Members of Jefferson Airplane performing at the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County, California, June, 1967. Photo: Bryan Costales, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia
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.
A summer of death
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.
Leonard Cohen's candid confessions
He experimented with varied pleasures, but at least he could be candid about the consequences of “free love,” as in 1992's “Closing Time”:
I missed you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex
Looks like freedom but it feels like death
It's something in between I guess.
He also turned his poetic genius to reflect on the personal disintegration that can follow an unbridled surrender to eros, as in his 2001 song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep”:
Confined to sex, we pressed against
The limits of the sea
I saw there were no oceans left
For scavengers like me
I made it to the forward deck
I blessed our remnant fleet
And then consented to be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep.
One of the myths of the Summer of Love is the possibility of sex without meaning, as if the marriage covenant were nothing but an oppressive bourgeois convention, sex an interchangeable commodity, the body a mere instrument of the will. Yet to reduce a person to an object of pleasure is an abuse of power with serious consequences. Cohen for one was not afraid to explore the dark side of power struggles in sexual relations, as on his 1974 album, New Skin for an Old Ceremony.
“The love he sings about is as violent as the war about which he also sings . . . (he) is in various songs pierced, hung, lashed, captive and . . . sentenced to death,” writes Sylvie Simmons in her definitive Cohen biography. In his 1988 song “I'm Your Man,” Cohen declares in emphatic whispers:
If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to . . .
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I'm your man . . . If you want a driver
Or if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can
I'm your man.
Though a secular, post-modern world dissembles its own motives, one dimension of impurity is indeed an abuse of power. It is almost as if we collectively decided to abandon the belief that God is love, that He offers His love to all human beings as a free gift. We began to evaluate God and the world in terms of power. If love is not offered as an unconditional gift, we must take matters into our own hands, and assert our own power to greedily grasp at any love we can. Then we also want to rebel against unjust restrictive moral laws that we believe are designed solely to oppress us. One fascination of sexual impurity is the pleasure of power, rebellion, self-assertion, and self-glorification. It is actually the opposite of love and self-giving. Like a cancer in a rose, the Summer of Love concealed a hidden violence.
Yearning for love …
At the same time, we must recognize that we human beings are complex creatures, that noble aspirations and violent impulses can co-exist in the same person. The participants in the Summer of Love must have also felt a genuine yearning for love, that universal human desire for a love that is infinite and eternal.
Cohen, in his spiritual profundity, recognized in sex an inchoate longing for God. In his 1967 song “So Long, Marianne,” he almost protests, “You held on to me like I was a Crucifix.” Cohen admired Christ and explored this fascination in several songs, but he never came to the fullness of faith in the revelation of Christ; however, if the lyrics of his last album are any indications, he wrestled with this question to the very end.
One of the closing events of summer in Ottawa is the Gay Pride parade, an obvious heir to the “free love” celebrations of the Summer of Love. Last summer I stood outside of St. Patrick's Basilica where I was assigned, and watched the parade pass by. On one float, shirtless muscled men were dancing to a disco beat. How I wish we could have transferred the monumental Crucifix from inside the Church and installed it on the front steps, not as a reproach or judgement, but as a revelation of the deepest meaning of love. Here is the God-man, exposing His own Body covered in Blood on the Cross, offering the purest expression of the free gift of love: “This is my Body, given up for you.” The Cross is the clearest evidence that God's essential identity consists of love, not power. It is the sign of His incomprehensible eagerness to sacrifice His own substance, annihilate His own power, and dismiss His divine prerogatives, all for the sake of manifesting a love that is sheer folly in the eyes of the world.
… yet shunning the greatest of all loves
The Summer of Love shunned this greatest of all loves and turned to a philosophy of self-indulgence that has produced a lot of human misery. For Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, the Summer of Love and the decade it symbolized came to a tragic end. Let us pray for a happier ending to the propaganda of that summer, and its defective vision of human freedom, sexuality, love and the meaning of life.
As the walking wounded continue to emerge from the purple haze of the Summer of Love, and to stumble out of the dark tombs of the Culture of Death, they will need to encounter authentic witnesses to Christ. In the memorable words of Pope Paul VI, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
The times they are a-changin’: the greatest counter-cultural movement of our era is the Christian Gospel, and the most radical alternative lifestyle is modelled on the teaching of Christ, not in a rigid, repressive morality, but the radiant example of those who have been loved, and changed their lives. See how they love one another!
Men and women of prayer, warm human friendships, solid marriages, families with children.
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring the good news,” who proclaim the Gospel in season and out of season, seeds of a new springtime in the Church, and new hope for the world.
Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1995 and ordained in 2002. This article is republished with permission from Convivium, an online space that brings together Canadians of different confessions to contend for the role of faith in their common life.