By W. Andrew Achenbaum
The Summer of Love’s epicenter (1967) was the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a 25-squareblock district of San Francisco. The neighborhood’s Victorian houses, originally built for Irish workers, were in 1967 rented to students and musicians (such as guitarist Jerry Garcia, his wife, and his band, The Grateful Dead) for $25 a month. That year, about 100,000 youth traveled to Haight-Ashbury from the United States and abroad.
What lured the oldest of the baby boomers—a largely white, middle-class group born between 1946 and 1964—to the Summer of Love? Rejecting parental expectations and societal norms, many came to pursue alternative lifestyles. Some were attracted by free concerts in the Bay Area: The Mamas and the Papas promoted the June 1967 Monterey International Pop festival with the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” The Haight-Ashbury offered sex and drugs. Others joined civil rights causes and Vietnam War protests.
The summer of 1967 added ferment to baby boomers’ formative years—hitherto stifled, the youth claimed, by pressures to conform. Hopes soared after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; shortly thereafter, the assassination of John F. Kennedy gripped Americans in grief. Laws buttressing Great Society initiatives—the Voting Rights Act and Medicare—dramatized the plight of poor minorities and frail elders. Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities exposed educational and class differences. Tensions flared between parents and children, the rich and the poor. Mistrust pitted authorities against rebellious youth.
Distemper fomented violence, causing ideas about community to unravel. A rising generation claimed its right to denounce the status quo, while setting about to rectify America’s troubles. Haight-Ashbury residents declaimed in A Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence (Cohen, 1966):
We hold these experiences to be self-evident, that all is equal, that the creation endows us with certain inalienable rights, that among these are: the freedom of the body, the pursuit of joy, and expansion of consciousness . . . . To secure these rights, we the citizens of the earth declare our love and compassion.
Parodying the Founding Fathers met with resistance. Major media outlets in 1967 caricatured hippies who adopted Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Reckless hedonism did not envelop all life in the Haight-Ashbury, however. Vietnam, epitomizing Cold War brinksmanship, came too close for comfort. Networks showed military escorts carrying body bags and maimed soldiers warehoused in Veterans Administration hospitals. Out of self-interest, Haight-Ashbury’s youth mobilized antiwar protests.
Others during the Summer of Love invented new ways of conversing and behaving in public squares and private spheres. Spiritual truths and radical ideals embellished their countercultural utopia (Selvin, 2007). “All you need is love, love/ Love is all you need,” The Beatles sang in 1967.
The Summer of Love permeated popular culture. Young women went braless under cast-off and psychedelic clothes. Young men sported long hair. Eastern rituals and occult symbols spread to U.S. college campuses. Strip malls offered yoga classes. The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967) extolled dreamlike hallucinations through LSD.
But Haight-Ashbury’s beacon dimmed quickly. “The ‘Summer of Love’ morphed into the ‘Autumn of Abuse,’ and then ‘Winter of Disrespect,’” said longtime San Francisco denizen Philip DeAndrade (Lindsey, 1987). Bay Area residents in October 1967 staged a mock funeral marking the Death of the Hippie.
Summer of Love themes were reenacted as baby boomers passed from youth into adulthood. Some consequences were immediate. Teenagers suffered botched abortions. Syphilis and gonorrhea rates statewide rose 165 percent between 1964 and 1968. The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic’s medical director bewailed the spike in sexually transmitted diseases among residents (Alexander, 2007).
Summer of Love’s Immediate Impact: 1967 to 1970
Reporters ridiculed Haight-Ashbury’s self-indulgent youth. “A generation and a half before, you could back a dump truck full of cocaine into a Jesuit schoolyard and none of those boys would get near it,” opined The Washington Post’s Nicholas von Hoffman, who (dressed in suit and tie) covered happenings there. “This mass of young people who had no political knowledge [and] were not particularly well-educated, but the thing you could get them to do was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” (Weller, 2012).
The happenings in the Haight-Ashbury failed to plant a new republic acceptable to middle Americans. By conjoining sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, however, youth forged a worldview that criticized and redirected U.S. cultural norms. In adolescence, these baby boomers rarely trusted anyone over 30; fifty years later they despair for having left such a legacy.
Throughout their lifetimes spent (re)inventing identities, the baby boomers’ continued affinity for sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll arose from experiences rooted or transmitted in the Haight-Ashbury. Eventually, the Summer of Love yielded to other newsmakers. And little was said then about gender-specific pay differentials, glass ceilings, or the toll of caregiving—issues that dog baby boomers now, and will continue to do so as they grow older.
