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Festivals had been held for many years in the jazz world but the rock festival as we would come to know it had its seeds in the Trips Festivals put on by Fillmore impresario Bill Graham in January 1966 at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco. The house band for these events was the Grateful Dead and they were billed as an attempt to achieve the psychedelic experience without drugs, though acid, still legal at the time, was available and widely consumed.
Big Brother And The Holding Company played along with other local bands and the events were a big success. No surprise there: great bands, trippy light shows and plenty of acid from Owsley's lab is a recipe for success.
In the spring of 1966, various writers, poets, musicians and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (such things always attract a mime troupe and jugglers too for some reason - why is juggling part of the alternative lifestyle?) formed the Artists' Liberation Front. One of many things they did was to produce the Free Faire, an outdoor, free version of the Trips Festivals with rock bands and poets all getting their groove on.
The most important of these was The Human Be-In (even hippies love a pun). There was at least one other Be-In in Malibu State Park at which the Electric Flag played, but it was the San Francisco one labelled as A Gathering of the Tribes that went down in history as an important cultural event. Held on January 14, 196, it attracted 20,000 people from the sprawling hippie, alternative, drop-out, biker, drug and free love community.
The Dead played along with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Airplane and even Dizzy Gillespie. Allen Ginsberg got up and chanted some Hindu mantras - as you do - all in an attempt to usher in a new era and spirit.
Timothy Leary asked the crowd to "turn on to the scene, tune in to what is happening and drop out of high school, college, grad school, junior executive, senior executive and follow me the hard way." Who could resist? This was a time when many were seeking a new direction other than that laid down by the American Dream. Leary's brand of tripped out otherness was attractive. We are all much more cynical now, but back then, many people wanted to believe there was Another Way.
Local communal group The Diggers gave away fruit and vegetable stew, the air was filled with the smell of incense and dope and the sound of those little tinkling bells. It sounds like a nice afternoon in the park, really, doesn't it?
The event put the burgeoning hippie scene on national display and as such was an inspiration to people not just in the rest of America but all across the western world. The counter-culture was cool, and people wanted to be part of it. It's easy to see why people thought it was the dawn of a new era and, as naive as it may have proved to be, we've never needed an optimistic vision more than we do now, so there's much inspiration to be taken from this little piece of rock n roll history.
Gary Duncan, guitarist of the Quicksilver Messenger Service recalls: "By the time we got there, there were, like, 20,000 people. Word got out, and all the news crews arrived, and it became a social movement."
Ray Manzarek, keyboardist of The Doors says: "We were in San Francisco to play our first gig at the legendary Fillmore. The four of us all looked at each other and said, 'We're gonna change the world!' Of course, we didn't, but that's another story." We beg to differ Ray. You changed plenty.
Sam Andrew, guitarist, Big Brother and the Holding Company: "I've never been able to decide if we were there or not. I thought for years that we were in NYC having meetings. But every third gig someone will come up and say, 'I saw you at the Human Be-In!" Is there anything more definitive of the era than not knowing if you were there or not?
Pamela Des Barres, self-proclaimed groupie and author of 'I'm With the Band' says: "I went to that, and soon [the love-ins] started in Los Angeles. It was the most free-floating, exquisite experience every time. My girlfriends and I would make cupcakes and put flowers in everybody's hair. The communes were spreading, everybody living together. This was brand-new stuff!"
And let's face it, nothing says revolution like free cup-cakes does it? That was the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967. Just humans, being.