by Evie Johnson, 2019
|The Human Be-In took place on January 14, 1967 in Golden Gate Park. The event was a critical moment in San Francisco’s countercultural history that ultimately set in motion the Summer of Love, bringing hippies to California, specifically San Francisco, in droves. It positioned San Francisco as the capital of the counterculture philosophy and the epicenter of music and protest. 30,000 people gathered to turn on, tune, and drop out in peaceful protest against Vietnam, the illegalization of LSD, and restrictive, “square” society. Ultimately, it is remembered as an event that inspired the likes of Woodstock, and its promotion of peace, love, and happiness lives on in collective pop cultural memory half a century later.|
San Francisco’s 1967 Human Be-In gathered thousands of people to enjoy music and community, ultimately setting in motion the Summer of Love, an event that would bring thousands more to the city to join the hippie lifestyle pioneered by the West Coast counterculture. The Human Be-In confirmed San Francisco’s status as capital for the counterculture in the United States. While the East Coast still had its handful of hippies, by the time the movement had gone east, to Woodstock, San Francisco had already declared the death of the hippies. If anywhere on earth was the vanguard of counterculture, it was San Francisco. The Human Be-In invited hippies from across the city and across California to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the hippie mantra made infamous by psychologist and LSD proponent Timothy Leary, spoken for the first time at the Be-In. (Hartlaub, Whiting, 2)
The be-in event format was already counterculture staple by 1967, and its practices well known. A be-in was exactly as described – it was a collective of people choosing a location to be in; “It’s just being. Humans being. Being together.” (Meldahl, Woods, 3) Being frequently included dancing, performances, music, poetry, any sort of action that involves being present in the moment. Of course, the be-in always included drug use, most commonly marijuana, LSD, and mushrooms. At counterculture events like be-ins, “you couldn’t fail to inhale.” (Rothstein, 1) Acid was so prevalent that even just to be near it drew one into its aura, regardless of whether or not it had been ingested. While not everyone was under the influence of LSD, the drug absolutely tinged the mood of all events at which it was present. The “LSD archetype” was to “descend into madness and emerge enlightened, seeing the world anew,” (Rothstein, 2) to heighten sensation and become one with the present moment. The “cultural intoxication” (Rothstein, 3) of LSD was so remarkable that it became critical in peaceful organizing in the counterculture. LSD was specifically critical to the Human Be-In and its origins. It was born from a previous, smaller be-in event in 1966, where hippies gathered to “peacefully mark the day California made LSD illegal with a “celebration of innocence, [the] beauty of the universe... [the] beauty of being.” (Meldahl, Woods, 2) On October 6, 1966, Allen Cohen and Michael Bowen, co-founders of hippie newspaper The Oracle, organized the Love Pageant Rally around the illegalization of LSD, an event meant to promote the same ideals as the Human Be-In would later: Peace, Love, and Community. This event gathered between 1,000 and 3,000 people in the Haight and spilling out into the Panhandle, where Janis Joplin performed and Electric Kool Aid Acid Test icon Ken Kesey’s bus was parked nearby. Following this success, Cohen and Bowen began publicizing the Human Be-In via posters and print. Gathering Berkeley activists, Cohen’s North Beach Beat friends, and drawing on connections to counterculture figureheads like Timothy Leary, the Human Be-In was arranged to be a “worldwide media event.” (Cohen, 1)
The Human Be-In took place on January 14, 1967 for one afternoon. In the Polo Fields at Golden Gate Park, “tribes” from all around San Francisco were invited to a “Powwow” that included counterculture activists, beat writers, and, of course, caught the attention of the straight, square San Franciscans. Bowen and Cohen wished to bridge the gap between two specific “tribes;” the anti-war, activist hippies, and the psychedelic hippies. The event sought to unify the groups while raising awareness for “personal empowerment, ecological awareness, and higher consciousness.” (Meldahl, Woods, 4) The events size increased nearly tenfold from the original Love Pageant Rally. The audience was massive, including both sects of the counterculture Bowen and Cohen wished to unite, as well as other critical players in the hippie movement, including the Hell’s Angels serving as security for the event. Future rock music icons like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed live on stage alongside poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, while other members of bands like the Doors and Big Brother & The Holding Company, at that time performing with Janis Joplin, reportedly watched from the audience. The Be-In was equal parts social gathering and public performance, its attractiveness aided both by the famous names attached to the event, as well as the flamboyance of the attendees. Hippies “were asked to bring flowers, incense, feathers, flags, animals, and musical instruments,” (Meldahl, Woods, 6) to create a piece of “epic performance art” (Meldahl, Woods, 6) unignorable by San Francisco, by California, and even across the country in Washington D.C. For one afternoon, at least 20,000 attendees sang, chanted, played music, took drugs, danced and meditated peacefully in a public space until sunset, when they were encouraged to “turn towards the setting sun and ‘open their minds’ so that all places would turn into a thing of beauty.” (Meldahl, Woods, 10) Most of all, the Human Be-In was founded on a critical counterculture philosophy: to make the world a better place, all one has to do is imagine that world, and start living in it as if it were already here.
