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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