A cultural history of the modern flower child
AP Photo/Dave Martin
Music lovers arrive at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., Sunday, June 12, 2011.
Forty-four years ago this past weekend, a group of musicians, impresarios, and true believers in the nascent, acid-soaked counterculture of San Francisco staged the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. Billed as three days of “Music, Love, and Flowers,” Monterey mixed 32 musical acts and an arts exposition with elements of a political rally and a church service, sparking a revolution. It was the first true rock festival—progenitor of and template for every one that followed, from Woodstock two years later to this month’s Bonnaroo.
Musically, Monterey was a jailbreak—a creative explosion. There had never been a festival line-up so varied, with room for Johnny Rivers' rockabilly, Hugh Masekela's trumpet, and Ravi Shankar's sitar. By embracing such a stunning range of musicians, and by giving instant legends like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and The Who national exposure for the first time, Monterey announced that rock had come of age as a serious art form. Monterey declared that it was in rock music, not jazz, where the most innovative musicians were to be found; that it was in rock, not folk, where the growing youth protest movements would find a voice; and it was rock stars, not poets, painters, authors, filmmakers or any other sort of artist who would be most effective at communicating new, counter-cultural values to mainstream American society.
That communication could be explicit, like when Country Joe McDonald sang his antiwar protest, the “I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag.” Or it could be implied, like with the long hair, love beads, and phosphorescent wardrobe of MC Brian Jones, all of which seemed a calculated assault on middle-class values. Or Janis Joplin, who took the stage and embodied the liberated woman in all her passionate contradictions, living feminism in way that academics like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan could only describe.
But the festival also marked the debut of a new national archetype—an entirely new stock character in the American repertoire soon to be as iconic, and arguably as influential, as the cowboy, quarterback, or frontiersman in a coonskin cap. At Monterey, the world met the hippie, who lived by the newborn creed of Flower Power in the experimental communities rising in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, perhaps best exemplified by the colorful, placid, and often communally-minded fans of the Grateful Dead. Before the festival, hippies were a few thousand denizens of one neighborhood in a medium-sized city. After Monterey, hippies and their sensibility would become a global phenomenon.
For most of the United States, the middle of 1967 would be known as “The Long, Hot Summer,” with race riots breaking out in seemingly incongruous cities like Buffalo and Tampa. Not so in San Francisco, where the success of Monterey and subsequent media attention set off the famed “Summer of Love," a mass migration of nearly 100,000 young people who converged on Haight-Ashbury, many sporting flowers as instructed by Scott McKenzie's saccharine rendition of “San Francisco.”
When America's youth flocked west, the media glare went supernova. In July of 1967, Time Magazine ran a cover story, "The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture." In August, CBS News broadcast a special report, “The Temptation of the Hippie.” The world discovered that Flower Power was often fueled by marijuana and LSD, bringing more crowds, and lots of unwanted attention from the law. By October, the Haight seemed played out, and a bunch of locals staged a mock “funeral for the Hippie” in Golden Gate Park. They declared the hippie dead, killed by greed, commercialism and media exposure.
They couldn't have been more wrong.
The media attention may have crushed the scene, but like Gallagher's sledgehammer on a watermelon, the blow also scattered seeds. Less than a month later, Eric Burdon & The Animals released “Monterey,” a single lionizing the festival, declaring that “religion was being born” there. The concert film that followed in 1968 helped nurture that new faith. The hippie's now-signature syncretic stew contained chemically-inspired mysticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Transcendentalism, neo-Pagan Earth worship, and a tangle of the philosophies that would come to be called New Age, all wrapped in a famously unkempt, middle-class baiting anti-fashion.
In 1969, Woodstock reaped what Monterey sowed. The masses of Baby Boomers who swarmed Yasgur's farm that weekend may have called themselves "freaks" or “heads,” instead of hippies, but the festival's animating spirit was pure Flower Power, straight out of the Haight. Almost by accident, Woodstock evolved over those three famous days from a rock festival into a kind of public art project, an experiment in alternative community that demonstrated, however briefly, the possibility of organizing a society around values diametrically opposed to those of corporate capitalist America. On camera at least, Woodstock made that new society look like heaven. Less than four months later, the Rolling Stones' disastrous festival at Altamont made it look like hell.
Corporate capitalism, though, has never met a menace it couldn't co-opt and exploit, and there was clearly big money in big concerts. Huge festivals, sans the utopian fantasies, continued into the 1970s. In 1973, the single-day Summer Jam at Watkins Glen drew a record-setting 600,000 fans to hear and see, sort of, the Allman Brothers, The Band, and Grateful Dead. In 1974, the Ozark Music Festival, featuring The Eagles, Blue Öyster Cult, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a rumored Beatles' reunion, drew an estimated 350,000 for a chaotic mid-Missouri weekend. (The Beatles, in case you were wondering, didn't show up.)