“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.)