Traditional Home of the Way Out

by Sara Clarke

The Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1967. I would love it if someone could help me find out who took this photograph.

As I’ve said in the past, I sometimes feel uncomfortable about the place/travel aspect of this blog. I live where I live and am the person that I am. I have the culture that I’ve been brought up with. So to me, everything else is “other” and thus fair game for this website. This is why I like to talk about New York culture, and why I hope to come across an excuse to talk about the South Louisiana/Cajun culture I grew up in. I feel like if I’m talking about my own stuff as often as I’m creating a window on Vietnam or Nigeria or Turkey, at least it’s fair. But then I’m constantly worried that the goal of my blog is to other people through the arts.

I found out this week that someone has already done that. And they’ve done such a good job at it that the piece of American culture they chose to highlight feels not just like another place and time, but another planet.

I’m referring to the BBC documentary series Whicker’s World, in which British journalist Alan Whicker covered social issues in places as diverse as Haiti, Paraguay, and Hong Kong.

In the summer of 1967, Whicker cast his camera lens on San Francisco, and the resulting film is one of those odd examples of earnest British reportage in a world that is decidedly un-earnest — in the case of the UK press reaction to Bob Dylan shown in D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back — or maybe too earnest, in the case of this Whicker’s World thing. The honest, straight ahead, unironic treatment of the Haight-Ashbury scene is wilder for the fact that the hippies are completely honest in return. The documentary doesn’t flinch or attempt to exploit the titillating subject matter, which somehow makes the subject matter seem even stranger.

Poster from the Human Be-In designed by Michael Bowen, with photography by Casey Sonnabend. This event kick-started the Summer Of Love and alerted the media and the wider world to what was going on in San Francisco.

In reality, that world isn’t that far away from me. Yeah, it’s the other side of the country in a city I’ve never actually visited, but it’s a cultural moment that backlit everything that was to come in American culture. My mom had Janis Joplin records as a kid. LSD, not Crack, was the real spectre behind the curtain of After-School Specials and the Just Say No Club. Growing up in America in the eighties, The Sixties was the basis of everything. I don’t think The Summer Of Love stopped being relevant until probably September 11, 2001. And in a lot of ways it’s still relevant. But in Whicker’s documentary, it seems a million miles away. Is this my culture? Is this where I’m from? Worse, what about the society the hippies rejected? If the hippies look bizarre, the larger American culture — as described by the BBC, in any case — feels outright foreign.

I wonder if this is the feeling that inspired Gita Mehta to write Karma Cola?

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