It was the summer of love, but I wasn’t getting any
22 June 2007
The summer of love has had a gentle makeover in the years since it took place 40 years ago. The colours are mellower now. The girls, usually with flowers painted on their proudly naked breasts, seem to have grown lovelier down the years. Even the drugs seem essentially benign. It is as if an ad agency has been at work, making the whole event rather more tasteful and momentous than it actually was. As the Small Faces sang at the time, it’s all too beautiful.
Four decades on, as the summer solstice marks the official anniversary of the dawning of the summer of love, its legacy lives on. It was the ultimate, flowering moment of a decade during which it had at last, after the distinctly middle-aged 1950s, become cool to be young.
An alternative universe was in place. The best of the music was astonishingly confident – Dylan had released Blonde on Blonde the previous year, and 1967 saw not only Sgt Pepper but the best work of the Stones, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground. The Vietnam war had provided a political target.
Then, by a magical process which had more than a hint of marketing to it (there was even a singalong anthem), the gentle revolution acquired a geographical focus in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco.
That summer, like many others, I packed up my guitar and headed for the West Coast. With my school and university friend Rod, I travelled across America, now and then at some grim Greyhound bus station, taking out my Yamaha guitar to play Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” or Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound”. When we reached San Francisco, we sold an alternative magazine, The Berkeley Barb, on street corners in Chinatown, and pretended to be hippies.
It is a bummer, to be in the right place at the right time of history, and yet to miss out entirely. Haight Ashbury between June and September in 1967 was the throbbing global epicentre of alternative hedonism but, for all the sex and drugs that Rod and I enjoyed, we might have been in Bognor Regis on a wet Monday. I was a virgin in the summer of love. Even the music led to moments of embarrassment. When my school friend Pete Wingfield, already a brilliant pianist and singer, shambled by and told me that he was on his way to a concert by Lloyd Price (black, American, a genius), I thought he was referring to Alan Price (white, Geordie, quite talented). It was like confusing Lulu with Janis Joplin.
Perhaps my loveless summer has soured the memory, but it seems to me now that rather too much has been made about the Sixties which everybody, except Rod, me and a few others, enjoyed so much. For lazy-minded traditionalists – including, to his shame, Tony Blair – the decade was later to blame for everything from promiscuity to lack of respect and the decline in educational standards. From the other side, the view is that the hippie movement was the first time good liberal, tolerant, environmentally responsible priorities now taken for granted were established.
Both sides probably overstate the case. The great explosion of youthful energy that began in the early 1960s was a necessary corrective to the starchiness of post-war Britain in matters of class and mores. It re-established, not before time, the importance of fun, of play.
Yet looking back to the summer of love through the rose-tinted granny-specs that were all the rage at the time, it is easy to forget how, as the decade wore on, innocence and idealism curdled to become self-indulgent and exploitative. The love revolution became a charter for randy men in their thirties to bully teenage girls into bed. Looking through ancient issues of the famous hippie magazine Oz, one is struck by a tone of startling perviness and aggression.
“Love is all you need,” John Lennon sang to a global audience of 350 million people on 25 June 1967, but he was not singing to the straights, the breadheads, the grown-ups. By then, if you were not alternative, you were simply of no interest. The old mantra “Never trust anyone over 30” remained in the bloodstream even as the hippies themselves grew older.
It would have been inconceivable during the various happenings of the time for people of other generations to be on stage playing their music, as they will soon be doing at Glastonbury. The equivalent of the Who topping the bill today would be Perry Como or Bobby Vee appearing at the 1967 Monterey Festival.
Those preparing to enjoy a summer of love in 2007 are wiser and more in touch with the outside world than their grizzled forbears, and are blessedly free of that dangerous assumption that they represent the best and only hope for the future.