The Psychedelic City-State

It was in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that the cultural rebellion fueled by LSD happened so vividly and with such intensity that it attracted worldwide attention. During the mid-1960s, Haight-Ashbury emerged as a vibrant neobohemian enclave, a community on the cusp of a maior transition. A small psychedelic city-state was taking shape, and those who inhabited the open urban space within its invisible borders adhered to a set of laws and rhythms completely different from the nine-to-five routine that governed straight society. More than anything the Haight was a unique state of mind, an arena of exploration and celebration. Music happenings were a cornerstone of the cultural revival in the Haight, providing a locus around which a new community consciousness coalesced. One of the early energy-movers in the local rock scene was Chet Helms, who had forsaken a future as a Baptist minister and hitchhiked from Texas with a young blues singer named Janis Joplin. Together these two rolling stones traveled the asphalt networks of America in search of kindred spirits until they settled in the Haight. Joplin fell in with other musicians, joining what would later become Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Helms formed the Family Dog, an organization dedicated to what was then the rather novel proposition that people should be encouraged to dance at rock concerts.

On October 16, 1965, the Family Dog held its first rock extravaganza at the Longshoreman's Hall, a dome-shaped union headquarters near Fisherman's Wharf. Dubbed "A Tribute to Dr. Strange," the evening featured the city's premier psychedelic rock band, the Jefferson Airplane, and a handful of other local acts. A large crowd turned out for this inaugural event, including quite a few political radicals who participated in the Berkeley Vietnam Day rally earlier the same day. Everyone was decked out in weird costumes. There were even a few Hell's Angels in attendance, and they joined the snake-dance weaving circles and figure eights through the hall.

The Family Dog dance was a huge success, and soon these concerts became a staple of the hip community. Each weekend people converged at auditoriums such as the Avalon Ballroom for all-night festivals that combined the seemingly incongruous elements of spirituality and debauchery. Thoroughly stoned on grass and acid and each other, they rediscovered the crushing joy of the dance, pouring it all out in a frenzy that frequently bordered on the religious. When rock music was performed with all its potential fury, a special kind of delirium took hold. Attending such performances amounted to a total assault on the senses: the electric sound washed in visceral waves over the dancers, unleashing intense psychic energies and driving the audience further and further toward public trance. Flashing strobes, light shows, body paint, outrageous getups--it was mass environmental theater, an oblivion of limbs and minds in motion. For a brief moment outside of time these young people lived out the implications of Andre Breton's surrealist invocation: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all."

The acid rock celebration was not confined to the concert hall but poured over into the street, which became the focal point of life in the Haight. The street was center stage, the place where you walked, talked, and dressed any way you wanted. With the pleasant climate you could hang out on the street most of the time, bombarded by a perpetual parade of stimuli--wild costumes, spontaneous theater, assorted antics, wandering minstrels. People were not just striking poses. To patrol the street in full regalia was an act of defiance, an open refusal to buy into the System. But it was also something more. For those who exchanged knowing smiles during their daily rounds, the long hair, beads, and bare feet were not only a symbol of estrangement hut a positive leap of consciousness, an affirmation of a radically difierent set of personal and social priorities. The Haight was becoming a testing area for fresh shapes of human experience. Dwellers in the acid ghetto frequently clustered into tribal or "intentional" family units. They practiced communal living arrangements in which private property was restricted to a bare minimum. Sexual exclusivity was often rejected in favor of group marriage. The loosening of sexual mores was in part an expression of a growing appetite for a common spirituality. Hangups or restrictions of any sort could only impede the healing process, which entailed nothing less than the reinstatement of ecstasy as the fulcrum of daily life.

Excitement was brewing in the Haight. Although the straight world had scarcely begun to notice what was happening, the psychedelic city-state was having its golden age. The energy was unmistakably sky-high: poets and dreamers had the upper hand. One way or another, it all revolved around drugs. The psychedelic experience was the common chord of shared consciousness that unified the entire community. People talked about acid all the time, how it blew apart preconceptions and put you through intense changes. "It seemed like we were in a time machine," said Stephen Gaskin, a self-styled Haight-Ashbury orator. "Nearly anything we did was cool in a sense because it was all learning....It was all paying attention, and you couldn't build experiments fast enough to catch acid."

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An excerpt from Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Grove Press)
Copyright 1985 by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain
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