Why you should care
You likely missed Leonard Cohen’s performance at the Isle of Wight in 1970 but take heart: He’s still mesmerizing sold-out crowds with concerts that feel more like religious ceremonies.
In 2008, following a 15-year hiatus from performing live — six of which he spent holed up in a monastery while his life savings were stolen by his manager — Leonard Cohen, 78, took to the stage again. He hasn’t taken much time off since. Cohen is finishing up another world tour for his most recent album, Old Ideas. This tour in particular has had reviewers praising an even greater return to mesmerizing shows he’s best known for, many of which are nearly four hours long but hold the rapt attention of what might otherwise be an impatient crowd. Of his concert in London this past summer, Catherine Shoard wrote for The Guardian, “This was a prayer meeting … Such is the reverence, so eager are people not to miss a beat, that they don’t even sing along.”
Half a million people … They hated everybody. They were booing Jimi Hendrix!
This kind of reverence was never on better display than in 1970 at the Isle of Wight festival held on a little island off the mainland of Great Britain. Cohen was set to play the penultimate show on the festival’s final night. But by then the atmosphere was tense. According to Kris Kristofferson, the crowd had driven him and most other acts off the stage with deafening boos and carefully aimed beer bottles. They had already burned concession stands and some cars and had set the stage on fire. “That was a very scary thing,” Kristofferson says. “Half a million people … They hated everybody. They were booing Jimi Hendrix!”
Forty-three years later, it’s not easy to put a finger on exactly what went wrong at Isle of Wight that August. But a few things are clear. Organizers had planned for 100,000 people but 600,000 came, and most hadn’t paid to get in. Many of the freeloaders camped up on a hill overlooking the festival, which became headquarters for much of the fest’s disruptive energy. Anarchists and activist groups like the White Panthers protested what they saw as a consumerist event, and the Hell’s Angels, angry that they had not been asked to provide security for the festival, showed up to cause trouble of their own. By the last night, the hill even had a name — Desolation Hill after Bob Dylan’s song of a similar name.
By the time Cohen took the stage, his organ and piano had been burned and pushed off into the crowd.
By the time Cohen took the stage, at two in the morning, it had been raining for some time. His organ and piano had been burned and pushed off into the crowd. He wore a raincoat over pajamas and took 20 minutes to tune up. Kristofferson thought, “They’re going to kill him.” But then the crowd started to grow calm, as if waiting for a religious guru to address them.
And he did. Barely strumming, singing slowly at first and picking up the pace very gently, he improvised an intro to “Diamonds in the Mine”:
They gave me some money
For my sad and famous song
They said the crowd is waiting
Hurry up or they’ll be gone
But I could not change my style
And I guess I never will
So I sing this for the poison snakes
on Devastation Hill
He was admonishing them (“poison snakes,” “Devastation Hill”) and yet, those he was calling out fell immediately under his spell. When the song was over, he told a story about his father taking him to the circus and asked everyone to light a match, “so I can see where you are.” Then he gave the best performance of his life.
Leonard Cohen mesmerizes the crowd
I happen to live down the street from Julie Christensen, who sang with Cohen in the 1980s and early ’90s. I asked if her years with Cohen provided any insight into how he managed to calm an unruly crowd of half a million people that night in 1970. She reminded me that it was around the time Cohen began his longtime association with Zen Buddhism and that he was also taking a sedative called Mandrax (others have noted that he was sedated that night). Cohen was a hypnotist when he was very young, Christensen added.
According to Sylvie Simmons’s recent biography, I’m Your Man, Cohen became skilled enough as a teenager that he persuaded a housemaid under hypnosis to undress for him. “Leonard had a talent for mesmerism,” she writes.
The video footage of his Isle of Wight concert confirms this. Just try to watch without falling into a trance.