Forty-seven years ago today, on Saturday, January 14, 1967, about thirty thousand people turned out in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to celebrate…well, something. Or maybe they were there to protest. It wasn’t exactly organized, but the people were there, listening to bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin’s band). A lot of drugs were consumed, particularly marijuana and LSD. Not everyone who turned out for the event would have called themselves “hippies,” but many did, and the event came to be closely associated with the hippie subculture of the 1960s–in fact it’s credited with launching what became, six months later, the infamous “Summer of Love.”
The event was called the Human Be-In. One of the people there was former Harvard professor Timothy Leary, an advocate of LSD, who at the event gave a talk in which he uttered some of the most iconic words of the 1960s: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” This became a rallying cry for the counterculture, and the hippie movement in particular.
Although extremely noteworthy for being the first large hippie gathering to spark the attention of mainstream press, the Human Be-In was actually a follow-up to a previous San Francisco rally, the Love Pageant Rally, which took place also in Golden Gate Park on October 6, 1966. Only a few thousand people went to the Love Pageant Rally, and its focus was much clearer: it was a protest against a new California law outlawing LSD, then still a fairly new drug. The law went into effect on that day, 10-6-66, and the hippies who gathered drew the numerological significance of the “number of the beast.” Janis Joplin was there too, and so was counterculture author Ken Kesey. The event was planned by Beat Generation artist Michael Bowen, who later planned the January 1967 gathering. He was friends with Janis and bridged the culture between hippies and Beatniks who had pioneered counterculture in the 1950s, particularly in New York City.
This is actual footage of the Human Be-In taken in San Francisco on January 14, 1967.
The key participant in the Human Be-In was the news media. They simply didn’t know what to make of this gathering of young people, men with long hair and ex-professors counseling the heavy use of psychedelic drugs. Imagine how something like this would play on Walter Cronkite’s evening news, being beamed into millions of “square” living rooms together with the latest body count from Vietnam. The 1960s was a very confusing time for many people, young as well as old, and this confusion was nowhere greater than in the early months of 1967.
The media attention of the goings-on in San Francisco, and especially its “hippie neighborhood” at Haight and Ashbury Streets, began to attract young people from all over the nation. A few went there in the winter months, but when schools let out in June, disaffected suburban kids began swarming to San Francisco to participate in…whatever it was that was going down. This was still the relatively innocent part of the ’60s, before the whole thing became an epic bummer. The fragility of the moment, steeped in idealism for a better tomorrow, possibly predestined it to evaporate quickly.
You could think of the Human Be-In as one possible bookend of the “classic” counterculture of the ’60s. I would nominate the Summer Jam Festival at Watkins Glen in 1973 as the other bookend, but that’s just my own interpretation.