The crowd spread out across the Polo Fields at the Be-In.
Photo: Lonnie Robbins
While the Human Be-In is remembered rather fondly now as a happy, vaguely apolitical event, the structure of the Be-In had a political foundation that has been largely erased in cultural memory. The Love Pageant Rally provided the initial inspiration for the event, but the Love Pageant Rally also came from a long history of partnership between music and protest. Throughout the 1960s, free concerts in the park by artists including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and other counterculture staples were organized frequently to support political and cultural missions, from anti-Vietnam protests to saving the whales. [CITATION Cus12 \l 1033 ] The late 1960s was a period of time where culture was able to lead political discussions. Music became a critical tool in drawing attention to activism. The Summer of Love, as it is now known, was also known during its heyday as the Summer of Vietnam, and called the Summer of Discontent by Newsweek, (Cushing and Callahan) both granted those titles for the riots and protests happening in California and around the country. The Human Be-In is embedded in the history of music and politics critical to San Francisco’s counterculture in late 60s. While its symbols were peace and love, its roots were in protest, in feelings of discontent with the war, with contemporary society, and even within the hippie community – in this case, the broad division between psychedelic hippies and activists.
The legacy of the Human Be-In is a long one, albeit one full of co-optation and commercialization. Events like the Be-In made their way to the East Coast counterculture in the coming years, cementing the event as a critical countercultural practice. A be-in was included in Hair! The Musical, which opened Off-Broadway in October 1967, only a few months after the Summer of Love concluded in San Francisco. It features, in probably its most infamous scene, members of the tribe chanting “beads, flowers, freedom, happiness,” while shedding their clothes in front of the audience. Early in countercultural history, the hybrid concert-political rally event like the Human Be-In was able to exist outside of the governance of the music industry. Musicians would come to share their music for a cause, frequently with very little pay. But soon, the industry figured out how such events could be lucrative, especially following the success of the Human Be-In and the events it inspired.
While the Human Be-In had remarkable little organizational structure, it provided inspiration for events such as the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, an event that was part be-in, part modern music festival that included performance by artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The Monterey Pop Festival was the main inspiration for 1969’s Woodstock. Without Woodstock, today’s modern music festival would likely not exist, whether or not their three-figure prices are consistent with the values of the attendees of the 1967 Human Be-In. While it can be heartening to see the effects of the Human Be-In on America’s cultural history be so long lasting, it is critical to consider the way that the legacy is propagated by rapid commercialization and appropriation of the counterculture by “square” society.
Besides its complicated implications for the future of social gathering, the Human Be-In was one of the most important moments of the San Francisco counterculture. Gathering a multigenerational crowd of young hippies and older Beatniks, it catalyzed the Summer of Love and helped cement the Haight as the center of counterculture activity not only in San Francisco and California, but in the entire US. It was a landmark of grassroots anti-war activism in the late 60s, and a milestone as far as the events reach beyond the local counterculture. In just one afternoon, the Human Be-In made so much noise that the counterculture became impossible to ignore. “‘We were a smallish wave in a very big ocean, and we were aware that there were others like us,’” said Martine Algier, one of the main publicists for the Human Be-In. “‘We wanted to send a signal out to them: 'Hey, it's OK to come out and spread your wings. Be your fully glorified self in all your beauty and joy. ... You are not alone.'" (Hartlaub, Whiting, 5)
Human Be-In Video: Loren Sears at Digger Archives: http://diggers.org/loren_sears_gallery.htm#Human_Be-In_video
Cohen, Allen. Be-In. n.d. 2019 May. <http://s91990482.onlinehome.us/allencohen/index.html>.
Gleason, Ralph J. "Like a Rolling Stone." The American Scholar 36.4 (1967): 555-563.
Nicole Meldahl, Arnold Woods. Human Beings, Being Together. n.d. 2019 May. <summerof.love/human-beings-together-gathering-launched-summer-love/>.
Perry, Helen. The Human Be-In. The Penguin Press, 1970.
Peter Hartlaub, Sam Whiting. "Reliving the Human Be-In 50 Years Later." The San Francisco Chronicle 13 January 2017.
Rothstein, Edward. "How LSD Altered Minds and a Culture Along With It ." The New York Times 5 May 2008.