The responsible thing to do, before I walked into San Francisco’s de Young Museum to check out “The Summer of Love Experience”—the ethical thing, journalistically speaking—would have been to drop acid. To have popped a vintage dose of White Lightning, wandered in there with my ego in dancing splinters and my hindmost brain chambers all throbbingly illuminated, and just let it happen, daddy-o. But no more acid for me, thank you. No more tripping—not since the Great Ontological Destabilization of my mid-20s. These days I value my private pizza slice of reality too much. So I approached this large and many-faceted exhibition not humming in vibrational sympathy, not like a glowing child of the universe, but with the skeptical, half-despairing sobriety that passes for ordinary, unmedicated consciousness in 2017.
Those dirty hippies and their blown minds—why are we thinking about them now? Because the Summer of Love, when the continent decisively tipped and everything in America that wasn’t nailed down went sliding and clattering westward into the foggy bowl of San Francisco, was precisely 50 years ago. Psychedelia, like your correspondent, just hit middle age. So here we are at the beautiful de Young, moving through the 10-room exhibition at that characteristic dazed-survivor museumgoing pace, surrounded by Jefferson Airplane posters and looming faceless, bell-bottomed mannequins, with light shows flickering and acid rock acidically rocking and Peter Coyote narrating the audio tour in his pleasantly attitudinal veteran’s rasp. Look, over there in that glass case: It’s Jerry Garcia’s “Captain Trips” top hat, a bespoke item decorated with stars and stripes and bearing a large scorch mark, like the Beowulf manuscript. And look: There’s Janis Joplin’s handbag.
“The Summer of Love Experience” … You can track some of America’s social changes since 1967 in the shifting codes of that final word, from “Are you experienced?” to “How was your experience?,” from Hendrixian initiation to consumer satori, from personal liftoff to wraparound retail. Which this show at the de Young does at times resemble, or feel like: a charged commercial space. Not an easy effect to avoid, I suppose, when so much of the assembled material—the hip, jabbing language, the sensory engineering—has the pulse of a kind of delirious advertising. (Also, those damn mannequins.)
But I’m formulating a larger quibble with this show: Where are the drugs? Their symptoms and sequelae are everywhere, of course, splattered wall-to-wall and chiming from the overhead speakers. But where, in this “Summer of Love Experience,” is LSD itself? Because—not to be too drearily materialistic about it—without that, none of this. Without the willing deliverance of an entire generation to artificially induced mental blowout, to swiftly sacramentalized psychic disruption/expansion, no Jefferson Airplane posters. Indeed, no Jefferson Airplane. A 50-year retrospective might have been a good moment to confront this a little more squarely: The pop culture of the ’60s, with all its ideological ramifications and projections, was a by-product of the drugs.
If there’s one man who should have his own room at this exhibition, his own shrine—perhaps a reproduction of one of his bootleg laboratories, where from 1965 to 1967 he lovingly distilled about 800,000 doses of acid—that man is Augustus Owsley Stanley III. Who?, you might well ask. Potent personality though he was, Owsley—as the Deadheads knew him—was not a face (he was seldom photographed) and not a promoter-guru like, say, Timothy Leary. He made no speeches and issued no manifestos. Yet no single individual did more than he did to hot-wire the new mind. Ancestrally cranky and libertarian—his grandfather and namesake, a U.S. senator and former Kentucky governor, once complained, “You cannot milk a cow in America without a federal inspector at your heels”—Owsley channeled his wild Americanism through diligent processes of testing and refinement, a profane postindustrial alchemist whose crucible of transformation was mass consciousness itself. His Blue Cheer, his White Lightning—practically, programmatically, brain by brain, they got the job done, the distribution being handled in large part by his friends the Hells Angels. Owsley also used sound waves: A swimming accident when he was a teen had left him with peculiar hearing powers, and for several years he was the Grateful Dead’s obsessively innovative and perfectionist soundman, prime technologizer of the drugs–music nexus.
So it is quite proper that the de Young’s “Summer of Love Experience” begins, in January 1966, with the Trips Festival. Though he goes unhonored here, this was Owsley’s great subterranean debut: a three-day gonzo bacchanal and genesis event held at Longshoreman’s Hall, where Merry Pranksters cavorted with Hells Angels, the underground felt its oats for the first time, and Owsley made sure that everyone had as much of his latest batch as they needed. LSD, unlike peyote or ayahuasca or even hallucinogenic mushrooms, was (as yet) without anthropological baggage. As Jesse Jarnow notes in his psychedelic history, Heads, it belonged “to no particular tradition anywhere in the world … Invented in Switzerland, it [was] manufactured in the United States … indigenous to any region where American ingenuity might make it so.” And Owsley’s acid was the newest and the best. At the de Young, the furor of those nights is transmitted to us—in a thin, fluttering signal—via a multiscreen looping of Ben Van Meter’s S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening. Van Meter legendarily filmed the first night of the festival with his Bolex camera, re-exposed the original film on the second night, and did the same on the third night. The resulting blobs-in-nirvana footage, if nothing else, is a monument to that era’s high tolerance for chaos. (If you could take it, you got an Acid Test diploma, like the one featured on a wall in the museum.)
A couple of rooms over, I do at last find—expressed in a curatorial masterstroke—something so drug-redolent that I nearly fall over. I mistake it, at first, for some kind of magical leftover or religious relic. It looks like a shaman’s tunic, the jerkin of a medicine man, stiff with dense embroidery: gods and maidens and galloping horses. But what it is, the label on the glass case tells me, is the top half of a set of hospital scrubs, decorated—as art therapy—by an ontologically destabilized post-LSD psychiatric patient. The symbols are from the tarot: Major and Minor Arcana. Wow. Here we are at the cave-mouth of the archetypal, trying to get ourselves together. Here, poignantly conjoined, are breakdown and (we hope) recovery—stitch-by-stitch reintegration of the surging, inundating mind-stuff that was Owsley’s prescription for America.
“The counterculture epitomized by the Summer of Love,” writes the historian Dennis McNally in an essay in the exhibition’s catalog, “touched every facet of American culture, offering alternatives to the mainstream that still flourish.” Psychosis is certainly an alternative to the mainstream, as are organic bananas. These days we’re taking drugs just to feel normal, and the binary thinking for which LSD was supposedly the cure has possessed us on every level. Everywhere you look, and even in the depth of your own nature, the deadly dualisms are running neck and neck. “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin,” writes Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on climate change, “is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” As the de Young smoothly receives its visitors, kissed by the zephyrs of Golden Gate Park, across the bay in Berkeley the very air smolders. It’s the Summer of Hate Speech: Someone punches an antifascist; someone pepper-sprays a Trumper. Free speech has gotten all fucked up. The question Are you for Ann Coulter or against her? is clearly the wrong one. But what is the right one? What did you leave us with, Owsley? Holistic wreckage. A momentary zap of the annealing vision. And now it’s gone, long gone.