Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco: The true home of hippie culture, Summer of Love festival turns 50 years old

Isn't it ironic that the Summer of Love began in a street pronounced Hate?

Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco is perhaps the most photographed street sign in the world. 

It was at this junction, 50 years ago, that a baton was metaphorically handed over from the beatniks of the 1950s to a younger generation known by a word never heard  before: "hippies".

So naturally the district of Haight-Ashbury – renamed "Hashbury" by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in a piece for the New York Times Magazine in 1967 – will be the focus of much attention throughout 2017 when the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of a social phenomenon that came to be known as the Summer of Love.

Remember the song San Francisco (Scott McKenzie's worldwide hit that symbolised that summer, with its famous lyric – written, ironically, by the LA-based John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas)?

'If you're going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair/If you're going to San Francisco/You're going to meet some gentle people there...?"

Get used to it. It will be played ceaselessly. The city it's named after has planned a whole calendar of events to encourage a new flood of tourists back to the home of hippiedom.

So here I am, a few months early, armed only with a $US4.50 walking trail map, to do my own private pilgrimage.

It's now 6pm on a beautiful summer's Sunday evening, and I'm sitting having a beer and burger outside Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery in the heart of Haight-Ashbury. I've spent the day revisiting most of the key places that should be on any Summer of Love tour.

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On the corner of Haight and Masonic, this has been one of San Francisco's finest boutique pubs for almost 20 years, selling a range style of beers brewed on the premises. 

Yet back in the day, this building was one of the landmarks of the love revolution. Magnolia Thunderpussy – a burlesque artiste, radio personality and restauranteur – ran her eponymous diner here. The menu is a historical delight, celebrated for its sense of fun and cheap prices. But what Thunderpussy (real name Patricia Donna Mallon) was really famous for was her late late-night delivery service, featuring her city-wide and distinctively phallic sense of food presentation.

These proved particularly popular with the bands (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills and Nash, for example) who were recording at Wally Heider's studio in the 1960s. 

Magnolia's most requested takeaway (apparently) was her "Montana Banana": an "unsplit" banana, served "erect" between two large scoops of ice cream. 

She died in 1996 but is remembered not only in the Gastropub's name but in one of the beers on the chalkboard: Old Thunderpussy's Barley Ale.

So why did the Haight-Ashbury district become the centre of hippie culture? My walking tour has revealed that it was partly a real estate story. 

In the '60s, H-A was a depressed area, with decent-sized historic homes at affordable prices. The suburb was on the outskirts of the city but close to two of the parks which were to figure prominently in the Summer of Love – the Panhandle and the even larger Golden Gate Park. 

Musicians began flocking here, most notably the Grateful Dead who lived at 710a Ashbury Street – a Queen Anne-style building from the 1890s – from October 1966 to March 1968. They were bankrolled by their LSD manufacturer, and made their house a kind of alternative community centre to more or less any visiting hippie, handing out free food, lodging and health care, and reputedly giving more free concerts than any other band in history.

Across the street, at 719 Ashbury, was the headquarters of the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels. 

A frequent guest at the Grateful Dead house was Janis Joplin, who "dated" Ron (Pigpen) McKernan, the Dead's original keyboard player. 

According to the excellent 2015 documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue (essential viewing for anyone who wants to explore the Summer of Love), Janis' loud lovemaking kept the other band members awake at night.

But like Janis, Pigpen was dead at 27. So too was Jimi Hendrix, another founder member of Rock's 27 Club. 

Hendrix lived in an apartment, 1524A Haight Street, now known as the Hendrix House and painted red in his honour. The guitarist was here while recording his album, Live at Winterland. 

(Sadly, Winterland, the ballroom, skating rink and musical venue which closed on New Year's Eve, 1978 – most famous as the venue for The Band's last concert in 1976 which was filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz – is long demolished.)

Today the Hendrix house is a private residence, but there are now two murals (one showing the guitarist) on either side of the house. The shop downstairs sells, appropriately, "smoking paraphernalia". 

Country Joe McDonald, front man for the psychedelic rock band Country Joe and The Fish, was another of Janis' lovers – and another stop on my walking tour. 

McDonald lived in an apartment at 612 Ashbury, known as the Fish Tank to locals in 1967. 

This is where he wrote one of the finest anti-Vietnam War songs of the '60s, The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag, with its chorus: 

"And it's 1-2-3/What are we fighting for?/Don't ask me, I don't give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam..."

Of course, the Hell's Angels weren't the only dubious personalities in Haight-Ashbury around that time. Charles Manson and his "family" were renting a house on 636 Cole Street. They too were part of the Summer of Love, after Manson had been released from his second prison sentence.

Manson apparently selected H-A because he believed it would be easy to recruit lost souls. If so, he succeeded. But the deranged "guru" packed his deluded followers into a converted school bus in 1968 – and went to Southern California, culminating in the murders of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby.

Strictly speaking, the Jefferson Airplane House, on the corner of Fulton and Willard (a 17-room estate near the north-east corner of Golden Gate Park) wasn't part of the Summer of Love. The group didn't buy it until the following year, for $US70,000. And yes, they sold it at a vast profit.

