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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hungry for Communication: The Love Pageant Rally & Michael Bowen

The Grateful Dead playing at the Love Pageant Rally - Photo by Susan Elting Hillyard*

The Summer of Love, known for the nearly 100,000 young people who converged on the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in the Spring and Summer of 1967 may have actually started 50 years ago today on October 6, 1966. As many of the original Haight-Ashbury hippies like to claim, the Summer of Love was the Summer and Fall of 1966. And the Love Pageant rally was a major reason why.
On this day half a century ago, somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 (estimates continue to vary!) young people swarmed into the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park two blocks North of Haight Street for the “Love Pageant Rally.” The crowds were encouraged to gather in the Panhandle that day by the leaders of the new San Francisco Oracle newspaper to mark the day that the State of California made LSD illegal. The event was a seminal moment for the hippie counterculture that was growing in the neighborhood and directly led to the massive and transformative Human Be-In that took place in Golden Gate Park three months later.
The date (10/6/66) was deliberately chosen as the “666” in the date was meant to conjure the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. Instead of a standard protest, however, the editors of the Oracle, wanted a ‘celebration of innocence, beauty of the universe…beauty of being.”
The larger-than-expected crowd who attended that day listened to free music provided by the Grateful Dead (see image above) and Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin (recently brought back to San Francisco by her friend Chet Helms, see image below). Ken Kesey attended the event along with the Merry Pranksters and their famous colorful. “Furthur Bus.” (See video below). The celebration, at the time, was almost certainly the largest free outdoor rock concert in history.
Towards the end of the event, one of the Love Pageant Rally organizers, Beat era poet Michael Bowen, made a chance remark about the power of human beings. That remark soon became a call for “The Human Be-In” that took place in Golden Gate Park a few months later on January 14, 1967. That event,  which drew some 30,000 people to the park's Polo Grounds, and the media’s coverage of it, is widely recognized with creating the nationwide interest in converging on San Francisco in the months to come, thus creating the Summer of Love during the Spring and Summer of 1967.

The Grateful Dead playing at the Love Pageant Rally, with Chet Helms looking on. Photo by Susan Elting Hillyard*

Read more below about Michael Bowen and the Love Pageant Rally

Watch. This. Video (from the Center for Home Movies)! Anything look familiar? The 1960s resonate with contemporary students of history because the time is imminently relatable. It’s highly likely that you will walk by hip kids in San Francisco (or other cities) dressed similarly if not identically to those in the video you (hopefully) just watched. Like those immortalized in celluloid above, American Millennials are also engaged in meaning-making that differs from the previous generation; we’ve inherited less than we’ve been promised, and we’re making due with what we have. Our politicians feel feckless, our soldiers are overseas, and we’re left at home making sense of it all. So we rely on each other within a sharing economy, we socialize in new forums fueled by innovative technologies, and we read blogs that proliferate from the will of the people.

Cohen and Bowen’s San Francisco Oracle / Courtesy of Beat Books

Those blogs owe their existence in part to Allen Cohen’s rainbow dream, the San Francisco Oracle. Cohen’s counterculture commentary motivated many in the 1960s to 'tune in, turn on, and drop out,' but Michael Bowen supplied the radical aesthetics that made the San Francisco Oracle an unrivaled Bay Area leader. Cohen, a native New Yorker, claimed California as his home, but Bowen belonged to the world despite his Beverly Hills birthright. There would have been no Love Pageant Rally without Michael Bowen, and without the Love Pageant there many never have been a Summer of Love and The Oracle would have been much less stimulating.  

Roberto Ayala and Michael Bowen in front of Caffe Trieste in North Beach. / Courtesy of Princeton By The Sea Memories

Michael Bowen was born on December 8, 1937 to society dentist Sterling Bowen and his wife, Grace. His grandmother, Alma Porter, introduced Bowen to metaphysics and modern art as a practicing member of the Theosophical Society in Ojai, California. His mother’s alleged lover, Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel introduced him to the Vegas Strip and the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. He attended Chouinard Art School and studied with Los Angeles artist Ed Kienholz, working alongside notable artists such as John Altoon at the Ferus and Now Galleries. He moved to San Francisco in the late 1950s, and joined the west coast contingent of the Beat Generation. Living and working from 72 Commercial Street, he befriended a Norwegian physician and arts patron named Reidar Wennesland who heavily collected Bowen’s work in addition to that of his friends; as a result, the North Beach art scene is now very well-represented in the Wennesland Foundation Collection in Kristiansand, Norway.

