"The very thing we were striving for with the Oracle was to bring all the senses together in experience," Cohen says.
Nearly 30 years after the Haight collapsed in a heap of dismay and paranoia, Cohen has resurrected the Summer of Love in a new CD-ROM, Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties!, integrating as many of the senses as the computer will allow.
Cohen traces the genesis of the CD-ROM back a decade, to when he was exhibiting his slide show of Oracle images in venues around the Bay Area. The presentation was decidedly low-tech.
"A friend photographed pages of the Oracle on his kitchen wall for the slides," Cohen recalls.
Tony Bove, a long-haired computer programmer who wishes he'd been old enough to experience the Haight's heyday firsthand ("I didn't get there till '71"), saw Cohen's slide show and approached him about computerizing it.
"Tony realized it would make a great multimedia product," says Cohen, "even though CD-ROM was not yet on the horizon. He knew it was going to be out there."
Ten years after their initial meeting and three years in the making, Haight-Ashbury is now in retail stores, the first project completed by Bove's Gualala, Calif.-based company, Rockument. The double-disc package includes a feast of reference materials and kaleidoscopic graphics: hundreds of photos documenting the period; historical narration by Cohen and Rachel Donahue, wife of the late FM radio pioneer Tom Donahue; rare video clips of Ken Kesey's Trips Festival and Acid Test, the Human Be-In, and the Diggers' "Death of Hippie" event; the words of groovy icons such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and William Burroughs; the images of poster artists Alton Kelly, Stanley Mouse, and many others; songs by the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and, yes, the Grateful Dead; and a "roll-your-own" section in which you can rearrange the material.
At Cohen's two-story cottage in Walnut Creek, the back yard teems with the toddling students his wife, Ann, cares for at her in-home preschool. In the den upstairs, Cohen, a middle-aged man with a bit of a paunch and electric, still-black hair, squeezes past an exercise bike into the corner where his computer is buried under stacks of papers and magazines. He's demonstrating a test version of Haight-Ashbury, a few weeks before its official release.
The CD-ROM is divided into three parts -- "Turn On," "Tune In," and "Drop Out." Cohen is cruising through a truncated version of "Drop Out," an interactive board game in which the goal is to gather 100 points to reach the stage of Enlightenment.
"I've only played long enough to get one so far," he laughs sheepishly.
Cohen moved to San Francisco from New York in 1963 "because of Beat poetry," he says, "but North Beach had disintegrated. The police had busted it up, and there were just a few remnants left." After a few months in town, he moved to the Haight, where he says six-room Victorians were renting for $120 a month.
With its preponderance of teachers and students from the old S.F. State, the Haight in the mid-'60s was poised to become the hub of activity for a generation converging on the city. At the time, Cohen was working at Ron Thelin's Psychedelic Shop -- "the first bohemian manifestation on Haight Street."
"Artists, poets, and musicians came," he recalls. "There was a sense of being bound together, that there was a potential for human action that could change the world."
One night in early 1966, Cohen had a vivid dream that would be his guiding light.
"In the dream," he explains, "I was flying over the curve of the Earth. I could see all these places -- the Great Wall of China, Broadway in New York -- and the people in these places were holding newspapers with rainbows on them."
The image inspired him to start a newspaper for the blossoming counterculture.
"I walked out to Haight Street and told people about the dream, and they said, 'Let's do it,' " he says. Thelin -- the Psychedelic Shop's owner -- and his brother Jay pledged their financial support, and the rainbow-adorned alternative newspaper P.O. Frisco became a reality.
Actually, their first attempt was an abortive one. Only one edition of P.O. Frisco was printed before many staff members -- mostly those with bona fide newspaper experience -- quit. In the summer of '66, however, the paper was relaunched as the quasimonthly Oracle; Cohen describes it as "more McLuhanesque" than P.O. Frisco's straight political style. By Issue No. 3, the two founding Oracle editors were gone, and Cohen took the helm of the newspaper that had been his vision in the first place.
With art director Gabe Katz, a fellow New Yorker who had dropped out of the advertising business, Cohen steered the Oracle into the vanguard of the youth movement. Works of soon-to-be-famous poster artists were reprinted in full-blown psychedelic color, and the best-known pen jockeys of the counterculture clamored to submit their think-pieces and free-form verse. Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Lenore Kandel contributed poetry; in the newspaper's pages, Timothy Leary waxed rhapsodic about the LSD experience and Alan Watts expounded on the necessity of healthy eating.
"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.