Most parents of baby boomers taught their children that polite society disapproved of premarital sex; scandals highlighted divorces; as did homosexuality and other so-called deviant behaviors. Baby boomers advocated diverse sexual norms. Twenty-seven-year-old Hugh Hefner’s first-published edition of Playboy (in 1953) featured Marilyn Monroe as “Sweetheart of the Month” (Rosenberg, 2015). Crowds frequented burlesque halls to see topless dancers with silicone-enhanced breasts (Roberts, 2015).
Research undercut prevailing sexual beliefs, behaviors, and taboos. Alfred Kinsey (1948, 1953) found that 53.9 percent of males, and nearly a third of all females studied were 19 years old or younger at the time of first (premarital) intercourse. Half the men and a quarter of the women reported extramarital experiences.
In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive (“the pill”) for married couples. But in 1970, half of all college health centers still denied student prescriptions (Chaduvula, 2016). The pill’s availability heightened women’s capacity for intimacy (Frink, 2011). “Only the united beat of sex and the heart can create ecstasy,” proclaimed Anais Nin (Nin, 1977).
After the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (1914), Washington, D.C., in fits and starts constrained addiction and reduced access to illegal substances. Priorities changed: whereas nineteenth-century physicians saw value in the substance, cocaine came to be considered dangerous (Anderson, n.d.). Combat soldiers in World War II were given amphetamines to counter fatigue. In the 1950s, agents cracked down on such “pep pills,” then available on the black market.
Before 1937, grocery stores and pharmacies sold marijuana, ignoring the drug’s association with black jazz players and Mexican laborers. In the 1950s, stricter drug-related sentences on offenders did not curb sales; and within a decade, Beatniks and white middle-class youth smoked weed. Even so, only 4 percent of adults had tried marijuana by the late 1960s; 60 percent feared addiction (Robinson, 2002).
Heroin and speed, which were common in underground circles, were trumpeted for their mind-altering powers in an April 29, 1966 issue of Life magazine. President Nixon condemned “homosexuality, dope, immorality in general,” adding that “Communists and left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us” (Anderson, n.d.). The premature, drug-related deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison undoubtedly deterred more potential users than had Nixon’s rants (Nugent, 2007).
Rock ‘n’ roll
Rather than lure those who frequented orchestra halls, bars, and cabarets, record companies and broadcast firms in the 1950s turned baby boomers into a lucrative market. Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker put body language to verse. The Kinks’ drum and guitars gave libidinal thrusts to “You Really Got Me” (1964). Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (1967) coupled “For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.” Pat Boone had his own television show at age 23, which delivered his sanitized version of rhythm-and-blues. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (a 1957 musical made into a 1961 film) aroused audiences with songs of love and death. Ricky Nelson lamented broken dreams in “Lonesome Town” (1959).
Music appealing to baby boomers sometimes became political. Bob Dylan deployed electric guitars, a four-note steel guitar riff, and bongos while protesting police violence. Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” (1963) marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Who’s “My Generation” (1965) inspired adolescent searches for meaning. Allusions to sex, psychedelic drugs, and carnival-like eccentricity energized Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), which was released at the same time the Summer of Love was getting underway. Youth embraced The Beatles’ fusion of rock 'n' roll, soul, and pop into generational-based identities.
Concerns with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll nevertheless framed a vocabulary for a diverse, maturing generation that became more segmented with passing decades. Other events—9/11 and the Great Recession—surpassed how the Summer of Love contributed to baby boomers’ adult development.
Some Baby Boomers Preserve Haight-Ashbury’s Spirit: 1970 to 1990
Baby boomers rarely tarried in Dante’s “dark woods,” although many who searched for meaning in their vocations forsook opportunities to attain wholeness. Without feeling that turning 40 was “over the hill,” some considered disillusionment in mid-life a turning point, from youthful optimism to patient resignation, a transition underappreciated in baby boomer histories.
As Wendell Berry said in “The Real Work” (1983): “It may be that when we no longer know what to do/we have come to our real work/and that when we no longer know which way to go/ we have begun our real journey.”
Given its size and diversity, this cohort neither easily nor uniformly adjusted to diminishing expectations. They fret over wrinkles and extra pounds. Salaried workers did not anticipate age discrimination in employment, jobs becoming computerized or outsourced overseas, or underfunded employer pensions. Dave Barry (1991, 1999, 2010) portrayed the humor in fitness fads and flossing teeth as an antidote to disillusionment. Musicians conveyed different solace in singles such as Ian Dury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” (Dury, 1977): “Here’s a little bit of advice, you’re quite welcome, it is free/Don’t do nothing that is cut-price . . . ./Get your teeth into a small slice, the cake of liberty.”
Echoing Ian Dury, many baby boomers in the 1970s and 1980s focused on sex, drugs, and music wittingly or not rekindling the essence of the Summer of Love.
