Los Angeles: The True Home of the Summer of Love?

Was Los Angeles the Real Epicenter of the Summer of Love?
George Brich/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It was 50 years ago this month, to paraphrase the opening from the Beatles’ paisley-spangled soundtrack of 1967, that the Summer of Love blossomed across the land — or at least in those hippie-sanctified quarters where the Baby Boom’s best and brightest musicians commingled amid what we’re assured were good vibes, even better dope and a purity of purpose that transcended crass commercialization.

The conventional wisdom holds, then as now, that San Francisco, home to the Haight, Golden Gate Park Love-Ins and ‘60s stalwarts like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin’s breakthrough vehicle, Big Brother & the Holding Company, was the Summer of Love’s undisputed nexus. “Summertime will be a Love In there,” Scott McKenzie promised in “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair),” the iconic Top 10 hit released ahead of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival where Joplin and Jimi Hendrix rendered career-making performances.

But musicians and their retinues who were based in Los Angeles that summer posit an inconvenient counterargument to the countercultural conventional wisdom: Los Angeles was just as much the Summer of Love’s true musical and cultural home.

Blasphemy? Consider that by the time the Summer of Love rolled around, L.A.’s music scene, which developed largely independently of San Francisco’s, had already delivered an avalanche of generation-defining rock music: The Byrds (which would seed both Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Flying Burrito Brothers), the Buffalo Springfield (whose members included Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay), the Mamas & the Papas, the still-relevant Beach Boys; psychedelic garage bands like Love, the Seeds, and the Leaves, the folk-tinged pop of the Turtles and the Association, and not least the wildly avant-garde Frank Zappa. L.A. was also home to some of the finest recording studios, engineers and producers — not to mention Capitol Records, the Beatles’ U.S. label (Blue Jay Way, immortalized in George Harrison’s song released later in 1967, is in the Hollywood Hills).

Still, as the Summer of Love dawned, San Francisco’s rock hierarchy persisted in patronizing the L.A. music scene as its gauche, hit-parading stepsister. As Zappa later recalled, “San Francisco in the mid-‘60s was very chauvinistic and ethnocentric. To the Friscoid’s way of thinking, everything that came from their town was really important Art, and anything from anyplace else (especially L.A.) was dogsh–.”

Jimmie Fadden, drummer and singer in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, formed in Long Beach in 1966, recalled sharing a bill at the Troubadour with San Francisco’s Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks. “His little introduction was, ‘Hi, I’m Dan Hicks and we’re from … The City,’ ” Fadden says today. “San Francisco always looked down on L.A. as this ugly suburb to the south — people considered themselves to be more culturally advanced.”

But as Zappa pointed out, “No matter how ‘peace-love’ the San Francisco bands might try to make themselves, they eventually had to come south to evil ol’ Hollywood to get a record deal.” In fact, albums by San Francisco-based bands most indelibly associated with the Summer of Love — including the Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and the Grateful Dead’s 1967 debut — were recorded at RCA Studios in Hollywood. Even McKenzie’s “San Francisco” — written by the Mamas & the Papas’ John Phillips as a come-on to the Monterey Pop Festival, which he was producing with Lou Adler, was written and recorded in L.A. “San Francisco didn’t have the recording industry, the history of people associated with that who had the experience,” says Fadden. “It couldn’t really hold a match to L.A. when it came to making records.”

And what records they were. L.A.’s bands provided what is arguably the more enduring and pertinent soundtrack to the Summer of Love, reflecting both the summer’s paeans to all-conquering love — The Turtles knocked the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” out of No. 1 in March with “Happy Together” — as well darker premonitions that Flower Power had its limitations. The Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Stephen Stills’s brooding contemplation on the police violence against longhairs he’d witnessed during the Sunset Strip riots the year before, peaked at No. 7 in the spring of 1967, while the Doors’ noirish “Light My Fire,” released as a single from the band’s debut album in May and a No. 1 smash by July, spent three weeks atop of the charts at the apex of the supposedly flower-strewn summer.

Despite the intercity rivalry and opposing musical aesthetics, L.A. and San Francisco shared much during the Summer of Love, with accommodation made for geography. Love-Ins at L.A.’s Griffith Park were analogous to those in Golden Gate Park and were just as spontaneous and peaceful. “A Love-In was just a Sunday afternoon when the word of mouth was, ‘Everyone’s going to meet there around noon,’” recalls the L.A. musician and veteran photographer Henry Diltz. “Most of the people were on psychedelics. It was all totally lovely, never an ugly moment.” Politically charged benefit concerts flourished as readily in L.A. as its northern neighbor. Typical was a “Rally-Extravaganza Peace & Freedom Party” in MacArthur Park — following a demonstration against Dow Chemical in Torrance — that Fadden’s Dirt Band headlined.  “We were off the leash and pretty much roaming free,” Fadden recalls of the mood in L.A during the summer of ‘67. “Everything was peace and love and beads — I still have mine,” he adds somewhat sheepishly.

L.A. was also just as potent a magnet as San Francisco during the Summer of Love for Boomer outlanders seeking the generation’s definitive compass point.

Ron Stone was attending law school in Brooklyn in 1967 when he and his wife—and their border collie—made a pilgrimage to California that started at the Monterey Pop Festival and ended in L.A. The journey affected Stone profoundly. “I’d come out for the Summer of Love, and there were no touchstones to understand where you were and what was going on,” Stone says. “It was sort of, pardon the expression, mind blowing. That was the genesis of starting a new life. I became a hippie that summer.”

Within a year, Stone had ditched law school, grown out his hair and moved to L.A., where he opened a used-clothing store next to the Troubadour. He soon joined Elliot Roberts and David Geffen in Lookout Management, which ended up representing the cream of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter mafia, including Joni Mitchell and CSN&Y.

What Stone found during L.A.’s Summer of Love was a constant daily and nightly parade of longhairs down the Sunset Strip. “There was a string of nightclubs on the Strip, maybe 25 clubs with live bands every night,” John Hartmann, former agent for the Buffalo Springfield, recalls. “And there was a whole movement of people who went there every night — hundreds and hundreds of people.”

“There were thousands of kids, literally,” Stone adds. “When having long hair was an identifiable stigma, the culture clash was profound.”

In the end, the San Francisco-L.A. dichotomy on display during the Summer of Love eventually morphed into what became known as the West Coast sound, informed in equal parts by L.A.’s pop and rock craftsmanship and San Francisco’s hand-sewn aesthetic.

“There were L.A. musicians and San Francisco musicians, but they all played the same clubs up and down the coast in Santa Cruz, San Diego,” Stone says. “They were extensions of the same environment populated by the counterculture. The connecting tissue was the music.” Adds Fadden, “There was excitement about what was taking place — it was spreading and people were becoming more aware of it in other parts of California.”

Stone believes, as do others, that the Summer of Love actually persisted through two more flower-strewn years, all the way to the very end of the ‘60s. And while the birthplace of the Summer of Love may forever be in dispute, one could make an equally compelling argument that it finally ended for good, in both the San Francisco and Los Angeles, in December 1969, at the bloody stagefront at the Rolling Stone’s misbegotten free concert at Altamont, and with the handing down of murder indictments for Charles Manson and five members of the Family. Those twin shocks, finally, shook the flowers out of everyone’s hair.

“That was the end, full stop,” says Stone. “That’s when the culture turned dark, hard drugs and violence took hold, and the Summer of Love was dead.”

Michael Walker is the author of “Laurel Canyon: the Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.”

(Pictured: Revelers on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, 1966)