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How "Turn On, Tune Out" Got Its Name

Many young men wore shoulder-length hair. Many young people wore Afros, in which picks combed curly and kinky hair away from the scalp into a large, rounded shape. Most parents criticized both hairstyles.

Mini-skirts with hems at the upper thigh were “in.” Women and men wore bellbottoms, trousers that flared from the bottom of the calves downward. Most parents criticized both fashion styles.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” youth said.

“Make Love, Not War,” read car bumper stickers.

“The times they are a changing,” sang Bob Dylan.

“Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin’ “

It was topsy-turvy 1967, the year that San Francisco hosted thousands of flower children for its celebrated “summer of love.”

Earlier that year, the west coast city had experienced the Human Be-In, which was the first open-air event of music, poetry, art and dancing. On a warm and sunny January 14th in Golden Gate Park Polo Field, more than 20,000 attended the Human Be-In.

The Be-In was a beacon calling for like-minded people, people who wanted a world without war, corporations, or conformity, people from different movements “being together,” “humans being.” For one afternoon, the organizers wanted to project the ethos of the Haight-Asbury neighbourhood onto the stage. “Flower children” had found a haven in Haight-Asbury, where they practiced counterculture ideas: communal living, ecological awareness, and higher consciousness. The Human Be-In’s organizers wanted to project peace, not protest.

“I remember incense in the air, and the crowd getting larger and larger, “said one attendee last year, 50 years later. “Beads. Flowers. Not as many people had long hair as you may have thought. . . And a sense of awe. . .The Human Be-In was like a birthday for everybody who was there.”

The advertised “gathering of the tribes” came to symbolize the counterculture movement and the youth movement. Nearly half of the population of the United States was younger than 25. Many of these young baby boomers were disillusioned by the Vietnam War, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy three years before, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

To open the event, beat poet Gary Snyder blew on a conch shell from the stage. Then, Snyder and fellow poet Allen Ginsberg chanted mantras with bells, drums and other percussion instruments. Ginsberg chanted:

“Peace in America,” Peace in Vietnam,” Peace in San Francisco,” Peace in Hanoi,” “Peace in New York,” “Peace in Peking.”

Etcetera, etcetera.

Michael McClure sang his poetry while strumming a zither. Lenore Kandel read from her work, The Love Book, which awaited a trial for obscenity and censorship after San Francisco police raided two bookstores. One of McClure’s plays also awaited judicial decision on obscenity after San Francisco police arrested two actors during their performance.

McClure, Snyder, Ginsberg and Kandel personified the transition between the 1950s beatniks and the 1960s “flower children,” The term, “hippies,” so far, had been used only in isolated instances. Jerry Rubin, one of the founders of the theatrical Yippies, Youth International Party, also was there from across the bay at the University of California at Berkeley. Comedian Dick Gregory, who opposed the Vietnam War and racial injustice and, later, would promote spirituality, was there. Richard Alpert, soon to be known as Baba Ram Das and who had been fired from Harvard University for allegedly giving a student LSD, was there.

The police were not there because the prominent and respected lawyer, Melvin Belli, had requested the park permit for his birthday party. The Hell’s Angels, who were at the peak of their outlaw status, provided security. They handed out refreshments from station wagons and returned lost children to their parents with the help of their walkie-talkies. Local rock bands, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, played to the crowd.

Admission was free.

The idea for the Human Be-In emerged from a similar but smaller happening that took place three months earlier on the streets of the Haight and the adjoining neighborhood. The Love Pageant Rally peacefully marked the day that California made the psychedelic drug, LSD, illegal. A crowd of 1,000 to 3,000 attended that rally. The psychologist, Timothy Leary, who also had been fired by Harvard, was there. Both he and Richard Alpert had researched the effects of LSD on their students and themselves. So, Leary was at the Love Pageant Rally. He admired the communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who said: “The medium is the message.” Leary had met McLuhan at the Plaza Hotel in New York the previous spring in 1966. At lunch, McLuhan brainstormed ways for Leary to promote LSD in the manner that advertisers promote a product. Come up with a jingle or a catch phrase, McLuhan said. Always smile and radiate confidence, he added.

In San Francisco in January 1967, Leary addressed the 20,000 at the Human Be-In. Dressed all in white, a flower over each ear, he spoke the phrase, which became popularized:

“Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Leary later said:

“Like every great religion of the past, we seek to find the divinity within and to express this revelation in a life of glorification and the worship of God. These ancient goals we define in the metaphor of the present – turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Years later, Leary became fascinated by computers, the Internet and virtual reality. He said:

“The PC is the LSD of the 1990s.”

Ironically, in a futuristic California, state law mandates that computers constrict minds, hearts and souls instead of expanding them.

I played around with Leary’s popularized slogan for the title of my novel. In 2033, California espoused screen-watching – Turn On – and the tuning out of creative thought and consciousness – Tune Out.

Here and now, in 2018, let us be conscious.

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