You may have noticed that the Summer of Love didn’t exactly work.
Maybe it hit you right away, if you were around in 1967, watching things simmer—be they the 159 race riots that broke out that year, the violence at Vietnam protests, or just a growing sense of something sinister lurking below the surface, like Charles Manson in San Francisco touting peace and love among the hippies, still a couple years from the gruesome Sharon Tate murders. Maybe you felt it the following year, when it all boiled over with, among other things, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, making for one of the most tumultuous 365-day spans in our nation’s history.
Or maybe, if you were born a couple decades later, you’re feeling the Summer of Love’s failings now more than ever. It’s difficult to look at where we are today—a gaping chasm separating rich and poor, a president under FBI investigation, a congressman shot in broad daylight, hate crimes on the rise as white supremacists feel encouraged to slither out from under their rocks—and not roll your eyes at the idea of lionizing the generation that got us here by taking a bunch of acid and putting flowers in their hair.
You may notice a lot of spilled ink this weekend about the 50th anniversary of the Monterey International Pop Festival, the pioneering music showcase that helped propel the “hippie” movement into mainstream culture with a bill that included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Otis Redding and others. The recollections will no doubt wax utopian, but from here the cynicism is easy, and in many ways warranted. Enthusiasm for a Western migration that many Americans wanted to join but were too busy fighting off dogs and firehoses at home, or a festival founded by a man (John Phillips) whose daughter would later come forward about their 10-year incestuous relationship, feels a little misguided. You can feel it when watching Boomers wearing blazers over their Neil Young t-shirts throw down $3,000 to sing along to “Give Peace a Chance” from the VIP section at the creaky Desert Trip Festival. Marking the anniversaries of 1967’s milestones can feel empty when, in so many ways, it feels like we’re still living them.
The summer of ‘67 is more or less etched in history as the “dawning of the age of Aquarius,” as the musical Hair put it that year. It was the beginning of a better age. But our age knows better. There are deeper layers to the spectacle of wild clothes, casual sex, nonviolence, even the burgeoning concept of brotherhood. Often, when we look back at the milestones of that era, we still miss the ones that are right in front of our faces. This was a hugely important year for soul and gospel as much as for rock ‘n’ roll, with more high-profile black artists grasping for the attention of mainstream audiences with monumental achievements. Aretha Franklin released her breakthrough I Never Loved a Man album. James Brown started firing on all cylinders and released “Cold Sweat.” The Staple Singers went secular and political, finding their way onto the charts with “Why Am I Treated So Bad” and a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What’s It’s Worth.” And of course at Monterey Pop, Redding—the bill’s odd man out, still mostly unknown to the festival’s young, white crowd and sadly just a few months from his untimely death—famously paused for a moment before launching into “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
“This is the love crowd, right?” he asked. “We all love each other, don’t we? Am I right? Let me hear you say yeah, then!”
The love crowd said yeah. It was a short set—just five songs—but a remarkable one—the one Americans should remember most fondly, more than Joplin’s golden pipes, Hendrix’s flaming guitar or The Who’s explosive set. And here’s where rose-colored glasses sometimes crack into cognitive dissonance. The love Redding sang about wasn’t the capital-L, macro Love that they’d been championing as a way to heal the world, but a complex, brutal yet beautiful love between two people—the kind that’ll kick the shit out of you, the kind we’ve all either experienced or yearned for at one point or another. That kind doesn’t always work.
That kind of love touches people and transcends age, race, creed, everything. It’s what makes us human, and that shared humanity is important to hold onto when times get dark. Music is cathartic, and we can’t really fault the Summer of Lovers for wanting to take a break from the horrors of their era, to lick their wounds and let themselves feel something other than the weight of the world.
Love takes work. It’s not as easy as hate or anger, and when those two are present everywhere you look, choosing love can feel exhausting or futile. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always succeed. The Love Crowd tried, and that’s all you can really ask of anyone.
Every generation, of course, is skeptical of the ones that came before it; one can only listen to the Boomers who left us to graduate into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression whine about millennial entitlement so many times before developing a real chip on one’s shoulder. But despite their flaws, it’s still tough to fault the love crowd. Love takes work. It’s not as easy as hate or anger, and when those two are present everywhere you look, choosing love can feel exhausting or futile. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always succeed. They tried, and that’s all you can really ask of anyone.
Music can seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, particularly in times like these when the world feels like it’s being at once constricted and torn apart. It can be an outlet for overt protest, but in a quieter yet equally vital sense, it’s a way to recharge—to stop, take a breath, watch someone whose life differs wildly from your own get up on a stage and pour their heart out and feel it—love, beauty, anguish, whatever it may be—deep in your gut.
So yes, the Summer of Love was actually a summer of a lot of things, most of them things we’re still grappling with in some form or another today. It didn’t really solve anything, as many from that generation like to think. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of ‘67 in terms of hippies or Boomers and start thinking of it as one of many moments in human history when the people saw a line being drawn in the sand and made an effort to stand shoulder to shoulder with warmth and empathy in their hearts, to try a little tenderness, though they may be weary.