quick public service announcements. Public transit is available and there are food trucks!
Fong-Torres mentions Boots Hughston and hopes there will be another celebration in the Park. He says Golden Gate Park is, “Wide enough to handle it.” I didn’t see Wavy Gravy today.
“Here’s someone who played in the park back then!” It’s David Freiberg from Quicksilver Messenger Service and his wife, Linda Imperial. There will be many anthems this afternoon. “Have another hit ... of fresh air!” Freiberg may look old, but he really pours his heart and soul into the intense lyrics of “Pride of Man.”
The backstage area looked pretty laid back. A guy who looked like a stagehand walked around with a full joint burning in his mouth. You don’t see that too often in other venues these days. I could see the light show being created. A guy swirled paint and oil around in a large dish. The images were immediately projected on the big screen behind the stage. How they did light shows had been a mystery when we first saw them.
Golden Gate Park is a great backdrop for any music event. I live nearby, and I have to admit I sometimes take it for granted. The stage is surrounded in green. The Park always seems perfect for an event like this.
Steve Parrish was the road manager for the Grateful Dead. That must have been an interesting job. He wants to mention two people who can’t be here today: Pigpen (Ron McKernan) and Janis.
Just the mention of Janis gets the crowd buzzing. Two of the original members of Big Brother and the Holding Company are here today: Peter Albin is on bass and David Getz will play drums. Albin points out Jack Cassady standing backstage. The bass player from the Jefferson Airplane had heard a record by Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister) “He turned us on to it.” Cassady knew the song was perfect for Janis. “Piece of My Heart” was Big Brother and the Holding Company’s first big hit.
Darby Gould is Janis. She looks like Janis, but she can’t be Janis. Maybe that’s impossible. The first chords of “Summertime” drift over the crowd. Everyone knows this one. It’s a rare day with summer weather in San Francisco. The band and Darby sound great on this one!
Most Rock shows now are carefully choreographed. Everything is well timed. Today’s event is different. The core of musicians from Moonalice are joined on every song by guests. There is last minute shuffling of microphones and other equipment. “What are we going to play?” It was more like the old days when things were more improvised. Have to hand it to the “musical director” Dan Lebowitz, he kept things moving.
Barry “The Fish” Melton takes the stage. “S.O.S” (Save our Souls) is a great psychedelic Blues jam. Melton and the members of Moonalice tear it up and do a passionate version.
Fong-Torres wants to mention and honor some of the artistic and creative people that made the scene in the Haight happen. Dr. David Smith is a founder of the Haight Street Free Medical Clinic that is still helping people today. There was a group of people who had a dream of living free outside of the system, The Diggers! Tom Donahue of KSAN helped change how we listened to radio. The last two are the biggest: Chet Helms and Bill Graham. A friend commented that few in the crowd today knew who these people were.
David LaFlamme takes the stage and asks us, “Do you know what’s wrong with the world today? ... There’s too much violence and not enough violins!”
Melton stays onstage and joins It’s a Beautiful Day on “White Bird.” We hear many special classics today. The band sounds the same as it did in the Sixties. LaFlamme’s wife Linda is on keyboards. No reunion is complete without the soaring of LaFlamme’s violin. As he leaves the stage he says, “When you write a song like White Bird, sometimes you have to wing it!”
Melton leads us in the “Fish” cheer. “Give me an F!” The crowd gets into spelling the four letter obscenity that starts the old tune, “Fixin’ To Die Rag.” “Well, come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again.”
It’s a song with a grim sense of humor. It reminds me of the fear of losing your student draft deferment. Parents didn’t really want to, “Be the first one on their block to have your boy come home in a box.”
It’s a bit odd to see Barry Melton leading the cheer and singing this song. Where’s Country Joe? Maybe their feud is still gong on. Maybe Country Joe just couldn’t make it. This comic song reminds us that it wasn’t all sweetness and light in the Sixties.
It’s not a mosh pit, but it is getting more crowded near the front. Most people are polite, but it’s getting claustrophobic. People are pressing in. It’s time to walk around.
There was a huge backstage area. This must be where the party is! With all the musicians tonight, there was a lot of equipment to lug around.
Ronkat Speerman and Leslie Grant pay tribute to Sly and the Family Stone with “Sing A Simple Song.”
Joli Valenti joins with David Freiberg. He remembers, “I was right in this Park,” listening to his father sing with an acoustic guitar. The Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” may be the best known peace and love anthem. “C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together and love one another right now!”
It’s a cliche, but there is a good vibe in the crowd. People want to relive a piece of the dream for a day. People are friendly. There’s a constant stream of bubbles.