Several commercial editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1973), including Ourselves, Growing Older: Women Aging with Knowledge and Power (Doress and Siegal, 1987), accentuated women’s health issues. Bio-gerontologist Alex Comfort, M.D., delivered cordon bleu recipes for The Joy of Sex (1972) and its sequel, A Good Age (1976). Robert Butler, M.D., and Myrna Lewis debunked myths about later-life sex in Sex After Sixty: A Guide for Men and Women for Their Later Years (1976). NBC’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer broadcast wry queries on Sexually Speaking.
But none of these resources, not even Charles Silverstein and Edmund White’s Joy of Gay Sex (1977), braced baby boomers for the 1980s AIDS epidemic. By 1989, there were 100,000 AIDS cases in the United States, and another 100,000 by 1991 (UCSF, 2017). A decade later, HIV/AIDs was the fourth largest cause of death (14 million) worldwide; more than 35 million people live with HIV today (AVERT, 2017). Researchers initially sought magic bullets to eliminate or retard the virus. Caregiver teams partnered with faith-based congregations to minister to AIDS patients (Shelp and Sunderland, 1985). Homophobes meanwhile ascribed human misery to divine revenge.
In 1974, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) became the latest focal point for U.S. research, treatment, training, services, and prevention for monitoring the nature and magnitude of substance abuse. Interest in psychedelics did not revive until the late 1980s, when psycho-pharmacologists and neuroscientists designed new protocols (Langlitz, 2012). NIDA, which tracked drug patterns among the nation’s shrinking youth population, investigated whether marijuana facilitated dependence on non-prescription drugs, methamphetamines, or cocaine (Richards, 1981).
Reliance on illicit drugs was highest among users in their late teens and twenties, but some investigators reported substance abuse among baby boomers. “Awareness of the problem of drug abuse in the elderly population must be increased” (Patterson and Jette, 1999). This cohort’s alcohol consumption also was rising (Haughwout, LaVallee, and Castle, 2015).
Rock ‘n’ roll
New voices topped the charts, prodding young and old to move on. The group Queen affirmed the essence of rock; punk bands followed. Metallica highlighted psychedelic heavy metal. Elton John’s “Your Song” (1970) crooned: “I know it’s not much but it’s the best I can do/My gift is my song and this one’s for you.” Stars of the 1960s—Paul Anka and Judy Collins—updated their routines; character-acting and banjo-playing became Burl Ives’s métier.
The Beatles altered American culture while transfiguring the music industry. “Let it Be” moved all age groups. Its lyrics and tune moved young and old to reflect on transitions encountered as life moved on.
Baby boomers increasingly searched inward for meaning: “The ultimate goal of life remains the spiritual growth of the individual, the solitary journey to peaks that can be climbed only alone” (Peck, 1978).
Later Life Becomes Dystonic: 1990 to 2017
At age 80, Erik and Joan Erikson emphasized the dark, dystonic rhythms in tension with expansively felicitous aspects ascribed to each stage of human development. “Let us face the disturbing dystonic potentials of the stages and give them full attention and consideration as they appear” prominently in late life (Erikson and Erikson, 1997). The Summer of Love now resembled a Texas winter: bright skies pierced with clouds.
In Grace and Grit(1993) Ken Wilber posited that letting go strengthened coping mechanisms. Daniel Goleman, mapping a confluence between psychology and neuroscience in Emotional Intelligence (1995), asserted that language and behavior mattered more than a high IQ.
Commentators seized on darkness within, which unexpectedly generated “the power, the grace, the intensity, and the energy to become authentic sacred activists” (Palmer, 2006). James Hollis (2005) extolled synergy in reconciling loss and growth: “To be mindful of our fragile fate each day, in a non-morbid acknowledgment, helps us remember what is important in our life and what is not, what matters really, and what does not.”
Resilience could flower with aging. No stranger to late-life despair and disillusionment, poet Mary Oliver (1992), in “The Summer Day,” asked readers: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”
Cantankerous Henry Fonda, his conciliatory (on-screen) wife Katharine Hepburn, and (reallife) rebellious daughter Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981) foreshadowed aging for baby boomers growing older. In the 1980s, even more dystonic incidents followed. Chronic illnesses, strokes, and spreading obesity challenged cultural notions that age 60 was now the new 40. The media branded baby boomers as “greedy geezers” who jeopardized Social Security while bankrupting younger generations’ futures (Longman, 1982; Preston, 1984). The epithet surely did not apply to aging baby boomers who found themselves unexpectedly raising grandchildren or becoming caregivers for spouses, siblings, or friends.
Unlike naysayers, some people disputed the notions that the old were burdens, exacerbating generational inequities (Kingson, Hirshorn, and Cornman, 1986; Williamson, Watts-Roy, and Kingson, 1999). Activists such as Jane Fonda, Robert Butler, and Fernando Torres-Gil encouraged baby boomers to fight ageism and address global warming, when not taking solace in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (Achenbaum, 2013).
