The Summer of 1967. The Summer of Love. The whole hippie thing is at its height and Yorkville has become one of the biggest hubs for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll on the continent. Just ten years ago, the first Beatnik coffee shops opened in what was then a quiet, residential neighbourhood – full of rundown Victorian homes, a few art galleries and upscale boutiques. Now, the coffee houses are everywhere, more opening and closing all the time – patios out front; poetry, folk music, go-go dancers, and rock 'n' roll inside. The Penny Farthing even has a pool on its roof. Streets like Cumberland and Yorkville, Hazelton and Scollard overflow with hippies, greasers, and bikers. And it all just keeps getting bigger and busier.Shaggy-haired kids from all over Canada are hitchhiking across the country, thumbs pointed squarely at those few blocks north of Bloor, between Bay and Avenue Road – those same few blocks that have already been home to a shitload of super-cool people over the last ten years: folk singers like Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot; poets like Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn Macewen; rock stars like Neil Young and The Band, the beginnings of Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Hell, even Rick James.
William Gibson came for both reasons. He'd grown up in rural Virginia reading science fiction and the Beats — Ginsberg and Kerouac, but especially William S. Burroughs. One day, they would help influence him to become one of the most celebrated science fiction authors of all-time. But first, they helped influence him to drop out of high school. And with the Draft in full swing, he figured it might be a good idea to convince the authorities that he wasn't really cut out for a stint in the Armed Forces.
"I told them that my one ambition in life was to take every mind-altering substance that existed on the face of the planet," he remembered later. "I just went in and babbled about wanting to be like William Burroughs. And that seemed to do the trick... I went home and bought a bus ticket to Toronto. But I don't like to take too much credit for that having been a political act... It had much more to do with my wanting to be with hippie girls and have lots of hashish than it did with my sympathy for the plight of the North Vietnamese people under U.S. imperialism – much more to do with hippie girls and hashish."
Apparently, Gibson plunged right in, smoking pot and hash, dropping acid and doing pretty much everything else he could get his hands on. He knew better than to do heroin – thanks to reading Burroughs – but other than that: "The opiates aside, I tried whatever was going. I sort of prided myself on it."
He wasn't alone. That very summer, just a couple of blocks away at the University of Toronto, Yorkville's hippies organized something of a multimedia conference on the benefits of dropping acid. "Perception '67" they called it. Allen Ginsberg came. (He even had breakfast with Marshall McLuhan.) So did one of the Merry Pranksters. Timothy Leary would have been there too, but the government wouldn't let him into the country. And as amazing as the popularity of LSD was, it was nothing compared to pot. Yorkville was awash in marijuana smoke.
Money, on the other hand, was a bit harder to find. There were thousands of kids in the village that summer, especially on the weekends when "weekenders" flooded in from suburbs like Forest Hill. But there were only so many jobs and places to crash. "For a couple of weeks I was essentially homeless," Gibson later told the BBC, "although it was such a delightful, floating, pleasant period that it now seems strange to me to think that I was in fact homeless."
By an awesome stroke of historical luck, they happened to find William Gibson.
|William Gibson in Yorkville, 1967|
He got it. For the next few years, he'd move around – even go to Woodstock – before returning to Toronto for a while. It was here that he met and married his wife, but they eventually settled in Vancouver. That's where he went to university, got into punk, and started writing the science fiction that would make him famous. They say that not only did he coin the term "cyberspace", but that it's because of him we talk about stuff like "surfing" and "neural implants" too. His 1984 novel, Neuromancer, is still a mainstay of first year syllabuseses. In 1999, the Guardian called him "probably the most important novelist of the past two decades".
I first learned the nugget of this story thanks to "Making The Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s" by Stuart Henderson. It's easily one of the best books about the '60s I've ever read. You can buy it here or get it from the library here.
"As the tide of "weekend hippies" washed back out, many of the more organizationally-inclined habitues were sucked up into the astonishingly Ballardian (as in HIGHRISE, it seemed to me) tower of Rochdale College.