The e Summer of Love

For the vast majority of Americans—teenagers included—the Summer of Love, like this much-ballyhooed 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, was a media event. Of course, the term "media event" meant something quite different in 1967. I recall from that year a few reports on the network evening news, some sporadic newspaper coverage, a handful of magazine pieces. It was all kind of vague and distant, not unlike the war in Vietnam, which was being filtered through those same few, faulty lenses. (Go figure.) The fact is, we're paying a lot more attention to those long-ago months now than we did back then, when they were actually happening. The boomer nostalgia machinery has been running full tilt, generating a major show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, a documentary on PBS, countless print articles and radio and TV mentions and all sorts of internet hoohah and whatnot. (The requisite Google search turns up 144 million hits for the words "summer of love," in .38 seconds.)

The problem with these cozy historical accounts is the way they impose coherence on a period of time that was completely incoherent. The '60s were chaos incarnate—assassinations, drugs, riots and demonstrations, a war with no clear purpose and no imaginable end in sight. You never knew exactly what madness each new day would bring, but you knew it would bring some. I was 16 in 1967, halfway through high school, a Catholic school kid from a big middle-class family in a small New Jersey town. Yeah, I knew there were a bunch of hippies hanging out in San Francisco, smoking pot and getting laid. (It was called free love, I think.) But my town probably had more guys fighting in Vietnam that year than it had hippies. And we were more interested in what was happening in Newark, just 20 miles away, where six days and nights of rioting and fires in July left 26 people dead. (Detroit burned that summer, as well.)

Forty years later, the Summer of Love is being presented, not as the spontaneous goof it was, but like some kind of theme park or something. It's all too much, as the Beatles once sang (on "Yellow Submarine," not "Sgt. Pepper's," their timeless contribution to the S of L), a mass-produced acid flashback without the acid, a family-friendly trip down a funny-smelling but essentially harmless psychedelic memory lane. Sure, there are references to VD epidemics and overdoses in the Haight, but it's mostly history through rose-colored tea shades. So what if awesomely talented Janis Joplin, the ultimate San Francisco hippie chick, didn't make it to 28? At least her heart-stopping performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that summer survived. We can watch it on the flat screen!

Don't get me wrong. The Summer of Love was real, and it deserves to be commemorated. But it can't be appreciated or understood as an isolated event. Context is everything, man. It didn't happen in a vacuum. When I think about 1967, I also think about 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered and the country really went to hell. (My 1991 novel, "Memoirs of a Caddy" (Simon & Schuster), is set in that momentous year.) I think about 1965, when Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was in heavy rotation on AM radio (!) and the Byrds and the Stones were turning up Sunday nights on the Ed Sullivan show, giving us all early lessons in how to be cool. And 1966, when the Beach Boys, who created the decade's first California dream, released "Good Vibrations," their masterpiece. I think about 1969, when my town and every other town had hippies to spare, and half a million of them showed up at Woodstock to smoke pot and get laid in the mud. (I skipped it to caddy, my job that summer. A friend borrowed my tent and left it there. That's my Woodstock story.) I even think about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the rest of the City Lights beatniks who planted the counterculture flag in San Francisco in the '50s. It's all connected, as any old pothead worth his weed would surely agree.

Looking back, it's easy to see that the '60s were, in many ways, a train wreck, a great big circus train full of clowns and ringmasters and tightrope walkers and wild animals that flew off the tracks at full speed. But I can't imagine there was ever a better time to be a teenager. We were changing—that's what teenagers do—and the world seemed to be changing right along with us. How cool was that? It was very cool. I have two teenagers of my own now. They are hardworking young men, great students who have handled the relentless pressure of modern teenage life with wit and grace. Sometimes, though, I worry that they aren't having as much fun as I did at their age, when the world was such a mess, but the music was so great and somehow, for a while, anyway, the bad stuff was magically balanced out by the good stuff.

So, yes, I'm on board with the Summer of Love, and with the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. In fact, now that I've given it some thought, I'm proud of the fact that it was my generation that came up with the idea. It's such a stupid, naive concept, a summer of love. But as another summer begins and another war drags on, maybe some love is exactly what we need. Maybe some peace, too.