Love, 1965 by Michael Bowen / Courtesy of Percepticon, San Francisco

Bowen left San Francisco in 1963 and moved into an old Abalone Factory in Princeton-by-the-Sea with a coterie of artists. After many months of painting and entertaining friends like Janis Joplin, he was deeply affected by Aztec spiritualism after traveling in Mexico, and eventually settled in New York City where he found a studio on the Lower East Side and mingled with counterculture heavy-hitters Timothy Leary, Ram Dass and Richard Alpert. He returned to San Francisco in 1966 with an impressive alternative rolodex, and opened a studio and ashram in the Haight-Ashbury district--San Francisco’s newest bohemian neighborhood. He co-founded The San Francisco Oracle with Allen Cohen, and moved the newspaper’s office into his Haight Street shop when he moved to Stinson Beach; there, he would act as host for the inaugural meeting for the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS).

Handbill circulated at The Love Pageant / Courtesy of Rock Posters Collectibles.

The first issue of The Oracle ran “A Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence” on its back page. It read, in part:

We hold these experiences to be self-evident, that all is equal, that the creation endows us with certain unalienable rights, that among these are: the freedom of body, the pursuit of joy, and the expansion of consciousness and that to secure these rights, we the citizens of earth declare our love and compassion for all conflicting hate-carrying men and women of the world. We declare the identity of flesh and consciousness; all reason and law must respect and protect this holy identity.

Like-minded people were asked to translate these beliefs into political action by congregating in Golden Gate Park to “mark the ascension of the beast” on October 6, 1966--the date that LSD was criminalized in California.

Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company in Golden Gate Park for the Love Pageant Rally / Courtesy of Janis Joplin Official Site

Between 1,000 to 3,000 people came to Golden Gate Park dressed in gold, bearing instruments, and holding photos of personal saints per The Oracle’s instruction. Participants heard The Grateful Dead perform “Wheel of Fortune” for the very first time; saw a soulful young singer named Janis Joplin play with her new band, Big Brother and the Holding Company; and heard Jerry Rubin and Diggers founder Emmett Grogan speak, among other counterculture notables. Bowen’s personal connections had packed the lineup. After the Love Pageant Rally was over, the conscious masses went to the Psychedelic Shop on Haight, where everything in the store was free in true Diggers fashion, and attended after-parties at The Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore Auditorium.

Michael Bowen, 1967 / Courtesy of Detroit Artists Workshop

Michael Bowen stood with Allen Cohen on a Panhandle path near Oak and Clayton streets, and they reveled in their success 50 years ago today. Seeing Richard Alpert walk by, Bowen yelled “Isn’t this far out? People are sure hungry for some communicating. They love it. It’s a joyous moment. What do you think, Alpert?” He agreed, and Cohen told Bowen he should do it again. “Yeah,” Bowen replied. “But next time, I’ll bet we could get ten times the people.” Cohen then asked Alpert what they should call their next rally, and Alpert said: “It’s a hell of a gathering. It’s just being. Humans being. Being together.”

“Well,” said Bowen, “we’ll just have another rally. Only bigger. And next time we bring all the tribes together.”

Flower Power, 1967, by Bernie Boston / Courtesy of Wikipedia

Michael Bowen wasn’t as vocal as many of his counterculture brethren, but his impact was equally as visible. Bringing the tribes together was Bowen’s natural talent, and his work as an organizer of the faithful only began with the Love Pageant Rally. His next gathering, The Human Be-In certainly was bigger and was, indeed, a gathering of the tribes...but check back here for more on that later, in the New Year. By 1967, Bowen had graduated from rallies in Golden Gate Park to anti-war marches on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. That October, he arranged for 200 pounds of daisies to be dropped by aircraft on the Pentagon in the ultimate display of Flower Power as a protest of America’s presence in Vietnam. When that aircraft was preemptively seized by the FBI, Bowen instructed protesters to distribute them on the ground by hand. In that moment, as protesters fought guns with Gerber daisies, photojournalist Bernie Boston took what would become one of the most iconic photos of the 20th-century--transporting Bowen’s aesthetic intuitions far beyond the fields of San Francisco in the process.


* The first two photos in this post were taken by Susan Elting Hillyard. The first features a rare image of the Grateful Dead playing at the Love Pageant Rally, with Jerry Garcia on the left. The second, never before shown publicly, shows the Dead, along with rising Avalon Ballroom rock promoter and Texas friend-of-Janis Joplin, Chet Helms, in the background. 

Hillyard remembers taking the day well. "I was having fun taking photo," she notes.! I think it was at that event that Roger (my husband) got arrested for also taking photos of the cops. He was using my camera so when they were putting him in the cop car, I went over and asked if I could have my camera back and they gave it to me, thereby losing all evidence of what he was doing and being arrested for!"


By Nicole Meldahl

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