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FIRST PERSON

It Was 30 Years Ago Today . . .

June 20, 1997|STEVE TICE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the summer the Doors lit our fire. There was incense in the air, flowers in our hair, Monkees on the tube.

The legendary summer of 1967 was sandwiched between the June I graduated from Alhambra High School and the September I entered Pasadena City College. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the perfect music to sweep me (and everyone else) from one age to the next. I turned 18 that summer and was fully ready to be swept.

The Beatles were advance scouts for my generation. Years later, recalling the spirit of that time, John Lennon said, "The Beatles were in the crow's nest, but we were all in the same boat."

The Summer of Love shook America up and helped ruin or save the nation, depending on whom you ask about it. Ripples of social change merged into a giant wave. That season has been praised, reviled, documented and analyzed, along with the "counterculture revolution" that seemed to coalesce then.

And, of course, it has been commercialized. The Associated Press reported in May that the phrase itself is now a registered trademark.

I dressed in faded bell-bottoms and denim work shirts, grew my hair long, cultivated an acre of sideburns, and briefly was lead singer with a never-to-be-remembered rock band, Giganto Cat. I had my prescription glasses placed in wire frames like the ones Lennon wore.

I cruised endlessly in an aging, sea green VW Bug and started dating girls. In my warm memories, those girls are still there, with long, shining hair, "twisted, beaded, braided," just like the song said. They wore bell-bottoms and denim shirts too.

On weekends we might go to a show at the Ice House in Pasadena or the one in Glendale. The local folk music scene was hanging on by its fingernails (some things don't change). I remember such performers as the Travellers 3 and Tim Morgon. And after the show, Bob's Big Boy or Stan's drive-in. My band never brought in a single nickel, so I financed this enviable lifestyle by working the night shift at Jack-in-the-Box. I vowed that the pursuit of the almighty dollar never would dominate my life.

I did lots of things that summer I had never done before, but since I am not seeking public office, you don't need to know exactly what those things were.

America's youth tuned in to the irreverence of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," shared Benjamin Braddock's cynicism and alienation in "The Graduate," and debated R.D. Laing's "Politics of Experience." "Question authority" was the battle cry.

We thought we could end the Vietnam War by dreaming that bombers were butterflies, by slipping flowers into the barrels of guns, by making love, not war. For many of us, the puffing and glorifying of drug use led to a dead end. Many other facets of the '60s counterculture were naive and precious ("Peace will guide the planets, love will steer the stars") and self-indulgent. But I still believe it had something positive at its core.

The camaraderie and sense of purpose, however vague, that united me with my "brothers and sisters" during the late '60s had a spiritual intensity. Lyrics from a Moody Blues song referred to it as "the war of love." We actually flashed the "peace sign" to total strangers and got a smile and a peace sign back. Try that today.

During the 1980s I taught a communication studies course at Cal State L.A. where occasionally a student would want to know something about the '60s. The questions would differ but essentially what they were asking was, "What did the '60s feel like?" For me, the best short answer had come in 1969 when Joni Mitchell wrote "Woodstock":

I feel to be a cog in something turning.

Maybe it's just the time of year or maybe it's the time of man.

I don't know who I am, but life is for learning.

We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves

back to the Garden.

It comes as a jolt that those lively, colorful days now are frozen in social science textbooks, nothing more or less than history or sociology. I don't look like a hippie anymore. Bill Clinton has more hair than I do, though we both are losing it (the hair, I mean).

We were young. We were foolish. We thought nothing could hurt us--except perhaps the Vietnam War or nuclear Armageddon--and we knew how the world could achieve peace and harmony. Thirty years on, we know differently.

I would rather know what I knew then.

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