Holding On to the Wonder of the Summer of Love
50 years ago, the grooviest wore flowers in their hair
Thinking about the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, I’m transported back to Flushing, Queens, June of ‘67, eager to be turning 11 later that summer, every bit the teenybopper and proud of it. (After all, hadn’t Sonny and Cher recently declared us “the newborn king” in The Beat Goes On?)
My immersion in pop music began, as it did for millions of boomers, when The Beatles came to America and changed the very nature of childhood overnight. My prized possessions were no longer dolls or stuffed animals, but a transistor radio and the 45 rpms I could buy for 69 cents at the Woolworths up the street.
Summer of Love: a Culmination of Historical Moments
Perhaps because I grew up in a media-saturated household with lefty, culturally-Jewish parents, I was a teenybopper with a sociological imagination. Many nights I fell asleep listening to my parents talk politics with various “progressive,” “less progressive” and “reactionary” neighbors. I can’t say I really understood much of this.
But I heard the same issues discussed on TV and in the periodicals that covered every horizontal surface in our house, and I developed a keen sense — after the Kennedy assassination and the arrival of The Beatles — that a disruption had occurred in the world and that I was living though an extraordinary historical moment. There was much excitement around this disruption, and it would bring good things.
I was a curious, open and earnest observer, too young to be a participant, but impacted nonetheless.
The New Beatles and 'the Hippie Idea'
By the summer of ‘67, we’d been listening to The Beatles incessantly for over three years. A unique feeling of joyful anticipation preceded the release of every Beatles album. But our ears, eyes and minds could not have been more receptive to Sgt. Pepper. Before even getting to the music, there was the beguiling package — a physical object that immediately became a totem around which we gathered in mixed-age groups, naming the people on the front, reading the words on the back and pondering what it all meant.
The opening track invited us to enjoy the show, and we did. For close to 40 minutes, we immersed ourselves in a dazzling palette of sound, bursting with color in ways that sound previously did not. It contained a meaningful magic that only The Beatles could render. Playfully weaving banality, sadness and silliness with themes of love, connection and transcendence, across time, genres and cultures, the record seemed to communicate in a new, post-modern vernacular both the problems and solutions that young people around the world were grappling with. Sgt. Pepper was both reportage and manifesto. It embodied a philosophy that writer and music executive Danny Goldberg calls, “the hippie idea.”
Peace, Love and Music
Throughout the Summer of Love, this tuned in pre-teen watched the ongoing cultural spectacle of young people asserting their right to self-expression, affirming the values and practice of peace and love, questioning our consumer-driven culture and seeking higher purpose and higher consciousness. It’s as though the truth of Sgt. Pepper was manifesting in the real world. It was a moment of great optimism, felt even by those of us too young to be “real hippies.”
Since 1965, millions of children had been hearing facets of the hippie idea glorified on Top 40 radio — a trend that continued throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) captured our imaginations as it wafted out of our little transistor radios. Though just a child, I felt part of this “whole generation with a new explanation.”
We were still getting acquainted with Sgt. Pepper when The Beatles released All You Need Is Love, and participated in Our World, the first global television broadcast. If the hippie idea on Pepper required some sophistication to suss out, this song didn’t.
We were also listening, at that moment, to Janis Ian’s Society's Child, a beautiful, edgy song, with it’s own subtle psychedelic vibe, in which a teenage girl in an interracial relationship calls out liberal hypocrisy. Banned in some cities, but featured on a national television special hosted by composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, this song — written and performed by a 15-year-old girl — was audacious, and we took notice.
Another disruptive song that topped the charts in June was The Doors’ Light My Fire. Though banned here and there because of supposed drug references, the more objectionable thing about this song — and this could be said about most '60s pop — is that it presented a charismatic, dominant man defining gender politics, in sexually aggressive ways, to millions of young girls who were socialized by these norms. The sexual revolution was in full swing, but the breakthrough of Second Wave feminism was still a year away.
The Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday topped the charts in August, presenting overt countercultural themes to the millions of young boomers who placed the more accessible Monkees above the increasingly “weird” Beatles. The protagonist in this now classic hippie lament is a bored young man disgusted by the emptiness of consumer culture (the song's title comes from the name of an actual street in the New Jersey suburb of West Orange, Pleasant Valley Way, where the songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin were living at the time).
Summer of Love Values Still Resonate
As I discuss in my book Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World, not all boomers were hippies, but all hippies were boomers. Contrary to recent anti-boomer screeds and John Lennon’s observation that the '60s were nothing more than long hair and flowered shirts on men, much social good, along with much good music, came out of the Summer of Love. We made America a more free, just, and inclusive society. And we forced a conversation about values that still resonates loudly.
Listening to When I’m Sixty-Four today, I’m older and wiser. Now, I hold grandchildren on my knee. I do the garden and I dig the weeds. The values I absorbed from my parents and the colorful culture in which I came of age are under daily assault from the cruelty and ignorance that prevail in Washington. But now, I’m old enough to embrace my inner flower child. I take a long view, a deep breath and try to hold on to the optimism of the Summer of Love.