In 1967, just after the Summer of Love, The Atlantic published “The Flowering of the Hippies,” a profile of San Francisco’s new youth culture. “Almost the first point of interest about the hippies was that they were middle-class American children to the bone,” the author noted. “To citizens inclined to alarm this was the thing most maddening, that these were not Negroes disaffected by color or immigrants by strangeness but boys and girls with white skins from the right side of the economy ... After regular educations, if only they’d want them, they could commute to fine jobs from the suburbs, and own nice houses with bathrooms, where they could shave and wash up.”
A middle-class boy from the right side of the economy: That was my mother’s cousin Joe Samberg. When they were growing up, she spent every Thanksgiving at his family’s home in the upscale Long Island suburb of Roslyn Heights. His father was a successful businessman who, somewhat incongruously, had far-left sympathies. Throughout the 1960s, Joe and his four brothers became more and more radical. Two of the Samberg boys eventually went down to Cuba to cut sugar cane for Castro’s revolution.
In 1969, when Joe was 22, he moved out to California. By then, the Haight-Ashbury scene described in the Atlantic article had mostly migrated across the bay to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. Rents were a little cheaper there, and for those who couldn’t pay rent at all, the weather was a little warmer. The college town was also more sympathetic to the long-haired kids who crowded the sidewalks day and night—talking, protesting, kissing, dancing, fighting, and taking lots and lots of drugs.
Joe was part of it all, but he was also slightly outside of it, watching everything through the lens of his camera. Years later, when he was a highly regarded professional photographer—after he’d settled down and raised three children (including the comedian Andy Samberg)—he showed me some of his early portraits from Telegraph Avenue. They’ve been in my mind’s eye ever since, a counterpoint to all the popular images of peace signs, daisy chains, and Aquarian circle dances. The reality Joe saw was very much like the one the Atlantic author described: hordes of kids who had been lured to California by utopian ideals and then settled into a life of sex, drugs, and lethargy.
Joe often quips that he headed out west for the same reasons as Jojo in the Beatles song: “for some California grass.” But like most kids who landed in the San Francisco area during the late 1960s, he had very personal reasons for leaving his old life behind. In 1965, his college girlfriend was killed in a car accident just as they were starting to talk about marriage. Six months later, his mother died of cancer. “I really started to sink,” he says. “I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t find anything about school that would hold my attention for very long.”
So he dropped out of Emerson College and moved down from Boston to Manhattan, where he found work at a color lab in midtown. He spent his free time in Harlem, seeing James Brown and other R&B singers at the Apollo Theater, or in the rough alphabet streets of the East Village, hanging out in Andy Warhol’s orbit. He watched the Velvet Underground play at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, then went back to dilapidated apartments to snort meth. “What I was doing was grieving,” he says now. “But I was too young to understand that. All I knew was I was desperate to feel good again.”
In 1969, just after he got laid off from his job, his youngest brother, Frank, came to town. Frank had been living out in Berkeley, and he persuaded Joe to head back there with him. The drive took three or four days, almost all of it through dreary, frozen fields. They crashed on a floor somewhere in Ohio. In Wyoming, after they locked themselves out of their car, the local sheriff let them in, looked them over, and then told them never to come back to town. They crossed the Sierras during a blizzard, barely able to see the road. Eventually, they felt their car heading downhill instead of up.
“And then,” says Joe, “all of a sudden, we found ourselves in this lush valley. It looked like a first-grade primer. The hills were rolling and green, all soft and curved like the beautiful body of a young woman. The sky was perfectly blue. And the clouds were all puffy, you know? Pure and white and glowing. I almost wondered, ‘Did we run off the road and fall into paradise?’”
When they pulled into Berkeley, the hippies were everywhere—standing on every corner, lining every avenue. Joe had never seen anything like it. “People don’t really understand this now, but at that time, in most of the country, you couldn’t have long hair and not be in danger of being beaten up,” Joe explains. “In Boston, cars used to come screeching to a halt and guys would jump out and want to kill me. I’d have to run.” Even in New York, whenever he left Greenwich Village, “I was continually harassed, spit on, and shoved around.” And Joe wasn’t even really a hippie. “I was hip,” he says. “That meant boots, black jeans, a black t-shirt, a leather jacket—the kind of thing you’d maybe see the Rolling Stones wearing.”