George Burns curried laughs comparing sex at age 90 to “trying to shoot pool with a rope.” Yet most baby boomers, including those admitting decades ago to a decline in intercourse, reported having fantasies; they enjoyed kissing and stimulation, and had had the same partner for at least a decade (Fox News.com, 2005). Viagra, available in 1998, helped men with erectile dysfunction; the Federal Drug Administration in 2015 approved a women’s libido pill (Addyi) for the market. Iconic celebrities like Jane Fonda marketed exercise videos for women wanting slimmer bodies and enhanced sexual appeal.
Experts recommended sex after age 60. Andrew Weil, M.D., prescribed love, traditional and nontraditional, for healthy aging (2007). Acceptance of homosexuality and a U.S. Supreme Court decision gave older adults the right to celebrate same-sex marriages (Liptak, 2015). “I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now,” declared Maya Angelou, “and to be able to love, because that liberates” (Coates-Connor, 2014). Erica Jong, having reached her 70s in 2015, still savored sex (Loh, 2015). Psychiatrist George Vaillant, director of a forty-year longitudinal study of men, succinctly concluded: “Happiness is Love. Full stop” (Stossel, 2013). Baby boomers older than age 60 divorced and remarried in a quest for fulfilling love (Lewis and Kreider, 2015).
Scientists stress the deleterious extent of binge drinking and misuse of (non)prescription drugs among aging baby boomers during the past decade (Vimont, 2013). Despite documenting correlations in alcohol problems from early through late life (HHS, SAMHSA, 1998), investigators cannot yet enumerate how many older people suffer from the “invisible epidemic” of substance abuse. Consumers underestimate the interactive effects from alcohol, over-thecounter medications, and prescription drugs. Healthcare professionals inadequately monitor medications older patients take at home. Meanwhile, millions around the world suffer from an absence of painkillers, not drug abuse (Gladstone, 2016).
Rock ‘n’ roll
Baby boomers’ parents played mood music. Their children enjoy rap, hip-hop, rock or heavy metal, and dance music. Neither disparities in gender nor income distinguish baby boomers’ preferences (Mizell, 2005).
Certain songs from the 1960s stayed with baby boomers over time. Some composers take into account population aging, in songs such as Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” (1997) and heavy metal band Judas Priest’s “Lost Love Lyrics” (2008). Mary Chapin Carpenter (2001) strikes the cohort’s passivity and inactivity:
A change of scene would sure be great;
The thought is nice to contemplate; But the
question begs why would you wait; And be
late for your life.
Meanwhile, students of aging invited baby boomers to flower; they promoted “successful,” “productive,” and “vital” “sage-ing” (Rowe and Kahn, 1998; Schachter-Shalomi and Miller, 1995; Thomas, 2015; Dovey, 2015). Unlike their professional predecessors, the new wave of experts detailed the dystonic. Without denying loss of control, chronic pain, and decline, they encouraged aging baby boomers to face finitude with dignity (Gawande, 2014). To link aging and dying may make heirs to the Summer of Love the first generation in history poised to live fully as they age and, ultimately, die, by struggling to attain what ultimately matters to them.
News of David Bowie’s death prompted 4.3 million tweets in seven hours. Madonna, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger issued tributes (Lee, 2016). “When people are growing up they’re generally looking for something in the culture that reflects their subconscious yearnings. Bowie certainly did that for my generation. In fact he probably did it for two or three” (Perry, 2016).
David Bowie (1947–2016) loved sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. His life was a relentless journey of reinvention, to develop a self at once inspirational, provocative, graceful, and dark (Hiatt, 2016). His clothes and lifestyle embodied a gender maverick’s persona. Bowie was a music innovator to the end—Next Day, written at age 66, had many references to death; Bowie completed Blackstar (2016) enduring the final stages of liver cancer (Perry, 2016). “As soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date,” Bowie declared, “I move on to another area” (The Week, 2016). He seized on advances in mass communication to perfect an original sound.
Bowie’s career and life choices personify what endures today from the Summer of Love: “A true and generous visionary, [Bowie] invited to the dance people who never felt welcomed there before” (Penn, 2016). Wrapped in sex, drugs, and rock ’n‘ roll, Bowie amplified an authentic amalgam of hopes, conceits, promises, and mishaps, one that traces back to the 1967 Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury.
W. Andrew Achenbaum, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the University of Houston, and scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas-Medical Center in Houston.
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Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Summer 2017 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “The Summer of Love, the Baby Boomers, and Their Arc of Aging.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store. Full digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available (and free of charge to ASA members and Generations subscribers) at Ingenta Connect.