January 14 marks the 50th anniversary of the Human Be-In in the Polo Field in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a few tens of thousands of people from just outside the mainstream of American culture gathering there for an afternoon, taking in the sun, taking in Ginsberg, taking in Timothy Leary (who trademarked "turn on, tune in, drop out," on the occasion), taking in Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and Jerry Rubin, and the Grateful Dead, a big bunch of people having a joyous, peaceful time together, much to their own astonishment and that of the assembled regional, national and international news media, who marked the occasion with contemporary reports suggesting strongly that evidently something or other was going on here.
And indeed something was, a virtual, one-time-only Committee of Correspondence convening on that day to blossom over the next 5 decades into what might best be described as a distinct shared cultural inclination, as variously adopted in all its willing communal looseness now by people around the globe, whose relation to the environment, to militarism, xenophobia, foodstuffs, sexuality, dress, New Agey argle-bargle, and, above all, to the pleasures of really big crowds, loud music and drugs, came together in broad daylight for the first time there at the Be-In. The dance halls in the city had been hopping for the past year, drawing crowds in the hundreds to concerts featuring the first wave of San Francisco rock bands, but this, under pellucid January skies, out in the open, was a revelation. Six months later the Monterey Pops Festival crystalized its international phase.
Only few miles from where I grew up. I took the 28, the bus that passed a block from my house on its way up 19th Avenue to and through the Park, and I got off at Lincoln and wandered down to the Polo Field.
There was a standard in those days, a standard of dress and public composure, or else the hegemonic conformity of the time would have had nothing to refer to, and looking at footage of that day it's clear that most of the attendees still conformed to that set of standards, though lots of the people there, "freaks" they called themselves, were having none of that, dressing instead as pure, enthusiastic provocation.
It was so obvious on inspection that everyone was having fun sharing in an infectious music and drug-induced glee that spread on that sun-dappled day from that core of freaks to baptise the entire crowd in the new thing.
A guy parachuted down and landed just behind the crowd. The Polo Field is big, there was plenty of room for a landing. I hadn't noticed the plane leaving him off overhead or how far he'd glided until I glanced back to stare at all the people (who, in number and kind, were a bit of a revelation to me at the time), only to notice up there coming down from the sky, the parachuting guy. I remember thinking, "Hey, there's something you can't do, just jump out of a plane like that in the middle of the city."