Leonard Cohen Plays a Spellbinding Set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Jimi Hendrix was a tough act to follow under the best of circumstances. But to follow him onstage after midnight in front of a crowd of more than half a million people that had been setting fires and throwing bottles at the stage seemed like an impossible task for a poet with an acoustic guitar and a gentle band of backing musicians. Yet Leonard Cohen turned the volatile situation at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival into one of the most magical performances of his career.

A little piece of land four miles off the southern coast of England, the Isle of Wight was host to three great music festivals from 1968 to 1970. The last of these was something of a cross between Woodstock and Altamont: flower power with an undercurrent of menace. Like the Woodstock festival the year before, the 1970 Isle of Wight festival was crashed by thousands of unpaying fans.

Headliners for the five-day festival included Hendrix, Miles Davis, the Who and the Doors. By the time Cohen appeared–near the very end of the rainy final night–the atmosphere had become dangerous. During the Hendix performance, someone threw a flare onto the top of the stage and set it on fire. Journalist Sylvie Simmons describes the scene in her new book, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen:

Tension had been rising at the festival for days. The promoters had expected a hundred and fifty thousand people but half a million more turned up, many with no intention of paying. Even after the promoters were forced to declare it a free festival, ill will remained. During a set by Kris Kristofferson, bottles were thrown and he was booed offstage. “They were booing everybody,” says Kristofferson. “Except Leonard Cohen.”

As Cohen and his producer and keyboard player Bob Johnston stood watching the mayhem during Hendrix’s performance, Cohen stayed calm. “Leonard wasn’t worried,” Johnston told Simmons. “Hendrix didn’t care and neither did we. Leonard was always completely oblivious to anything like that. The only thing that upset him was when they told him that they didn’t have a piano or an organ–I don’t know, someone had set them on fire and pushed them off the stage–so I couldn’t play with him. Leonard said, ‘I’ll be in the trailer taking a nap; come and get me when you’ve found a piano and an organ.'”

According to most accounts it was a little after two o’clock in the morning when Cohen took the stage. His backup band, or “Army,” included Johnston on keyboards, Charlie Daniels on fiddle and bass, Ron Cornelius on lead guitar and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler on banjo and bass, along with backup singers Corlynn Hanney, Susan Musmanno and Donna Washburn. Cohen had a glazed-over look in his eyes throughout the performance, the result of his taking the sedative Mandrax. “He was calm because of the Mandrax,” Johnston told Simmons. “That’s what saved the show and saved the festival. It was the middle of the night, all those people had been sitting out there in the rain, after they’d set fire to Hendrix’s stage, and nobody had slept for days.”

The historic performance was captured on film by Murray Lerner, who released it in 2009 as Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970. The film (above) includes the following songs from the show:

  1. Diamonds in the Mine
  2. Famous Blue Raincoat
  3. Bird on the Wire
  4. One of us Cannot be Wrong
  5. The Stranger Song
  6. Tonight Will be Fine
  7. Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
  8. Sing Another Song Boys
  9. Suzanne
  10. The Partisan
  11. Seems So Long Ago, Nancy
  12. So Long, Marianne (during closing credits)

Perhaps the most moving moment in the film comes at the beginning, when Cohen brings the massive crowd together by asking a favor: “Can I ask each of you to light a match,” Cohen says, “so I can see where you all are?” As Simmons puts it, “Leonard talked to the hundreds of thousands of people he could not see as if they were sitting together in a small dark room.” Or as filmmaker Lerner later said, “He mesmerized them. And I got mesmerized also.” Summing up the concert and the film, Simmons writes: “It was a brilliant performance. Lerner’s cameras captured Cohen’s commanding presence, hypnotist’s charm, and an intimacy that would seem unfeasible in such a vast, inhospitable space.”

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Comments (9)
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  • Marvin Van Horn says:

    Thanks. You made my Saturday morning.

    This video brought back vivid images and memories of that great movie, McCabe and Mrs. Millar made in 1971. It featured many of Cohen’s songs performed here. They were so well interwoven into the narrative of the movie, I was uncertain which came first, the songs or the script!

    It was great seeing him at this concert which I had not seen before. Even now, at my advancing age, I was mesmerized, and I no longer need a joint! :)

  • Marvin Van Horn says:

    Oh no, the video is gone. Glad I saw it before it was removed. :)

  • I am so sorry that the video isn’t available anymore. Can I find it on Youtube?

  • Terry Gray says:

    That was great, the only thing that spoilt it were the comments above referring to `half a million people starting fires etc’ , y`know the truth is at least 670,000 people ( according to an onstage announcement on Sat evening, (l think, ) and still coming over’ maybe they were the so called gatecrashers ) had the most blissful and peaceful ( and completely dry nights with warm sunny three days )time, , it was the best festival ever, shame the only thing the papers could report ( like some of the people in the film ) was bad news, 95% of us didn`t see or hear any bad stuff, guns ? shooting people ? what a load of crap, most of us were just young English kids ( l was 21 and my girlfriend was 20 ) who heard about the `69 one festival ( with Dylan! no less )bought a ticket, it was cheap, we didn`t have money, l drove down from Yorkshire in my `56 Ford Pop with three other hairy guys and Jean, dumped the car, caught the ferry, found the site and had the best time of our lives….. so much more to tell, amazingly good, but l have already gone on too long, great crowd, great performers,great support,for those who needed it and lots of goodwill alround, thanks for the memories, God knows, we sure need them now. T

  • Terry Gray says:

    Just to add, l do member a very light sprinkling of rain early on the Monday morning thru the sunshine when it was all over, just enough to freshen up our sleepy faces, while we blinked and surveyed the scene from what had been our spot, a third of the way back in the middle of the now thinned out crowd and folks with no money had been told they could earn a ticket home and food if they stayed to collect rubbish clearing the site, no noise , just calm contented people, l still love Leonard !

  • Parris ja Young says:

    I want to thank the commenters for clearing up the violence thing. In the 70’s I believe young people, hell! HUMAN BEINGS!, were at their best … tis a pity people have forgotten peace and love since then. There may always be a tiny percentage of human beings who are pathologically angry, but my observation is that most people, given some freedom, are by nature curious, happy and exploratory.

  • c smif says:

    nice, but his voice kept drifting in and out of tune

  • vanou says:

    THANK YOU for sharing your memories. I so wish I had experienced this space and time. Yes I believe you when you say that it was peaceful and loving. Someone said that they came here on a pilgrimage… like they did before to Bethlehem… to see Cohen :)

  • carl bennaton says:

    I wanted to thank a lovely German woman ,I believe her name is Daneilie for putting this on my phone . I hadnt heard some of these songs for decades .thanks I will find ya goodnight

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