Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll ’67: The Hippie Temptation

Fifty years ago this month, Harry Reasoner and CBS tried to scare kids away from drugs. It didn't quite work.

On Aug. 22, 1967, a CBS News series titled Who, What, Where, When, Why premiered. It’s forgotten now, both because Who, What, Where, When, Why is a terrible name, and because it was replaced in 1968 by the still-running 60 Minutes.

But the content of that broadcast has lived on in local infamy. Harry Reasoner’s shocking expose of the Haight-Ashbury scene known as The Hippie Temptation was shown at the dearly missed Red Vic Movie House every year from the 1980s onward. Notably, it was shot in April and broadcast in August, thus bookending the Summer of Love.

Although marijuana is acknowledged as being a bad thing — who knew that a half-century later, weed-delivery services would be advertised on the sides of buses? — the real temptation (and danger) of the hippies is the newfangled LSD. Much of the broadcast’s running time is devoted to what we now know to be misinformation about acid, especially the long-since debunked myth about chromosome damage. Something else we now know is that pretty much all acid trips would be a waste until 1969, since the live version of “A Saucerful of Secrets” on Pink Floyd’s album Ummagumma has been scientifically proven to be the best song to listen on LSD.

In fairness, Reasoner and his producers can’t really be blamed for trusting the nascent research, especially given their generation’s ingrained fear of any drugs that weren’t tobacco and alcohol. Reasoner said at the time that he was “hopeful that our program will help warn the young people off” the temptations of the drugs and the lure of the Haight’s “hippie colony.” In his summation, Reasoner lays out his philosophical objection: “They depend on hallucination for their philosophy. This is not a new idea, and it has never worked.”

Something else that has never worked: showing teenagers picture of people having a good time, and hoping that “Now don’t you go and do this!” finger-wagging testimonials from marble-mouthed men in white coats will make it look less appealing. It’s probably also not accidental that while The Hippie Temptation is deeply concerned with the fate of the countless lily-white young people on display, the first face onscreen is that of a Black man, no doubt to strike fear into the hearts of those middle-class kids’ parents.

Those young people are infantilized throughout. An Aug. 20 New York Times preview of The Hippie Temptation was titled “A is for Acid, B is for Boo,” and in addition to its nursery-rhyme headline, the article refers to the hippies as “little tykes.” (“Boo” is allegedly slang for marijuana, while acid is also referred to as a “soft drug,” which somewhat undercuts the panic the show tries to foment.) Reasoner also blames the victims something fierce, lamenting that “the greatest waste of all” is that their “youthful energy” could instead be going to solve “the problems of our day.” (Yeah, problems you and your so-called “Greatest Generation” either created or did nothing to fix, dickweed. Thanks for winning World War II and all, but seriously.) As a later generation of misunderstood youth would put it, withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.

Being a journalist rather than a futurist, Reasoner probably didn’t realize that the exposure given to the Haight scene by coverage including but by no means limited to The Hippie Temptation would hasten the whole social experiment’s inevitable collapse, and not without collateral damage.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times only two months after the broadcast, head-shop owner Peter Krug described the Haight as “really wretched and degenerate now,” thanks to people drawn by news reports “about how everybody just sits around taking drugs and having sex.” He also describes an influx of Tenderloin sex workers into the Haight to accommodate “all these college boys” who heard “they can just pick up a girl on the street.” (Bros: ruining it for everyone since at least 1967.) Robert Crumb later wrote that, by 1969, murders and rape were widespread in the Haight because “the drugs got harder and people were carrying guns,” and that it was “a grim fuckin’ spectacle.” Utopias are inherently unsustainable, and while the Summer of Love was inevitably going to lead to a long season in Hell, many of those kids Reasoner was hoping to warn off surely got caught in the downfall.

The Hippie Temptation has mostly been used as a source of stock footage, since at least as far back as Rolling Stone’s 20th-anniversary special in 1987 and as recently as this year’s Grateful Dead documentary series Long Strange Trip. The Dead are all over Temptation, including footage of them playing “Dancing in the Street” in the Panhandle, most likely from April 9. Intercut with that song is a few seconds of a young blond woman by the name of Cynthia Summers, who has flowers painted on her face.

The footage of her was actually shot during a Country Joe and the Fish performance on April 14, but the mixed-up timeline isn’t what annoys her the most. As Summers tells SF Weekly now, “I was approached by a CBS cameraman who asked to film me. I said no. He got snide and asked, ‘Why not?’ ” She told him she “did not want to have anything to do with yellow journalism,” which did not go over well with a representative of the (former) network of Edward R. Murrow.

“His face contorted in rage,” she recalls. “He was not amused. I turned and walked away.”

The cameraman wasn’t about to let some painted hippie chick stay him from his appointed rounds, however.

“I was sitting on the bandstand grooving to the music when a guy told me someone was trying to film me,” Summers says. “Sure enough, the dirtbag cameraman was trying to film me with a long-lens camera. I put my hands over my face, but he managed to get about two to three seconds of footage.”

Those few seconds have gone on to afford Ms. Summers a degree of uncompensated stock-footage immortality, much to her chagrin. She left San Francisco by late spring and didn’t return for a decade, when she finally saw the program at the Shady Grove in the Haight.

“I was with a bunch of other hippies,” she recalls, “and we were all laughing because it was so totally off the wall. It was right up there with Reefer Madness.”

And that may best sum up The Hippie Temptation: Both a time capsule and a curio of tone-deaf panic, it’s San Francisco’s own Reefer Madness. Break out the soft drugs and wish it a happy 50th birthday!

Check out more stories from this week’s cover story here:

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll ’67: Prostitution, Overdoses and STDs
Haight-Ashbury was filled with more than marijuana and music in the summer of 1967.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll ’67: The Bad End of the Summer of Love
By Labor Day 1967, a pair of horrifying drug dealer murders made the Haight too violent for even Charles Manson.

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