As a teenager and young adult, I became fascinated by the legacy of The Haight-Ashbury and the ideals of the 1960’s flower children. I can’t recall now how I first heard about them or how the mythos of the hippies came to my attention, but I was shocked, shocked I tell you – recently when I made a passing reference to The Haight-Ashbury and my friend – a new age hippie if I’ve ever met one – had never heard of it. How could that be possible? How could someone reach adulthood in our culture – especially someone with as much interest in mysticism, natural living and spiritual transcendence as this friend has – without ever having heard of the Haight-Ashbury? I was mystified and determined to educate her.
The earliest I remember romanticizing the peace and love era was Halloween of my senior year of high school when I donned a pair of baggy jeans, an oversized shirt my mother had brought back from Jamaica, a headband and of course flowers in my hair. I spent the night flashing the two-fingered salute and muttering “Peace and Love” to everyone I met. I’m pretty sure I smoked a lot of grass that night, too, man… In years to come, I would realize I had broken my own cardinal rule of Halloween – scary costumes only on All Hallow’s Eve. But back then, I was expressing my growing fascination with the previous generation’s quest for enlightenment and a better way of living.
By the time I arrived at university, I gravitated toward the genuine hippie who ran our college coffee shop, who took great (mock) offence when I repeated my Halloween costume that year.
“That’s not a costume, man,” said Les. “That’s just clothes… to some people, anyway.” And then he laughed the laugh that I would hear for years to come as our friendship grew, and Les introduced me to the music, musings and the Holy Land (as he called it) of The Haight.
I don’t remember much of what I learned at university that year, but I remember so many afternoons and evenings at the Grad Lounge listening to Les wax poetic about Timothy Leary, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey and most of all, his beloved Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Was it the metaphysics of the counterculture I fell in love with, or Les? I don’t know, but I was hooked! I called him The Guru, and he called me The Party Hamster. When the Grateful Dead toured that summer, he refused to take me, concerned that I was too young and inexperienced for the scene – this was the early nineties, afterall and the parking lot had degenerated somewhat from the peace and love of the ’60s. The drugs had taken hold and the trips weren’t quite so innocent anymore. There was a cynicism infecting the movement that would culminate by the end of the ’90s with the violence of Woodstock ’99. And I was romanticizing those Summer of Love vibes that I imagined still existed in that far off wonderland called The Haight-Ashbury. Pretty soon, the restlessness and a nomadic pull that characterized my life back then kicked in and I was off to the west coast, with Les and another of our hippie friends Mike, following shortly after.
The three of us sat on Wreck Beach in Vancouver one afternoon – a curious sight, no doubt; a little blond woman sandwiched between two large men, completely naked… But these were my friends – two of the best friends I had made at university, and they stuck by me for years… supporting me through innumerable bad relationships with men who broke my heart. It seemed natural and fitting for us hippies to sit naked together on the beach, smoking a joint and regaling each other with stories. I still have the oversized purple tie-dyed tank top Mike bought on Wreck Beach that afternoon. I wear it to this day.
Les had finally made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land on his way to Vancouver that summer. I could picture him sitting at the famous intersection, playing his guitar with the case flipped open for the offerings of passersby. Busking in The Haight was a bucket list item for Les, and I was overjoyed hearing him talk about it. But inevitably summer came to an end, Les returned to Toronto, and life moved on.
As the years passed, our paths continued to cross – whenever I was back in Toronto, I would find Les and his own growing band of pranksters that he called the Caution Clowns, named for his newly formed band, Caution Jam.
Even when my nomadic life and creative dreams took me off to New York, I still managed to find the hippies there, and finally saw my one and only Grateful Dead show, at Giants’ Stadium mere weeks before Garcia’s death in 1994.
For a few years in the mid-late 90s, I lived on the fringe of Les’ Caution Clan as I called it, reveling in the music of The Grateful Dead that Les and Caution Jam played for the hippies of Toronto’s underground club scene.
So the ’90s for me were like a ’60s flashback… I was only marginally aware of the grunge rock scene. Yes, I remember the death of Kurt Cobain, but it was Jerry’s death that made the greater impact on me. I was listening to Janis Joplin’s old band Big Brother and the Holding Company, reminiscing about the Doors, discovering the genius of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. When I heard Robert Plant sing Goin’ to California at Madison Square Garden, I thought I had died and gone to… California. I was more interested in The Mama’s and The Papa’s then Maestro Fresh Wes.
As the ’90s came to a close, I was twirly-gigging on the dance floor with Caution Jam and attending concerts like Santana and Tom Petty with Les… until that is, a final heartbreak that sent me scurrying back to Vancouver for good. Like the good friend he was, Les gave me Rescue Remedy and lots of love, wishing me well as he waved good-bye one last time.
I returned to the west coast, a 30 year old hippie relic, dressed in a bright orange tie-dyed pantsuit, strolling the streets with my Sony discman blasting Grateful Dead tunes through the headphones… the last gasp of my nomadic youth.
With that last heartbreak, I said good-bye to my hippie era, got a stable job, became a mom and reignited the creative dreams of acting and writing that had been set aside for some time.
But the embers of The Haight-Ashbury weren’t completely extinguished; a tiny fire still burned on the mountains of the west coast, and when the Dead reunited for a few shows in San Francisco during the summer of 2009, I knew I had to go.
So, in the waning days of my 30s – 10 years after I’d left Toronto and my hippie days behind, I embarked on my own pilgrimage to the Holy Land to finally see and feel the neighbourhood I had mythologized most of my life. I hit the road down the coast with an old girlfriend from the Caution Clan and we stayed at the Red Victorian Inn – a Peace and Love cafe run by an old hippie by the name of Sami Sunchild… on Haight Street of course.
We saw it all… Golden Gate Park, the house at 710 Ashbury Street, Amoeba Music, Panhandle Park, a concert at the Fillmore and of course, the surviving members of The Dead playing at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.
It was a glorious road trip, reminding me of the idealism of my roaring 20s and bringing me full circle, with a renewed appreciation for what a long, strange trip it had been.
The ages and stages of one’s life cannot be overlooked. They each bring us to a new sense of awareness of the world, and perhaps it’s only on re-visiting, remembering with the insight of experience and the passing of time that we can see the value of our youthful passions.
I recently reconnected with my old buddy, Les, still living in Toronto, and still playing with the Caution Jam, 30 years later. We struck up a correspondence, and it has been lovely re-visiting our friendship, though not without a tinge of nostalgia for the youth I’ve left behind. Looking at those years through the filter of my life today raises many feelings that have long since been buried with the heartbreak I left in Toronto. So it is a bittersweet reunion.
But the heart of the Haight-Ashbury still beats; you just gotta poke around.
Les and me … more recently…