Two of Lisa Law’s iconic ‘Sixties pictures grace The Allen Ginsberg Project today – Allen Ginsberg at the San Francisco “Human Be-In”, January 14, 1967, the famous “gathering of the tribes” – a key moment, in what later developed into the flowering of “the hippies”, the emergence of a “counter-culture” and the legendary “summer of love”.
Two figures to take note of here – Allen Cohen (1940-2004), founder and editor of the “underground newspaper”, the San Francisco Oracle, and artist and visionary, Michael Bowen (1937-2009), who, essentially, initially envisioned, and subsequently masterminded, the event. Bowen, in Cohen’s account, “centered much of the organizing energy..In addition to his expressionist painting and drawing, he was friends with the Beat poets from the North Beach era, and had spent time with [had, in fact, even been busted with] Tim(othy) Leary at Millbrook”. He was, in Cohen’s words, “a mystic hustler, who Allen Ginsberg had called the most convincing man he had ever known”. Bowen’s account – “My Odyssey: The First Human Be-In” is included (along with much other information on him – and on his teacher, John Starr Cooke) at The Royal Maze. There is also a five-part interview with Bowen by Luc Sala recorded in his home/studio in Amsterdam in 2005 that’s well worth checking out. Cohen’s psychedelic newspaper (issue number 5) famously announced the event:
Posters were also produced
Bowen later expressed some concern about the appropriation of the Native American condition (the “tribal” terminology, though, in a very real sense, this coming together of youth consciousness was a coming together of “tribes”) – and it was democratic, non-heirarchical. Bowen again: “There were some old rugs and inexpensive Indian cloth prints laid out on (a) flatbed truck along with some pillows. The well-known spiritual, intellectual, and writer friends that Michael Bowen had talked into coming to the event from all over America, sat on those pillows and on those rugs in a human-tableau designed as a piece of living art. They included Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Jack Weinberg, Michael McClure, Richard Alpert, Lenore Kandel, Suzuki Roshi from the local Zen Center, and Jerry Rubin, along with Bowen’s good friends, the drummers with their drums from the mountains of Big Sur, California. The people who were arriving could see that those “famous” individuals, whose work they had read directly, or read about in the media, had also journeyed to the Be-In to simply sit and be with them as equals.”
Cohen – “The Gathering of the Tribes” in a “union of love and activism” was an overwhelming success, Over twenty thousand people came to the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. The psychedelic bands played – Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lew Welch, and Lenore Kandel, read, chanted and sang. Tim(othy) Leary told everyone to “Turn on, Tune in and Drop out”, the Diggers gave out free food. The Hells Angels guarded the generator cables that someone had cut, Owsley Stanley gave out free acid; a parachutist dropped like an angel from the sky and the whole world watched on the evening news. Soon there would be Be-Ins and Love-Ins from Texas to Paris and the psychedelic and political aspects of the youth culture would continue to grow hand in hand everywhere.”
Michael McClure (from his introduction to Gene Anthony’s The Summer of Love -Haight-Ashbury At Its Highest – the entire book – text and photos – is available here):<
“The Be-In was a spiritual occasion, culminating from the countless preceding events, dances, thoughts, breaths, lovemakings, illuminations. The Be-In was a blossom, it was a flower. It was out in the weather. It didn’t have all its petals. There were worms in the rose. It was perfect in its imperfections. It was what it was and there had never been anything like it before.”
So, the precious “rare footage” (complete with acid-evoking superimpositions!). A white-robed Allen can be glimpsed, right as the film begins, before a shot of a translucent bubble. The afore-mentioned flatbed truck “stage” – Snyder, McClure, Leary, Maretta Greer, Allen center-stage, jubilant, clashing finger-cymbals, chanting “Om Sri Maitreya”. He’s also glimpsed, at the very end of the footage, off stage, conversing with the audience.
The filmmaker, “emessgeeable” – “I was a student at UC Berkeley at the time, and filmed this on regular 8mm silent film. This is the complete unedited roll of film, transferred to VHS in the 1980’s, and digitalized in 2009” – and, regarding the sound-track – “There are two songs used…the first is “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, the second is “Embryonic Journey”. Both songs are from the same Jefferson Airplane album (Surrealistic Pillow)”.
Further documentation of the event is available via Jerry Abrams’ 1967 film, “Be-In”. The original film had a sound-track by the rock band, Blue Cheer. This version below is without sound (all the better to make more acute our visual attention!)
[2016 update – and for some reason, we managed to overlook this! – excellent footage of Allen and Gary and Michael – and Lenore Kandel – the activities on stage – and mesmerising images of the joyous crowd. Next year, January 14, will be the 50th Anniversary of the “Be-In”]
[2017 update – and today’s the day! – January 14, 2017 – the 50th Anniversary of the “Be-In “. See here for the digital anniversary – and see here for the write-up in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle