Usually the end of summer entails some grieving for me, as it seems permanently associated in my psyche with going back to school, but I have different feelings about the so-called “Summer of Love” of 1967, whose 50th anniversary offers an occasion to evaluate the legacy of that summer. In a previous article, Peter Stockland reviewed the current exhibit Revolution at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, including his assessment of the 60’s decade. “Great music . . . was made,” he concedes, and “there was a kind of necessary personal liberation but, alas, it became indistinguishable . . . from pathological narcissism.”

The Summer of Love was a social phenomenon centered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, where up to 100,000 young people gathered, but it also rather neatly summarizes the sixties ethos of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Apparently, it was a glorious summer of life-affirming youthful rebellion against parental strictures and societal repression, a blessed re-discovery of the intense pleasure of sexual love and the spiritual adventure of mind-altering drugs.

And death. A trio of talented music-makers and sixties icons, by an eerie coincidence, all died at the tender age of 27, just as the sixties ended: Jimi Hendrix (September 18th, 1970), Janis Joplin (October 4th, 1970), and Jim Morrison (July 3rd, 1971). In pop culture, there remains a tendency to revere these figures as bright stars that shot across the sky and burned out too quickly, while we are seemingly oblivious to the violence inherent in self-abuse, as well as the connections between alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and early death. Today we are cognizant of the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, but we still turn a blind eye to the excesses of “free love,” obsessed as we are with safeguarding our sexual freedoms at any cost.

One of their contemporaries who survived the sixties, who crossed paths with each one but opted for different destiny, may help us understand the fallout of the Summer of Love. Leonard Cohen spent that summer in New York recording his first album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” released later that year.  During his time in New York, Cohen jammed one night with Jimi Hendrix, went to see Jim Morrison and the Doors perform, and even had an infamous tryst with Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel. He was older than all three of them, but outlived them all by 45 years, and released his last album, a very fine one, at age 82. Cohen may have indulged for a time in the exact same pleasures of wine, women and song, but he came out the other side to tell us all about it, with unflinching honesty.

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