Swirling graphics. Trippy music. And flowers draped dreamily in your hair.
All the sights and sounds of ‘60s psychedelia will start haunting us with a special vengeance this week as the world gets ready to spend the next four months clinking glasses (if not taking tokes) in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love.
Brace yourself for an orgy of reminiscences, including:
- A Time-Life box set devoted entirely to music from 1967, plus an expanded soundtrack to the pivotal Monterey Pop Festival, which kicked off that sainted summer.
- Exhaustive TV coverage of concerts and events held in June at the original be-in capital, San Francisco.
- A special double-issue of Rolling Stone, out next month, fetishizing the acid-laced season.
- A multimedia salute to the era’s art at New York’s Whitney Museum, which kicked off Thursday.
Given such a throbbing mass of attention, perhaps we should dub this “The Summer of Self Love”—at least for boomers, the bulkiest (and most demographically desirable) swath of the American population.
It’s their (and let’s be honest, my) greatest chance yet to gaze in the mirror at our own legacy, influence and general terrific-ness.
There’s only one problem with this: How can we pine for symbols and sounds that have barely had a chance to leave us?
Hippie-era musical flashbacks happen every five seconds on TV commercials that exploit our memories to hawk everything from retirement funds to laxatives. At the same time, stars from the `60s and early `70s maintain a virtual stranglehold on the touring industry, particularly during the summer. (The Beach Boys, again?)
Imagine my surprise, then, as I ventured to the Whitney for a sneak preview of its psychedelia show, only to find myself falling into a pitched state of, well, love.
Eying the scores of icons on display—from the mind-bending re-creation of the Joshua Light Show to footage of Timothy Leary pushing acid tests in Central Park—inspired not just the expected rush of smug memory, but an awareness of something made palpable by its very absence from the current climate: a sense of openness, a faith in change, and thus, a very special type of romance.
Looking around at the images spread over two floors, one couldn’t help but notice the pervasive hope that lives here. In the art’s bold colors, the music’s explorative nature and the drugs’ promise of transcendence there thrives a feeling that the world could be made vastly different. And that simple people had the power to make that happen, just because they said so.
We may see bits of these images blithely reproduced ad infinitum in the media these days but we barely take into account their real power, or their potential for the future.
In fact, the messages of psychedelia have proven nearly as captivating to kids too young to remember them as to the geezers who were actually there. My 18-year-old niece gets more jazzed about ‘60s music than I do (to her, it’s new). And the folks at Wolfgang’s Vault (the company that sells posters, T-shirts and memorabilia from the era) reports that roughly 25 percent of their customers come from Generations X or Y.
That should surprise no one given the overarching influence of music from that era, evident in a simple scan of concert T-shirts worn by the young. Mugs of the guys in Led Zeppelin or the Doors outnumber those from any current band you could name.
Unfortunately, the era also holds a certain intimidation factor for the young. John Mayer enjoyed a radio smash with his recent song “Waiting on the World to Change,” which talked about a generation that feels too enfeebled to do anything to affect the politics around them. How could such lethargy not make people pine for a time when those who hated a war didn’t just voice their anger in opinion polls, but in the streets?
Such a bracing contrast hints at the most positive thing that could come from the culture’s big self-stroke. If people experience the endless coverage of the psychedelic era solely as nostalgia—as the marketers would have us—we’ll be facing a morbid season indeed. But if we could somehow take it as a spur to radically reinvent its original spirit, then we’d really have something to love.