Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hippies take the Stage—The Human Be-In

Some writers have dubbed it the beginning to the Hippie Era.  It was more like a coming out party for a counterculture that had been developing in the Bay Area for more than a decade.  The Human Be-In held on January 14 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park attracted as many as 20,000 people and got the attention of the national media as nothing else before it. 

Film was featured on that night’s network television news shows beamed into perplexed homes across the country.  That semi-official reflection of American culture LIFE magazine affirmed its significance with a photo spread.

Soon Scott McKenzie’s Are You Coming to San Francisco would hit the air waves and kids from across the continent would head to Haight-Ashbury for the Summer of Love.  By spring similar events were popping up around the country. 

Chicago’s first Be-In would be held at The Point near the 57th Street Beach by Hyde Park in April.  But the one held on May 14 in Lincoln Park and promoted by the Seed turned into a regular event every Sunday.

The San Francisco Be-In was the brainchild of 30 year old Michael Bowen, an artist and sculptor who had connected to the established Beat culture and who dabbled in mysticism.  According to poet Andrew Cohen who co-founded the pioneering counter culture paper the San Francisco Oracle with him, Bowen hopped to unite different cultural elements in the Bay Area—the Beats with their interest in mysticism, Berkley radicals who were powering the growing Anti-war movement, and the relatively a-political Hippie culture in San Francisco and its fascination with hallucinogens and rock and roll.  He hoped for an event with would meld and synthesize these sometimes contradictory currents.

The catalyst for the event was a new California law which went into effect in October 1966 which made the possession and use of LSD a crime for the first time.  Brown envisioned an event where the law would be challenged by massive, open defiance.  He created the term Human Be-In as a synthesis of Humanism and the civil disobedience of Civil Rights Movement lunch counter sit-ins.

The event was promoted heavily in the Oracle as A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In and featured on the cover of its fifth edition printed in an eye-catching purple ink.  Flyers and posters distributed at music venues like the Fillmore, Beat coffee houses and bookstores, and on the streets generated excitement.
The program was impressive.  Beat mainstays Allan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were on hand to lend support and lead meditations.  Former Harvard professor Dr. Timothy Leary, already famous for his advocacy of LSD, made his first West Coast appearance and for the first time urged his audience to tune in, turn on, and drop out.” With him was his associate Richard Alpert, who would soon emerge as the guru Ram Das.

Radical political figures including the comedian/Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory and student organizer Jerry Rubin spoke.  The only woman on the program, Lenore Kandel, read erotic poetry from The Love Book, her four poem pamphlet that was at the center of a celebrated censorship case.

The program was energized by performances by some of the top bands of the emerging psychedelic rock scene—Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and The Grateful Dead.

The Hell’s Angels were on hand to provide “security” and even conducted an operation to reunite lost children with their parents.  Hugh Romney and the Hog Farm were there to provide food—brown rice and veggies.  All of the classic elements of the counter culture were gathered together for the first time in one event.

Most critically, the guerilla chemist Owsley Stanley brought thousands of doses of powerful White Lighting Acid which he had manufactured just for the occasion and which was distributed freely to the crowd.

Inspired by the Be-In and Scott McKenzie’s song more than 100,000 kids descended on the overwhelmed Haight.  Despite the best efforts of locals to accommodate them, most ended up on the street and many were pray for sexual exploitation, violence, and hard drugs like heroin.  By fall the organizers of the Be-In were eager to send a new message—don’t come to San Francisco.  Instead they wanted to young people to stay in their own towns and created community and social movements there.  So on October 6, 1967 The Death of the Hippie was staged as a mock funeral in the Haight.
By that time, however, pop culture had appropriated the Hippie and characters were popping up on television shows and in movies.  Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In premiered in January 1968.

In the boonies, kids still wanted to be Hippies.  They grew their hair long, smoked dope, dropped acid, and listened endlessly to rock and roll.  At the same time the escalating Viet Nam War and police repression of protests were radicalizing many.  In early ’68 Rubin and Abbie Hoffman would create the Yippies out of thin air to politicize the counter culture as never before.
The rest, as they say, is history.

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