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"There were a few luminaries," Cohen says, "and a lot who weren't as luminous." To the editor, the Oracle's most important service was its self-appointed role as chaperone for the children of LSD: "We were coming out of a time that was materialistic and atheistic," he says. "All of a sudden, people were having experiences like the religious teachers of old. We taught people how to use them and control them, so they were able to handle some of the fears of the adventure."
Spreading the hippie gospel as far as Vietnam and Moscow, the Oracle quickly became the paper of record for spiritualized stoners and radical Marxists alike; 60,000 copies were printed for the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967. But the newspaper's tour of duty was to be short-lived. Cohen cites a growing rift between mystics and politicos as the downfall of the paper (and the entire Haight-Ashbury culture in general). After the riots of Hunters Point and the Fillmore District, the Haight had been put under martial law in September 1966, foreshadowing an end to a groundswell that had just begun.
"The Haight started to disintegrate even before the summer of '67," Cohen says. In a celebrated incident, Cohen was arrested at the Psychedelic Shop for selling Kandel's The Love Book, a rapturous poem that depicted raw, sexy verbiage. "There were lots of bad drugs, agents provocateurs," Cohen says. "The police were raiding as often as they could get the chance. It was getting to be not exactly the ideal community we had planned. In other words, we were invaded."
The last issue of the Oracle -- the 12th -- was printed in February of '68. "I left [that] summer and went to a commune," Cohen continues. "The idea was to continue to develop a culture outside the mainstream." But it was not to last. The utopian ball of yarn was eventually unraveled by what Cohen calls "Western behavior": "Flower power was supplanted by the old greed," he says, still visibly disappointed.
Cohen went to work as a midwife, writing a book in 1970 called Childbirth Is Ecstasy, and joined the anti-nuclear peace movement. He also says he worked at the Renaissance Faire for many years, "selling fruit, crystals, and feathers. I did that two times a year, six weeks at a time. It was enough to survive. Of course, this was before Reaganomics."
In the '80s, Cohen worked at North Beach's Shlock Shop, where he wrote a book of poetry called The Book of Hats, which he intends to publish soon. He's also working on a political book -- "sort of a cookbook to save America," he says with a smile.
Throughout his wanderings, Cohen kept a finger on his experiences with the Oracle.
"I've lived in farmhouses, hotels, and one-rooms all over the West Coast, and I've always managed to keep some Oracles with me. Dampness, rats, mice, and cats have gotten involved with them," he says, yet he kept the collection intact. In 1991, Oakland's Regent Press published The San Francisco Oracle Facsimile Edition, a handsomely bound collectors reproduction of all 12 issues.
By that time, Bove had begun preparing for the CD-ROM version of Cohen's Haight-Ashbury. At first, he had to convince Cohen that the possibilities for the project went well beyond simply reproducing the Oracle's pages. "I said, 'That's cool, but.' ... We wanted more of a visual trip," he says.
Rather than paying licensing fees to Haight-Ashbury's many potential contributors, Bove and Cohen agreed to offer them a share of royalties. "That's something they really liked," Bove says -- and it meant low development costs for Bove and Cohen.
Licensing songs by the Dead, the Airplane, and Big Brother was a bit of an obstacle, but Bove felt their music was an indispensable part of the Haight-Ashbury story. He says RCA would only let him have one Airplane tune, so he chose "White Rabbit." The Dead were directly involved with the process; six of their early songs, including "Dark Star," are included. "The Dead did not gouge me," he says, shaking his head at the rumor that the Bob Dylan CD-ROM involved $1 million in licensing fees. "You can't recoup that," Bove says.
After thousands of hours poring over images for Haight-Ashbury, Bove is still excited about the project. "These are my heroes," he beams. He says he draws many parallels between the hippie revolution and the current techno-revolution: "The first nerds were the Pranksters. ... The Oracle was an experience in media -- they used jasmine-scented paper, for instance. We're trying to do the same thing, only with multimedia."
"The Oracle spread the word of change to the hip community," says Cohen. "It was the Rosetta stone of that forgotten civilization called the Haight-Ashbury. The CD will take the ideal of what the Haight represented into the next century, so it won't be lost, maligned, or forgotten.