by Paul Millward
It’s the hills that do it . . . those rolling, undulating hills falling towards the bay or sweeping steeply upwards, cross-town, stretching up to the skies, before falling down again like a rollercoaster as the cable car falls towards another descent. Everywhere views of delight open and close continuously as you pass each block, with tantalizing glimpses of the blue bay or an array of gorgeous colored Victorian houses.
I intuitively knew I had come to a very special place with my very first view of San Francisco as I drove towards it on the freeway late at night. It was lit up in the night air, a shining citadel glittering in the darkness, the skyscrapers like towers of glistening silver with its houses snuggled against the steep slopes as the hills cascaded down towards the bay.
The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened as I realized that before me lay the physical manifestation of the lost dreams of my heart. Some inexplicable connection seemed to exist between my early childhood life in England and the American West Coast. Those early memories of hearing Scott Mckenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) had somehow planted a seed in my mind and magical chords linked my imagination to the city.
San Francisco did indeed prove to be the fulfillment of a boyhood dream of a gentle city where people lived in beautiful houses of bygone splendor and spoke with words of easy kindness. To my complete surprise I found that the spirit of love really does exist here and its inhabitants display a compassion toward others which is quite absent from the streets of other large cities. I instantly understood why it was here and not London, New York or Los Angeles that the hippie movement of the sixties was born.
And yet the hippie movement began quite accidently. Ironically it was an authority which would become its greatest enemy who unintentionally started it all – the government. In 1959 doctors at Stanford University began asking for volunteers to take part in a government research program in which they would be observed under the influence of various psychotropic drugs. The drugs included Peyote and mescaline, but most importantly they included a synthetic hallucinogen called Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25 as it was more commonly known.
At this time LSD was a legal drug which the medical profession was experimenting with in the hope of using it in the treatment of the mentally ill. The research program took place at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital and one of those volunteers was a young Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey actually worked at the Veterans Hospital and it was during his nightshifts there that he spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the LSD he had taken as part of the program.
Kesey came to the conclusion that these people were not insane at all but merely socially unacceptable. The authorities had removed them from society because their view of the world contradicted the safe, conforming tenets of the day. These patients were capable of original thought rather than the automated responses of “normal” people, who are socially conditioned to respond to the world in a predefined way which, of course, the establishment relies on to perpetuate its subtle regime of exploitation.
It was from this experience at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital that Kesey wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Set within a mental hospital the story exposes the institutionalised oppression of unconventional behaviour and free thinking individualism. The character of Big Nurse represents the harsh face of authority which seeks to maintain control by removing all the natural and unique aspects of the individuals personality. While McMurphy, admirably played by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film version, rebels against the system, desperately trying to wake up his fellow patients from their docile existence with his outrageous antics.
Kesey’s experience at the Veterans Hospital not only led to this classic book, remarkably it led to the creation of the hippie movement in San Francisco in which Kesey played a leading role. The drugs Kesey took under the research program had a profound effect on him. LSD can open the mind to a higher consciousness, not entirely dissimilar to mystical experiences derived from transcendental meditation, where the Self is dissolved into universal oneness.
Kesey began spreading the message amongst his friends and soon the medically controlled experiments evolved into groups of friends trying out the drug in more relaxed surroundings. Kesey and his group of followers called The Merry Pranksters began to hold so called Acid Tests which were basically LSD parties, but they proved to be the catalyst for the new sixties counter culture.
An embryonic Grateful Dead provided the music for the Acid Tests and it was here that the band discovered that LSD allowed them to play with a new freedom as they experimented and improvised indefinitely. It was the beginning of acid rock which would become the soundtrack of the new hippie culture.
But this was still the early sixties when the beatniks were the only existing subculture remotely relevant to Kesey’s new vision. During the 1950s San Francisco had developed a substantial beat community in North Beach which was teeming with artists, poets and musicians. Here they created an alternative lifestyle which attracted writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But after 1960 the authorities clamped down on the North Beach free lifestyle and the beatniks moved out as the area degenerated into seediness.
That first evening I arrived in San Francisco I inadvertently found myself driving through North Beach and it appeared typical of everything I imagined a big American city should be at night. Flashing neon, cool looking youths lazing on street corners waiting for action, hookers tottering on unfeasibly high boot heels touting for business, heavy bass booming from crowded nightclubs as locals greeted each other outside bars. I found it thrilling but it all seemed far removed from the bohemian and artistic place it once was.
The district of the city I really wanted to see was Haight-Ashbury. In the early sixties the beatniks flooded out of North Beach into Haight-Ashbury to enjoy the more artistic and expressive atmosphere of freedom developing there. The beatniks soon evolved into hippies, trading folk music for the new electric psychedelic music being pioneered by bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, as Haight-Ashbury quickly became the centre of the emerging hippie community.
But it was Kesey and his Pranksters who had created virtually all of the features of the Hippie Generation: the long hair and exotic clothes, the communal spirit of togetherness, the liberal use of psychedelic drugs, the light shows and trippy music.
For a brief moment in the late sixties the youth of America genuinely believed they could change the world and Kesey was convinced that LSD was the method by which this could be best achieved. His argument was that if large enough numbers of people took LSD then social and political change would naturally follow. This became a key tenet of the new counter culture proclaimed by many musical luminaries including David Crosby and Paul McCartney.
Now I was on my pilgrimage to Haight-Ashbury to see where it all began. I expected to see little evidence remaining of those halcyon hippie days, having been led to believe that they had long since gone – it was more a case of just witnessing the historical remnants of a bygone era. But I was shocked and delighted to discover that the area was still imbued with the sixties culture I had so wished to experience. The streets here contained many ageing flower children and it seemed that for them the summer sun of ’67 still beamed down – they continued living the dream!
Kesey’s Acid Test parties developed into public events which were staged at venues like Longshoreman’s Hall. It was here that the Acid Tests reached their apotheosis with the three days Trips Festival of January 1966 where The Pranksters announced to the massive audience that something far more significant than they initially realized was taking place.
Psychedelic light shows combined with wild guitar music, full of distortion and feedback, with the aim of simulating the LSD trip. Kesey gave a running commentary while the freaks danced the night away. It was the event which invented the rock concert as we know it today and led directly to such hippie high points as the Human Be-In, held in January 1967 at Golden Gate Park and the whole subsequent Summer of Love, as life in Haight-Ashbury began to resemble one long continuous rave.
The Central Haight-Ashbury of later years: where psychedelic boutiques still thrived and hippies roamed the streets. Some of them looked bedraggled and impoverished yet retaining an aura of good natured gentleness. Some appeared to be little more than tramps still hypnotized by the hippie dream and unable to leave, perhaps surviving on the love vibe which still exists here.
Amongst the crowds milling around on the street I found myself standing in front of a hippie couple who were sat cross legged on a blanket covering the pavement. We looked at one another and I felt there was a connection between us, perhaps intuitively recognising that we were kindred spirits. Ageing and grimy, with their threadbare attire, they looked like shabby relics from another time, but there was an untouchable humility and grace which beamed from their eyes.
They could have been sitting there, unmoved since 1966 in a cloud of peace, serenely watching the world go by.
The woman smiled up at me as her partner started playing a small pipe.
The street was busy so I slowly moved on, but as I began to saunter down the road I heard the guy call me back so I stopped and turned. And then he said to me these words, a sentence I will never forget:
“Brother Bear, our hearts are full of love.”
I lifted my hand in acknowledgement and in a shared silence the three of us gave a knowing smile to one another. His simple words left nothing more to say and I moved on again. But I was secretly beaming inside and I began to feel that perhaps I had finally travelled all this way to San Francisco just to hear these words.