The summer of 1967 will forever be known as the Summer of Love. It was a landmark year, not just in the history of rock and roll, but in the history of our culture. Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, the Museum presented its first major temporary exhibition, I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era, 1965-1969.
I Want to Take You Higher examined the massive cultural, social and political change of this era, a time when creativity flourished and optimism reigned. The exhibit focused on San Francisco and London, the twin capitals of psychedelia, and looked at not only the music of the era, but also the art, literature, lifestyles, fashion and politics. The Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Byrds and the Jefferson Airplane were just a few of the artists whose work was explored in the exhibition, which included more than 500 artifacts.
I Want to Take You Higher opened with a day-long outdoor festival that drew thousands to the Museum’s plaza on May 10, 1997 in a scene that was more than vaguely reminiscent of the Sixties. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and Donovan performed their now-legendary songs, while political and social groups with roots in the Sixties—Earth Day Coalition and the Free Clinic among them—offered handouts at pamphlet-strewn tables. Emcee Chet Helms, the beloved San Francisco concert promoter, kept the crowd abreast of an imminent visit by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who were on their way aboard their fabled Further bus.
Coinciding with the exhibit opening, Chronicle Books published I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era, 1965-1969, a companion to the exhibit edited by the Museum’s Chief Curator James Henke and featuring essays by Charles Perry and Barry Miles. The book contains interviews with a number of Sixties figures, as well as an annotated list of 100 of the most important psychedelic songs, compiled by noted music historian and critic Jon Savage.
Inhabiting nearly the entire Ahmet Ertegun Exhibition space, I Want to Take You Higher was an ambitious, comprehensive exhibit designed by Pentagram Design that showcased some of the more flamboyant aspects of the era while at the same time attempting to place it in historical context. The five years represented in the exhibit were appropriately arranged as individual petals in a massive flower pattern created from boldly painted exhibit cases. Equally colorful typography featuring song titles and timelines were plastered on nearly every surface, save for a giant wall festooned with dozens of psychedelic posters. The exhibit resonated with the lurid look of the era it explored, right down to the trippy slide show in the Grateful Dead room.
The exhibit examined the roots of psychedelia in 1965 and 1966 (the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Acid Tests), the genre’s explosion in the summer of 1967 (the Human Be-In, Monterey Pop, Sgt. Pepper), the politics of 1968 (the Vietnam War, the Democratic National Convention, the assassinations) and the mainstream incorporation of psychedelia in 1969 (Woodstock and numerous other festivals). The 1969 section of the exhibit included several artifacts from Woodstock, including Arlo Guthrie’s stage outfit and guitar, Country Joe McDonald’s guitar, Jimi Hendrix’s set list, Grace Slick’s stage costume and Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Other notable artifacts in the exhibit included hand-painted guitars from Cream’s Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce; Tom Wolfe’s manuscripts and notes from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper uniform and John Sebastian’s tie-dyed cape and jacket. The exhibition also included a special 20-minute film called Feed Your Head, which featured both new and archival interviews with many of the key figures of the era, as well as historical footage of important events.