By Leonard Cohen
DVD directed by Murray Lerner
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
After five days of sleeping outdoors in the wind, cold and rain with little to eat, the crowd of 600,000 people who gathered at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival were more than a little shifty and cantankerous. The organizers had optimistically expected a crowd of 150,000 and prepared for that number of visitors. By the second day of the festival, numbers had swelled to over half a million people, and there was nowhere near enough room inside the concert area to fit everyone, so the more aggressive members of the crowd started to rip down the walls and fences that separated them from their favourite artists.
For many of the performers, The Isle of Wight festival was an unmitigated disaster. Joni Mitchell cried in the middle of her set, Kris Kristofferson was booed off the same stage that was then set alight during Jimi Hendrix’s performance. People were losing perspective, and musicians were understandably terrified. Joan Baez bravely turned in a passionate set that calmed people down somewhat, but there was still an edge of danger and unrest in the air.
By two in the morning of the last day of the show, many of the audience members who hadn’t slept since arriving on the Isle of Wight were edgy and out of control. It looked like the festival would end in disaster.
Enter Leonard Cohen.
Bedraggled and wandering around backstage in his pyjamas, Cohen had been wrangled out of bed at the behest of the stage manager, to look for the members of his band and begin his set. When he shuffled on stage accompanied by a rumpled coterie of musicians, it seemed like everything would fall apart completely. Glassy eyed, unshaven and looking like Rasputin at the end of a Dexedrine jag, Cohen surveyed the audience for a few moments before telling them a story about going to the circus with his father. It seemed like a desperate gamble, but a change could be felt almost immediately as a palpable ripple of calm spread through the audience. Cohen went on to ask the audience members to each light a match to bring the community of 600,000 together. Feeble lights began to appear throughout the crowd as Cohen strapped on a classical guitar and began to intone slowly ‘Like…..a……bird…..on…..a……wire.” The effect was immediately mesmerising, and where every other musician had failed, Cohen had the crowd eating out of his hand from the first note he sang.
For the next hour and a half, Cohen worked his magic on the audience at the Isle of Wight by playing rough and ready versions of songs from his first two albums as well as a few selections from his upcoming ‘Songs of Love and Hate.’ By today’s standards, Cohen’s performance was unpolished. None of the gypsy strings and apocalyptic cabaret stylings that have characterized his work since the late seventies is in evidence anywhere. The playing at times sounds almost amateurish – even though his producer and manager, Bob Johnson had assembled a group of top Nashville session musicians – including Charlie Daniels on fiddle – for the gig. And, one feels that Cohen wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The Leonard Cohen who took the stage at the Isle of Wight knew that the way to win over the audience was to identify with them. He didn’t come on as a rock star. Like the audience, he looked rumpled and in bad need of a good night’s sleep. He was a fellow traveller, an experimenter who talked fearlessly of despair, suicide and how he’d written songs while coming off of amphetamines. Like an older brother arriving in the nick of time, he’d come to take the crowd safely home when the party got out of hand.
By four in the morning, the crowd had transformed from an anarchic mob into a sprawling - but unified - family singing around a huge campfire. Sensing it was time to leave, Cohen said ‘it’s late, and perhaps this is good music to make love to’ as he began an especially passionate version of ‘Suzanne.’ He offered a few more songs to further lull the crowd before leaving the stage after saving the festival from disaster.
Leonard Cohen is an anomaly in popular music. Part old world mystic, part disgruntled alter boy dreaming of getting laid, there really is no one else like him. On paper, his performance at Isle of Wight should have bombed. But, Cohen has made a career out of confounding expectations. His output over the years has not been especially prolific, yet he has produced a body of work that equals that of any other living artist. Many have passed his songs by, and dismissed them as the four in the morning despair of a person fixated in perpetual adolescent angst. But, that’s an easy way out that fails to appreciate the breadth of Cohen’s concerns.
There has been a huge resurgence of interest in Leonard Cohen in the last few years. His personal and financial problems have recently thrown him into the limelight long after he’d pursued attention and notoriety. Rendered almost penniless at an age when most performers of his generation had retired, he has spent the last year and a half on a gruelling tour that would send other road-hardened seniors like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan running for the golf course.
Cohen’s long career has made it easy for record companies hoping to cash in on his recent popularity to find old material to release. It’s tempting to be cynical about the ‘Leonard Cohen at the Isle of Wight’ DVD/CD set appearing at this juncture in time, but that feeling is quickly dispelled – like the anger of the crowd was – after experiencing only a few minutes of his performance. Like Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, Sly and the Family Stone at Woodstock or Bob Marley at the London Lyceum, Leonard Cohen at the Isle of Wight captures one of recent history’s great musical performances. It is essential and shouldn’t be missed.