In California, the flower-child style was at its apex. “People had really developed their individual looks,” he says. “They were no longer trying to figure out what being a hippie meant. I found that really stimulating. It made a great subject for a photographer—even though, by any middle-class standards, these people were living totally miserable lives.”
Joe found a place to live and began spending his days out on the sidewalk. “I didn’t really own any clothes other than the ones I had on,” he says. “I hardly ever ate. Whenever I had money, my priorities were drugs, film, and food—in that order.”
There were two types of drug users on Telegraph Avenue. One group unapologetically shot heroin. The other group took mind-altering drugs but believed that opiates were a sinister way for The Man to keep poor people from climbing out of the ghetto. At first, some of the kids put up signs declaring, “No heroin dealers here.” Over time, Joe says, those signs came down and more and more people started using hard drugs. “All that stuff about consciousness was just sort of dropped.”
Looking at Joe’s pictures, it’s clear how young some of those addicts were. One group of junior-high-aged girls, known as the Mini Mob, often showed up in Mickey Mouse t-shirts. “There were people there who had those young kids very much in their thrall,” says Joe. “They told them, ‘Listen, you don’t need to go to school. Everything you need to learn in life is right here on the street.’”
A lot had changed in Berkeley since 1964, when thousands of students—many of them wearing suits and ties—gathered at Sproul Plaza to champion civil rights and demand free speech. Campuses had been the sources of the counterculture’s boldest ideas, the places where young activists mobilized to fight segregation and the Vietnam War, taking classes in political theory and Eastern philosophy.
Now, college dropouts were congregating with misfits and runaways on the other side of Sather Gate. The outrage was still there, but the issues were murkier. While Joe was hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, his brother Paul published an anthology of underground newspaper diatribes called Fire! Among other things, the book ridiculed the whole idea of higher education:
College is a fantasy in the suburban mind of Mr. and Mrs. Work-Hard-Our-Life-Is-No-Fun-But-the-Kid-Will-Get-What-We-Can’t-Afford. The campus is a cultured nest egg where I-Don’t-Understand-He’s-Always-Been-a-Good-Boy and Oh-No-She’s-Not-That-Kind-of-Girl stroll hand in hand up the ladder to success, their tender heads floating in the lessons of the gentle professor. Only the kids never saw the professor. He was in his lab developing the new improved tear gas the kids are coughing under while the university president sits above it all.
Even at the time, though, Joe says he was “too sarcastic” to fully buy into the radical agenda. “The average person on the avenue was almost completely ignorant politically,” Joe says. “All they really cared about was drugs, drugs, drugs. They were nihilists and hedonists. They just supported anything that was against the establishment. There was no intellectual foundation. The spirit everyone had talked about—the feeling of love and new age and progressive politics—was dying a miserable death.”
Joe eventually got married, started a family, and settled into a middle-class existence, but he never moved away from Berkeley. There are still homeless people hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, but as Joe points out, they barely even pretend to be hippies anymore. The movement itself is dead, and so are many of the people who used to frequent the strip.
“That was my problem with the whole thing,” says Joe. “There’s no growth for people if they’re continuously on drugs. It started out with all this higher thinking—expanding your mind to become more conscious of what’s really going on in the universe. But once the drugs took over, all of those big ideas disappeared.”
The author of the Atlantic article, Mark Harris, reached a similar conclusion. He was a generation older than the Baby Boomers, but as a white New Yorker who wrote for Ebony and The Negro Digest, he was highly sympathetic to the youth activism of the 1960s. He just didn’t think the hippies, in particular, were bringing about any meaningful change. Drugs had stunted their emotional development, leaving them at the mercy of “their illusions, their unreason, their devil theories, their inexperience of life, and their failures of perception.” Instead of promoting brotherhood and equality, they’d taken over public spaces, picked all the flowers in Golden Gate Park, and refused to turn their music down to let their hardworking neighbors sleep. And as they begged for money and frequented free clinics, these children of the suburbs siphoned resources away from the urban locals who needed them most.
Still, the hippies did end up having a lasting impact on American culture—even if it wasn’t quite the one they’d intended. “After a while, I started to notice something,” Joe says. “All those people who used to want to beat the hell out of me because of my long hair—now their hair was long!” In the mid-1970s, when Lynyrd Skynyrd sang “Sweet Home Alabama” at the Oakland Coliseum against the backdrop of a giant Confederate flag, they looked oddly similar to the hippies of Telegraph Avenue. “So, yeah,” Joe concludes. “I guess there was a revolution.”