When 600,000 people showed up for the third annual Isle of Wight music festival in 1970, things quickly got out of hand. The tiny island off the east coast of Great Britain in the English Channel was overwhelmed by this invading army. Compounding matters were the huge number of people who showed up at the concert without tickets in the hopes of a repeat of what happened at Woodstock the year prior. Organizers there had thrown open the gates and declared it a free concert when countless numbers showed up without tickets ensuring that trouble was kept to a minimum.
Unfortunately those behind the Isle of Wight festival were less understanding and the event disintegrated into an ongoing battle between the people outside the fence squatting on the hill they called Desolation Row after the Dylan song of the same name, and those running the show. Acts who they had supposedly come to see were booed off the stage, Kris Kristofferson can be heard saying they look like they're going to shoot us. It was into this seemingly unsalvageable mess, after five days of insanity, that Leonard Cohen made his way onto stage. During the set that preceded him, Jimi Hendrix, someone had set the stage on fire, (not Hendrix), and although the fire didn't faze Cohen, the fact that the keyboards had been destroyed did. He refused to go on stage unless another piano could be found so his producer and band leader Bob Johnson could accompany him and the rest of the band.
In the end, it wasn't until something like two in the morning when he made his way onto stage, and in spite of the crowd's ire and impatience he didn't rush. Watching him stare out into the darkness, unshaven, and baggy eyed from lack of sleep at the beginning of Murray Lerner's film of the event, part of the two disc DVD/CD package Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970 being released on October 20th/09 by Legacy Recordings and Columbia Records, you feel a moment of fear that the crowd will tear him to pieces. Then he launches into "Bird On The Wire" and you can almost hear them settling into the palm of his hand.
The DVD is an amazing record of the power of Leonard Cohen as a performer. The cameras never leave the stage, except for a couple of moments when they shoot the darkness to show people lighting matches at Cohen's request -"Can everyone light a match so I can see where your are"? - and that makes you feel as if Cohen and his band are a pocket of light and power within a sea of darkness. If you didn't know about the events leading up to his performance you wouldn't be able to guess that any of it had occurred as you can barely even tell that the crowd is out there. It's only after each song is played and the cheering begins that we are even aware of them. Even when Cohen is simply speaking there's not a sound to be heard, as if no one dares to interrupt him.
Interspersed through out the original film are present day interviews with Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Johnson, offering their perspective on both the festival and Cohen. Often times I find interjections like that to be annoying and tend to distract from the original film, but on this occasion the producers have done a very clean job of interjecting the present day material into the original footage. They serve as interesting footnotes to what is happening on stage, and help us develop a clearer picture of what we're on the screen.
Musically Cohen is at the peak of his prowess, he was about thirty-five years old, and his record. Songs From A Room, had just hit number two on the British pop charts. The concert at Isle of Wight was just one stop on his very successful European tour that year and he was accompanied by a band that included Charlie Daniels on fiddle and bass. In spite of the fact that they are all obviously feeling the strain of the weekend's events and the lateness of the hour, the band never once flagged and played beautifully. There's a great moment during "Tonight Will Be Fine" when Charlie Daniels gets up from his chair and joins Cohen centre stage for a fiddle solo. The juxtaposition of the two men is extraordinary and has to be seen to be believed, as Daniels looks like a hulking bear next to Cohen and far too big to be playing anything so small as a violin. Yet there they are sharing a microphone playing and singing their hearts out respectively.
While the DVD doesn't include all the music from the concert Leonard gave that night, in fact it doesn't even present the songs in their right order, it's still one of the best concert recordings I've seen for how it captures the spirit and intensity of a Cohen performance. The CD half of this two disc set contains the complete concert performed in the exact order as Cohen played that night in August of 1970. Here again the producers have done a great job in capturing the energy of the live performance by not attempting to make the sound quality perfect. By leaving in a great many of the glitches that used to be standard in the days of analog recording of live concerts they have made it possible for the listener to gain a more complete experience of what it must have been like to be at that concert.
While a lot of fuss has been made about Cohen's current tour and what an amazing performer he is today, the slick and sophisticated performance captured on the Leonard Cohen Live In London DVD pales in comparison to the raw passion and intensity revealed on both the CD and DVD parts of Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970. This is a raw and intense vision of a poet at work wooing his audience with words, music, passion, and intellect. Like those in attendance that night you're pulled into Cohen's vision of the world from his first word and only as the music fades away over the credits of the DVD or the last track on the CD do you find yourself re-surfacing. This is an opportunity to experience Leonard Cohen in a way that you've never experienced him before and its not to be missed.
(originally posted October 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.