By Tony Sclafani
You’d think that San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene would have been, like, totally happening during the Summer of Love. That’s what rock lore would have you believe, anyway.
Not according to Bob Weir.
Weir’s former band, The Grateful Dead, found the bohemian district a hip place to make music when they arrived in 1966, but they had little love for The Haight by summer 1967.
“The Summer of Love was pretty much the death knell of what was happening, of the little renaissance that we had in San Francisco in the mid-1960s,” says Weir by telephone during a break from touring with his current band Ratdog. “If you ask anybody who lived in the Haight-Ashbury before the Summer of Love, they’ll all tell you the same thing.”
The Grateful Dead was started (as The Warlocks) in Southern California in 1965, but the band relocated to the Haight community in late 1966, just as it started to become the center of the then-new hippie counterculture.
At the time, the band wasn’t the rock institution we know, but a rag-tag group of musicians from very different backgrounds who melded together folk, jazz, blues and rock to the delight of a cult following and the bewilderment (or horror) of almost everyone else.
The Dead built up a following of obsessive devotees, partially due to its original approach to music and partially due to the caché of cool the band had by being associated with author and LSD guru Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. By 1966, The Dead had become the house band for Kesey’s psychedelic parties, known as the Acid Tests; it was there they established the long, improvisational jams that would become central to their music.
The group signed with Warner Brothers Records, and their self-titled debut album was unleashed to a somewhat indifferent world in March 1967.
“It really was just a modest success,” recalls Weir. “It got a real good review in Downbeat magazine, which thrilled us. We got a little radio play. We got minor attention from one of the tunes that was on the album, ‘The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion).’”
A distinct musical personality was also emerging from the region. The Dead and other artists like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish were forging a new freeform rock aesthetic. The scene was a culmination of both the Beat-Poetry and folk-music boons of a few years before.
“Before the Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury was a youth ghetto where the students who went to San Francisco State all stayed,” recalls Weir, who was himself 19 years old at the time. “It was a low-rent area where kids would flock to, and there were lots of artists and musicians and writers. It was a really fun place. The horizons were totally limitless.”
Just as the Summer of Love got into full swing, The Dead made its now-legendary appearance at The Monterey International Pop Music Festival, June 18.
“It was like stepping into a dream,” Weir says of the event. “It was a fairly spectacular dream, but it was sort of slow motion. Everything was there just like everybody expected it — all the big stars, all the excitement. But the excitement was sort of low-key excitement.”
Weir remembers jamming backstage with a “tall, skinny black kid with a headband” who turned out to be Jimi Hendrix, and almost being knocked senseless by a guitar thrown by The Who’s Pete Townshend during “their demo derby routine.”
Back at the Haight, reporters were descending, which meant trouble.
“The media just couldn’t understand (the environment). It was beyond them,” Weir continues. “So they sensationalized what they could understand: the drugs, the free love — all those aspects of what may or may not have been happening there. So the area became immediately a magnet for all the riffraff and misfits who were rattling around the country. They rattled on out to the coast and set up camp in the Haight-Ashbury. And it changed overnight, the complexion of the place. Suddenly the streets were full of speed freaks and drug addicts, and it was just a very different place. We moved out.”
The Dead’s move may have been hastened by their widely publicized drug arrest on Oct. 2, 1967. Five days later, a mock funeral procession, called “Death of a Hippie,” was held. By March 1968, the Dead had relocated to the more tranquil Marin County.
“I figured it was over,” Weir says. “At the time I didn’t want it to be over, but we had to call a spade a spade. At first we moved away from the Haight-Ashbury, (but we) still stayed in the city. And then, as soon as we could muster the wherewithal, we got out of town entirely.”
The Summer of Love dissipated, but its influence loomed over The Dead for the remainder of their careers. Times changed, but whenever people wanted to beam back to Summer ’67, all they had to do was find a Dead show, where tie dye, long hair, hippie vibes, and long jams still ruled the day.
The Summer of Love gave The Dead an anything-goes point-of-view from which to approach their music and their lives. This is one reason Weir doesn’t mind talking about the era 40 years later.
“It’s good for me because it makes me go back and revisit what it was that we had going that I still have going,” he notes. “It makes me take stock in what it was that we discovered back then that still makes sense — that sense of openness, that sense of anything is possible. I still retain that.”