Monday, June 19, 2017

The Human Be-in Revisited

In January 1967 Allen Cohen , Ron Thelin, Allen Ginsberg, and others promoted the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. Seeking to bridge radicals and hippies, Cohen called for "a union of love and activism." "Human Be-In," of course, was a play on human being, but it also espoused that it was acceptable just to exist in the present. Shortly afterward, Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass, announced the philosophy of "Be Here Now." Calling for a "Pow-Wow" and "A Gathering of the Tribes," the Be-In poster featured an Indian on a horse. To hippies, Indians were pure in spirit, primitives liberated from Western civilization, and true Americans. As part of the search for authenticity , the counterculture tried to gain depth by absorbing others' wisdom. On the poster, the Native American carried an electric guitar, but it was not plugged in.
The Be-In crowd was estimated at twenty-thousand and was held in Golden Gate Park. The Beat poet Gary Snyder officially opened the event by blowing on a conch shell, and Ginsberg chanted "om,"the mantra he learned in Indian with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Timothy Leary attended wearing white clothes with a flower in his ear. He advised that we, "Tune in, turn on, drop out." Leary later explained that he wanted young Americans to tune into their feelings, get turned on by the music, and then drop out of the middle-class rat race, but most people at the Be-In thought Leary meant that they should take acid that day. Owsley "Bear" Stanley passed out his home made brew of acid, as he did at a myriad of Grateful Dead concerts.
Massive amounts of LSD were consumed and the hoards swayed and whirled to the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. When the political radical Jerry Rubin tried to give a speech, the crowd ignored it. Rubin's angry tone scared Garcia, who asked, "Why enter this closed society and make an effort to liberalize it? Why not just leave it and go someplace else?" 
The success of the Be-In led to an interesting philosophical discussion among Snyder, Ginsberg, Leary, and Alan Watts about the meaning of what was happening. The so-called Houseboat summit," which took place on Alan Watts houseboat in Sausalito, was recorded on tape, and Allen Cohen printed the transcript in the Oracle, San Francisco's underground newspaper. Ginsberg believed that the Be-In validated the Beat search for individual happiness and demonstrated a widespread following among the emergent hippies. He saw value in drugs, music, and community in the search for spirituality, but after his 1963 spiritual epiphany, he no longer emphasized drugs. Snyder, heavily influenced by his eleven years in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, stressed the spiritual significance of the moment, and Alan Watts, the student of Eastern religions who had settled in the Bay Area, concurred. In contrast, Leary believed that LSD would change the world one stoned mind at a time. "I want no part of mass movements," he declared. "I think this is the error that the leftist activists are making." The high priest of acid sought spiritual enlightenment through drug-induced psychological transformation.

The Be-In was seminal not least because the event was picked up by national TV news, and a sunny San Francisco afternoon with "acid, incense and balloons" (in Paul Kantner's words) was pretty engaging to young people around the country. The Be-In in January was the key event that triggered the "Summer Of Love" and accelerated the San Francisco music scene from a happening Underground happening to a flash point for the next rock explosion alongside the Beatles and The "British Invasion."

The San Francisco Be-In triggered Be-Ins throughout the country, and the phenomenon of the outdoor rock festival, starting several months later at Monterey Pop, and culminating at the apogee and perogee of Woodstock and Altamont. 


It's phenomenal that despite the success of the Be-In, the city was alive with music that weekend. The local venues on that day alone included: The Grateful Dead at the Fillmore, with Junior Wells and The Doors; Moby Grape and the Charlatans at the Avalon Ballroom; The Jefferson Airplane with Dizzy Gillespie in North Beach at Basin Street West, and Steve Miller at The Matrix. The Mamas and the Papas along with Jose Feliciano played across the bay in Berkeley.