(Leonard Cohen at Isle of Wight, 1970)
BY STEVEN ROSEN /SONIC BOOMERS / 2009
For decades, the narrative about the great rock festivals of the 1960s has centered on two from 1969 – Woodstock and Altamont. Yin and yang.
The first symbolized everything great about these mass events and the counterculture that supported it. An impromptu community based on peace, love and music. The second, the dark side – brutal intimidation (and murder) of meek innocents by a violent organization, the Hell’s Angels, able to gain control through unchallenged brute strength.
Aiding that story line has been the ongoing popularity of films about each – Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Woodstock won an Oscar for its footage of the exciting music and ecstatic half million or so attendees. The Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour and also released in 1970, captured the frightening events of Altamont, including the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter amid a crowd of some 300,000.
But lately, a third festival – and an alternative view of the 1960s – has been emerging as equally important: Isle of Wight, 1970. And a brand new DVD/CD package of Leonard Cohen’s strangely mesmerizing, middle-of-the-night set – Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 – provides valuable new material for our emerging Isle of Wight studies.
Cohen faced a testy, potentially violent crowd – they had chased Kris Kristofferson from the stage earlier and may have started a stage fire during Jimi Hendrix’s set – and touched their need for contemplative quietude.
“When he came on, his banter identified himself with the audience and their ideals,” recalls Murray Lerner, the documentary director whose footage was used for the Cohen film. “He was saying he was sympathetic to their radical ideals – that helped. And I think the magic of his lyrics helped; they get into the psyche. That’s a little different from most other performers – they’re not poets.”
Cohen was touring with a band of Nashville studio musicians called the Army – led by his producer, Bob Johnston, on keyboards – doing mostly material from his first two albums.
He brought his talents as a published poet to his finely crafted yet mysterious lyrics. He had to go on at 2:30 a.m. on the last night, after a tumultuous Hendrix set. He looked half asleep, unshaven with his thick curly hair unruly. He wore a safari jacket and slacks – hardly a hippie. But, as the new DVD shows, they accepted him as one of them.
Since it was the third – and last, for a long time – of the Isle of Wight rock festivals off the coast of Great Britain, the 1970 edition very much belongs to the 1960s. Isle of Wight overall is probably best known in the States for its 1969 edition, where Bob Dylan chose to resume performing after a three-year absence by performing in the sing-songy croon phase that hasn’t aged well.
But the five-day 1970 festival at the end of August drew some 600,000 people. Its line-up was as diverse and interesting as Woodstock’s – including Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Jethro Tull, Donovan, Ten Years After, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Sly & the Family Stone, Free, John Sebastian, Procol Harum, Doors, Pentangle, Richie Havens … even Tiny Tim.
And like Altamont, it was beset by violence. Hippies and radicals, believing that music should be free and angered that the promoters used dogs to patrol the wall they built, eventually battered it down to get inside. Inside they harangued staff and even performers – driving Kristofferson from the stage (he told his band to prepare to be shot) and almost reducing Mitchell to tears when one unhinged fellow interrupted her after she finished “Woodstock” and tried to make a speech. It was frightening.
And, yet, music occurred and hundreds of thousands of fans had the time of their lives. Nobody died – unlike Woodstock (where three died) and Altamont (four fatalities). The crowd and the performers, somehow, were able to negotiate the rough spots without making it worse and, in some cases, making the music redemptive.
This hasn’t been realized about Isle of Wight 70 because there had been very little documentary footage available. This despite the fact Murray Lerner, the American director of Festival, about the Newport Folk Festival, was there with a crew of nine shooting as much as possible. And producer Teo Macero, sent by Columbia Records to record Davis’ set, taped much else.
Only 25 years after the festival did Lerner’s Isle of Wight film emerge – 1995’s Message to Love – and even then it was basically a straight-to-DVD release, with just minimal theatrical distribution. Since then, however, seemingly every year brings a new DVD drawn from Lerner’s footage. There are individual sets by Hendrix, Davis, the Who, ELP and Jethro Tull out there. And new this year are ones by the Moody Blues and Leonard Cohen, both of which feature bits and pieces of new interviews.
Lerner has remained devoted to getting the Isle of Wight footage out there, because he thinks it adds an important warts-and-all element to the rock-festival story: “There was violence. We were scared when we went into the crowd,” he says, in a phone interview. “From time to time, they yelled, ‘Get the camera.’ But interestingly, there were no fatalities and at Woodstock there were. Partly I made my film in reaction to the Woodstock film, which I didn’t think was an accurate picture. It didn’t show the negative side, which I thought there was.”
You might think Cohen would be the wrong guy to entertain a half million+ festgoers, many of them in a foul mood. His voice could be draggy and slow, and his romantic songs could be downbeat and sad to the point of despairing – he told the crowd, for instance, “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” was inspired by a suicide. Even the uplifting songs he performed, like “Bird on the Wire” and the lovely “Suzanne,” contained a sense of struggle to achieve their beauty. It’s not easy-listening music in the best of times, which Isle of Wight middle of the night most definitely was not.
Yet his honesty and poetic sensitivity won everyone over. Looking at the crowd, after asking them to light matches so he can see them, Cohen intoned that “It’s a large nation” but must get stronger before it can claim its own land. Even the suicide tale preceding encore song “Nancy” had a sense of compassion to it – “she was right where you are now but there was no one else around,” Cohen told the crowd.
All in all, a remarkable performance – maybe one of the great rock-fest appearances.
Of the two new Isle of Wight releases, the Moody Blues one – Threshold of a Dream –occasionally combines footage montage-like from throughout the band’s career. It’s probably meant as a celebration of their long career, but it takes you out of their Isle of Wight experience. There’s also the fact the lyrics of the band’s superficially luxuriant music hasn’t deepened in meaning over the decades. However in a new interview for the DVD, Moody John Lodge does get at something important about Isle of Wight:
“People wanted peace, a nice life, harmony,” he says. “That’s why the radical element didn’t take over. The power of the audience actually stopped them – the power of the music, the power of the energy within the people.”
Incidentally, Lerner tells an unusual story about why his Isle of Wight footage took 25 years to start to emerge (there was an earlier Hendrix project). Unlike Woodstock or Altamont, there was no film in place before the event. He says the promoters didn’t want one. But, he says, CBS Films had a right to first refusal, because Columbia Records had recorded it. So sometime in the early 1970s, he brought his footage to CBS Films, which liked it and arranged for a screening with the record label – headed by Clive Davis.
“(He) walked into a screening with like 20 people and when Tiny Tim came on, he got up and walked out, because he didn’t like him,” Lerner says. “That was the end of it; the record company didn’t want it. From then on we were struggling.”
There was a special work-in-progress screening at Museum of Modern Art in 1973, but it wasn’t until the 25th anniversary that BBC partnered with a private firm to give Lerner money to finish. It chronicled the battleground aspects of the festival, as well as the music. (There was an accompanying CD soundtrack.)
Lerner would now like to do a Live at Isle of Wight DVD devoted exclusively to – who else? – Tiny Tim. (The snippet of him singing “There Will Always Be an England” in Message to Love is a delight.)
“I have a lot of footage of Tiny Tim and would love to do a Tiny Tim at Isle of Wight, Lerner says. “You would think he’d be the most commercial performer in the world from his reception at Isle of Wight, but it was a campy kind of positivity. But it was a great act, a great set he gave.”
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org