Graham Nash's house at 737 Buena Vista West is ruled out for the same reason (he didn't buy it until the 1970s, though it's also the home where Jack London wrote his classic novel, White Fang). 

As for "the Patty Hearst hideout house" at 1235 Masonic Avenue, the heiress wasn't kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army until 1974. 

And by then, another Winter of Discontent had replaced the Summer of Love.

Perhaps you're too young to remember the Summer of Love? 

And even if you're old enough, you might struggle to recall it, given the famous saying  coined in the '70s: "If you remember the '60s, you weren't really there." 

The Summer of Love was a collision of cultures, generations, music and different forms of "getting high". There were many triggers: the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the end of Beatlemania, Bob Dylan "going electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and growing disaffection with the Vietnam War. 

But when was it actually born?

Some place it as early as January 1966 when Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) helped organise the first Trips Festival at San Francisco's  Longshoreman's Hall. That weekend, Kesey and at least 6000 other people (including the two headline acts, the Dead and Joplin's group, Big Brother and the Holding Company) drank a punch spiked with LSD (apparently Joplin ran to the Ladies and spat it out). 

However, most experts credit the Summer of Love as beginning in the Californian winter. 

On January 14, 1967, around 30,000 people gathered at Golden Gate Park for a concert/celebration known as Human Be-In. Among the speakers was Dr Timothy Leary, the scientist/LSD evangelist who that day coined perhaps the most famous academic phrase of the '60s: "turn on, tune in, drop out".

The next big milestone was the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, a two-hour drive south of San Francisco. Among the headline acts that weekend were Hendrix, The Who, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Otis Redding, the Byrds, the Mamas & the Papas, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin's breakthrough performance.

Suddenly, an estimated 100,000 young people – many, literally, with flowers in their hair – began converging on Haight-Ashbury.

The Summer of Love was about to begin ...

FIVE SUMMER OF LOVE VENUES TO VISIT IN SF

1. FILLMORE THEATRE, FILLMORE STREET

During the '60s, Fillmore West was one of the world's greatest rock crucibles. Bill Graham turned an old-fashioned movie theatre into a legendary musical venue which helped launch the careers of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Joplin, Hendrix. There's a fabulous collection of posters and memorabilia if you pay to watch the band performing. See thefillmore.com

2. MISSION HIGH SCHOOL, 18TH STREET

The city's oldest high school on its original site, the school is in the heart of the funky Mission District. Its most famous student is Carlos Santana, one of Rolling Stone magazine's 20 greatest guitarists of all time and the inventor of rock/Latin American fusion.

3. JANIS JOPLIN'S REHEARSAL HOUSE, 1090 PAGE STREET  

The house was owned by Peter Albin's uncle. Albin was the founder, bass guitarist and leader of Big Brother, before Janis joined. Entrepreneur Chet Helms (the Big Brother of the band's title) encouraged the band to jam here. Sadly, the house was destroyed in a fire and is now an anonymous condominium.

4. SFMOMA, 3RD STREET 

At the city's newly invented Museum of Modern Art, you can witness some of the famous artwork that ran in parallel to the Summer of Love. Take note, particularly, of the posters from Fillmore West in those heady days. The Who one day, followed by Santana the next. How good can it get? 

5. PICNIC ON HIPPIE HILL

No matter what time of year you're in SF, pack a picnic, a set of headphones and listen to some of the classic albums released in 1967.

KEY DATES IN SAN FRANCISCO'S EXTENDED SUMMER OF LOVE

1. AUGUST 2, 1966: The Beatles' last scheduled live concert, at Candlestick Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. Their last song was Long Tall Sally.

2. OCTOBER 6, 1966: The Love Pageant Rally in the Panhandle, the day LSD was made illegal in San Francisco. The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin played for free as thousands took a tab together as a mark of defiance.

3. JANUARY 14, 1967: Human Be-In event, held at the Golden Gate Park, was "organised" by artist Michael Bowen of the San Francisco Oracle to lament the illegality of LSD.

4. MAY 13, 1967: Scott McKenzie's hit, San Francisco, was released.

5. JUNE 16-18 1967: The Monterey International Pop Music Festival was held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, two hours south of SF. 

SAN FRANCISCO'S ANNUAL MUSIC FESTIVALS

Summer of Love anniversary or not, you'll find music whatever time of year you arrive in SF. Here's a short guide.

JANUARY SF Tape Music Festival.

FEBRUARY Noise Pop Music Festival.

MARCH Jewish Music Festival.

JUNE Stern Grove Festival.

JULY Fillmore Jazz Festival.

AUGUST SF Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival.

SEPTEMBER SF Symphony and SF Opera's opening galas.

OCTOBER Treasure Island Music Festival.

TRIP NOTES

MORE 

traveller.com.au/san-francisco

sanfranciscotravel.com

FLY

Fiji Airways has a new, twice-weekly flight from Nadi to San Francisco, with connections to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – which allows a Fijian stopover for a few days on the way there or back. See fijiairways.com

WALK

There are many Summer of Love walking tours. Check out detour.com/san-francisco/haight-ashbury, sanfranciscolovetours.com/ or wildsftours.com/

A self-guided $US4.50 version is available on citywalkingguide.com/haight

Steve Meacham travelled courtesy of Fiji Airways and San Francisco Travel.

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