The area around the Conservatory building is blocked off by metal traffic horses. A group of young people in Sixties gear are on the steps that lead up to the Conservatory. They dance and wave hand painted signs. It’s a restricted area, so they must have been invited. Are they a theater group? The clothes looked like brand new Halloween costumes. The group has the innocent enthusiasm of the Sixties. They smile and flash the peace sign.
Former San Francisco Supervisor and mayoral candidate Angela Alioto is in the crowd. Her father was mayor of San Francisco during the late Sixties and into the Seventies. She’s wearing tie dye and talking to people about having another celebration with Boots Hughston in charge. Alioto is representing Boots Hughston in his appeals to San Francisco’s Park and Rec.
The area around the Conservatory was filling up. The only spots left were way in the back. The flower beds created large spaces in the crowd. It was time for a break on the grass behind some trees. The crowd is younger back here. I think many of them heard about the event and decided to come out at the last minute. It’s a changing of the guard. Everyone here is just hanging out, and pretty much oblivious to what’s going on onstage. The music is just a background sound track. Most seem to be in the spirit of the event. Many are in Sixties clothes. Hey, it’s a party!
Lester Chambers is singing the Curtis Mayfield classic, “People Get Ready.” It’s another song that is meaningful again. His son, Dylan Chambers, sings with him. Lester is one of The Chambers Brothers. “Time Has Come Today” is still an epic live song. The crowd gets into the beat. More cowbell!
If anyone can play the patriarch today it’s Norman Greenbaum. I can see him on the big screen, leaning on a cane. About twenty people join him onstage for “Spirit In the Sky.” It’s an odd psychedelic hymn.
I’m not sure who is singing Scott McKenzie's “San Francisco.” “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” The song was a siren call to youth across the country. Like most of the songs tonight many people join in singing.
As difficult as it is on the musicians, there should be a Hendrix song tonight. There is a brave attempt at “Axis Bold As Love.” Hendrix can’t be replicated, but the band does a great job on the song.
Fong-Torres comes onstage again while the next guests get ready. He mentions the artists who created the light shows and the posters of the San Francisco ball room scene. Digital Obscura will project the lights on the Conservatory tonight.
All this peace and love stuff is very nice. One band that always had a harder edge was the Jefferson Airplane. Naturally I gravitated more towards their sound.
The first chords of “White Rabbit” always sounded a bit ominous. Paula Frazer sings. Many in the crowd repeat the refrain: “Feed you head!” Does anyone do that anymore?
David Freiberg joins. Darby Gould plays the Gracie Slick role on the next song. Jack Cassady looks old but spry. He’s dressed all in black, and he can still stalk around the stage. “Somebody to Love” is still a stirring rocker.
It’s too bad Paul Kantner missed this. He would have loved this event. Kantner was always a participant and supporter of free music in the Park. The North Beach regular passed away a year and a half ago.
I start fading away during tonight’s version of “Not Fade Away.” The light show at the Conservatory will run through October. It’s been a long day of music and memories. At least it gave us the illusion of freedom for an afternoon. Maybe that’s what the Sixties were all about.
“Viola Lee Blues” drifted above the trails of Golden Gate Park. The Surrealistic Summer Solstice Jam was an event that had captured some of the spirit of the times. Will there ever be free music in the park again? The legacy of the Sixties will always be with us, but maybe the sun has finally set on the Summer of Love.
About a week after the event there was an article in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. It was in a column with an annoying hash tag title: “@MISSBIGELOW.” The column usually covers social events like benefits for charities, museum openings and debutante balls. “Catherine Bigelow is The San Francisco Chronicle’s society correspondent.”
The column starts by mentioning former Secretary of State George Shultz and his wife Charlotte Mailliard. She is the former chief of protocol for the city of San Francisco. She called the shots at high profile San Francisco events for years. In the Sixties George was a member of the Nixon cabinet. George and Charlotte were having a great time at the Surrealistic Solstice Summer Jam. The article says they were doing different things fifty years ago.
Now it was starting to make sense. The inside of the Conservatory hadn’t been closed. It was the site of a “VIP confab” that was “technically free.” Many of those inside had donated to the Conservatory and the light display.
A photo showed guests arriving in their “Summer of Love Rolls Royce.” The donors under the glass in the Conservatory dressed the part in Sixties clothes. Photos showed many tie dyed shirts and floppy hats at the reception.
It is a different world than fifty years ago, and I’m glad the Conservatory got some money out of the event, but I still think the music should have taken center stage. The vibes had been groovy, but Boots Hughston should still have a chance to throw the last great Hippie get together in Golden Gate Park.