Today a historically important album was released. I am speaking, of course, of David Bowie’s self-titled debut album on the Deram label, which contained the singles “Rubber Band” and “Love You Till Tuesday,” as well as deep tracks like “Little Bombardier” and “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” Unfortunately, its historical importance was recognized at the time by pretty much no one, except maybe David himself. I mean, look at those eyes — he knew, and he was just waiting for the rest of the world to figure it out.

Meanwhile, a cult band called The Beatles was also releasing their new record. It was moderately successful and is even remembered today by a few serious music fans. The cover, for those unfamiliar, looked something like this:

OK, you and I know that it didn’t really go down like that. The world had been awaiting the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with breath that I can only describe as bated, and today everything stopped as people sat down to listen to it and figure out what they thought. Here’s Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters:

I remember when Sgt. Pepper came out, pulling the car over into a lay by, and we sat there and listened to it. Somebody played the whole thing on the radio. And I can remember sitting in this old, beat up Zephyr Four, like that [sits for a long period, completely agape].

I like to imagine the streets of London completely silent except for The Beatles, all commerce ceasing as everyone savored this historic moment. In truth, I’m sure business went on more or less as usual; it was mostly just the young people who had a sense of what was unfolding.

By one reckoning this was the first day of the Summer of Love: the first day of the first summer month. As such I’d better address the question of what we mean when we talk about the Summer of Love.

Partly we are talking about a real and measurable physical event. When the 1967 school year ended, there was a universal sense among young Americans that San Francisco was the place to be, the epicenter of an emerging new consciousness. And so tens of thousands of young people from all around the country descended on a city that was ill-prepared for them. The result, depending on who you ask, was something between ecstatic bliss and miserable squalor.

But more often, when we say “Summer of Love,” we are referring to the spirit of the time, which was global. There was a sense this generation’s moment had come: the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll had opened their minds and they were now going to overthrow the old order — Hunter Thompson called it

…that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

Hunter was speaking specifically of San Francisco in the mid-60s, but I think he caught the sense of the whole thing. I wonder if those of us who weren’t around then can even begin to conceive of what that kind of optimism feels like. In June of 67 people didn’t know, yet, how the story ends. They really believed that they were going to see the end of war and injustice and the beginning of a golden era of peace and love; it truly seemed possible to them.

Can we today, even squinting hard and bending over backward, believe that even for a second? Probably not. But it might be therapeutic to try. I propose that we spend this summer doing our darnedest to envision a better future. It might not be true that “it can’t get no worse” (thanks John), but it does seem like our culture is at a pretty low ebb right now. This wave, too, must eventually break and roll back.

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