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Oral History Spotlight: Summer of Love, Winter of Discontent

Communities Falter, Mt. Tamalpais Stands Strong

In this series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection. The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews is also available online. In this post, Library Assistant Emily Law explores how Mill Valley was both influenced by and an influencer in the troubled period following the 1967 Summer of Love. 

This past year, Bay Area institutions spent the summer and the better part of the fall hosting events to celebrate the free-spirited ebullience, the psychedelic funk and the communal, compassionate vibes of the 1967 Summer of Love. The Bay lit up — sometimes quite literally — with a sense of pride and belonging. 

But as local author David Talbot poignantly notes in his oft-referenced book, Season of the Witch, one summer of love led to several winters of discontent, and the San Francisco of yore was “torn apart by its own uncivil war…(re)born howling, in blood and strife.” In Talbot’s oral history interview for the Mill Valley Oral History Program, he also describes a “soul connection” between Mill Valley and San Francisco. As we continue the slide into winter, it’s worth asking: When San Francisco’s soul was howling in agony, what did it mean for Mill Valley’s inner psyche? 

Nestled at the base of Mt. Tam and protected by the lush benevolence of the mountain’s reclining lady, Mill Valley in the ‘60s and ‘70s was nonetheless abuzz with change, conflict, voice and song. A dive into the archives of the Mill Valley Oral History Program reveals the unique pastiche of individual experiences that set the pulse of a once-sleepy satellite town. For all its natural calm, Mill Valley not only felt the reverberations of nearby seismic shifts in culture, but contributed to them as well. 

As the country’s youthful exodus flowed west into San Francisco, Mill Valley also caught some of these itinerant flower children in its embrace. Interviews from the Mill Valley Oral History Program's inception in the late 1960s are peppered with small comments about the “hippies” who set up residence downtown, near what was then the Bus Depot. One 1968 interviewee sharply decried the town’s new residents, offering up the suggestion that hippies, like Native Americans, should be put “on a reservation, [to] teach them to work and keep clean.” Others, like Benjamin Draper (1977), simply said it was none of their business. Plus, Draper muses, “I like young people in outlandish costumes.” And in a later 2014 interview, Bob Canepa, son of Mill Valley Market founder Frank Canepa, fondly recalls nights at Jimmy Quinn’s famous bar: “... either Jimmy Quinn hated you or he loved you. There was no anywhere in between, and if you had long hair, if you were a hippie, he would throw you out with a lot of expletives.” 

Mill Valley’s residents didn’t just play an observatory role to the Summer of Love, however. In his 1977 interview, the Reverend Gordon Foster of the Mill Valley Community Church discusses how his establishment, along with the Methodist Church, attempted to provide safe haven, resources and a place to sleep for those “young people of the type that were footloose and unattached to any family or community.” The Community Church built a coffeehouse, and it was a hip place to be, if an anecdote from Ruth Lescohier’s oral history is anything to go by. But the operation wasn’t sustainable and both churches eventually shut down their havens, prey to the heavy toll that drug abuse can take on a community. With even-keeled precision and compassionate pragmatism, former police chief Peter Brindley elaborates on these abuses: after the first wave of flower children came harder drugs, like LSD and speed, and their attendant overdoses, and then ex-cons and other criminals from out of state, such as Charles Manson. Burglaries numbered several each night and by 1978, Mill Valley, city of 12,000, had the crime rate of a metropolitan area three times its size. And as the country’s dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and established authority grew, the police force itself faced hateful attitudes from the community - one officer even had his house set on fire. From a social standpoint,” Brindley says, “it was very near anarchy… an ugly, ugly time.”

Foster, Lescohier and Brindley also cogently acknowledge how divisive national events underscored the local drug use, crime and unrest in Mill Valley. Lescohier describes how only a decade prior, the McCarthy Era brought watchdogs into local voter organizations and fostered a tinge of mistrust. By the late ‘60s, Mill Valley’s local government was experiencing a conservative backlash, says Bert Balmer, former city manager. Church became a hotbed of anger and resentment over issues of labor, the Vietnam War and race. Far from avoiding discussion, however, the socially-minded Reverand Foster talks about how he and his fellow ministers didn’t want to “become men who were so careful about what they were [preaching] that we didn’t say anything of significance.” All four of these oral histories point to a community that valued meeting and open discussion, even amidst the tensions of the day. 

As much as the anguish of the altered times trickled through Mill Valley’s real and emotional landscape, however, the heartbeat of change also beat in its bosom, sending electrical spikes across the Golden Gate and beyond. It was home first to beatniks and then to some of the drivers of the new, inclusive counterculture, like Peter Coyote and Larry “The Hat” Lautzker (coming online soon), both of whom have provided rollicking, in-depth and opinionated interviews for the Mill Valley Oral History Program. Mt. Tam also birthed a no-holds-barred new sport, mountain biking, which had some interesting overlap with the burgeoning music scene in town. Longtime, indispensable roadie to rock band Sons of Champlin and consummate mountain biker Charlie Kelly describes a chance encounter with Gary Fisher, who was at that time “all legs and arms and hair” - a rare hippie on a bicycle, going by the nickname “Spider.” After a chance meeting in San Anselmo, Fisher and Kelly rather accidentally ended up in a room with the Grateful Dead, helping them choose their next album cover. 

Serendipity made good things happen. In his interview with Debra Schwartz, Marty Balin discusses how he formed his first band Jefferson Airplane in a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of way. The band subsequently skyrocketed to fame. Balin also describes moving to Mill Valley and spending hours and hours just hiking Mt. Tam. And when close friend and musical legend Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose, Balin took his grief to the mountain, climbing alone with his dog all the way to the top. Perhaps this was an entire generation, Reverand Foster muses, who felt life more fully because they allowed themselves to experience hardship and grief away from home, and became all the better for it in the end. Balin’s music, which ranges from rock to ballads and beyond, certainly seems to confirm the reverend’s observations. Or perhaps there’s something to be said for Mt. Tamalpais itself, and the landscape that surrounds it. “Marin County’s always been an artistic area and it’s just… something in the water,” Bill Champlin suggests in his interview. “I drank the water, so there you have it,” he adds, chuckling.  

The nature in Mill Valley provided both sanctuary and inspiration for a generation, and then some, of lovers, dreamers, rockers, bikers, creators and wanderers. When Rita Abrams sang about “the little town that’s got a hold on me,” she let the nation know what a special place Mill Valley was. But her oral history also acknowledges the multiplicity of the times - there was “no one direction that music [was taking]” and music reflected inner confusion, change and intergenerational strife. Mill Valley, like the nation, was as much a study in contrasts as it was a haven. But sometimes contrast lived in harmony. Antonia Cipollina describes growing up in Mill Valley with progressive but straight-laced Italian immigrant parents, and attending Marin Academy in a perfectly starched uniform by day. At night, when her brother John Cipollina played at venues like the Avalon Ballroom, filled with marijuana smoke and psychedelic acid dreams, she and her parents were there. The summer of love led to several winters of discontent, yes, but they also created a unique atmosphere in Mill Valley. Whether from the healing power of the mountain, something in the water or the people who found themselves in the small town, Mill Valley’s soul was in some ways uniquely its own.

Check out the following clips to hear from two of the interviewees featured above:

Oral History Except: Bill Champlin: "It's in the Water"

Oral History Except: Pete Brindley: On Crime and the Summer of Love