Man on a Wire: Watch Leonard Cohen transfix 600,000 tired and angry hippies
Written by John Adamian
Wednesday, 24 March 2010 12:23
Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight
March 27-28, April 3-4, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, 860-232-1006, realartways.org
It’s four in the morning, at the end of August 1970, and Leonard Cohen is taking the stage in front of 600,000 restless fans at the Isle of Wight Festival. There have been fires, clashes, riots and aggressive outbursts from the huddled throngs.
You can tell a lot about a performer’s psyche by watching the way they relate to a crowd. Between the wild gesticulations, the pantomime pouts and the relentless gyrations of Mick Jagger (the Stones weren’t at the festival) and Miles Davis’s indifferent, or maybe even hostile, back-turning to the audience (Miles was there), there’s a whole spectrum expressed from desperate neediness to malicious contempt. Joni Mitchell had practically been brought to tears by a jeering crowd earlier in the five-day festival. Kris Kristofferson’s set had been marred by sound difficulties and audience frustration. Kristofferson muttered from the stage that he thought the crowd might shoot him.
As concert movies go, Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight (a DVD and concert album were just released at the end of last year), can’t really compete with any of the greats from the genre. It’s no Gimme Shelter. It’s no Wattstax. With limited camera angles, and a sort of narrow cultural and historical perspective provided by a few commentators (including Joen Baez, Judy Collins and Kristofferson, among a couple of others), Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight captured a pivotal moment in a festival that had its share of problems — resistance from the locals, logistical hurdles (ferrying a half million people to an island), seething audience resentment (hippies, it turns out, were willing to fuck shit up if they couldn’t get into a concert for free). When Cohen took the stage, he was the next-to-last performer, everyone expected this calm (you might say bordering on dissociative) singer literate folk songs and waltzes to be sent away with a chorus of boos.
“Everyone had been sitting there in their own filth and squalor,” Kristofferson says. “I never have known why they didn’t just hoot him off the stage like they did me. I can only think that [it was because] he was such an honest performer and didn’t scramble after anyone’s attention.”
Not only does Cohen not scramble for anyone’s attention, he takes his sweet time waking up (he’d been sleeping in a trailer), and when he finally takes the stage — unshaven with a matted and nested head of hair, looking a lot like Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy — Cohen seems almost incredulous of the audience’s existence. Not in a hostile way, but in a genuine epistemological way. Standing with his band, the Army (which — weird rock fact — included Charlie Daniels on bass and fiddle), seated behind him, Cohen addresses the crowd with a curious little anecdote.
“Greetings, greetings,” he says, with a calm and poise that indicates that Cohen was well prepared for his later career as a Zen monk, “When I was 7 years old my father used to take me to the circus, he had a black mustache and gray vest and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did.”
He goes on to describe how the ring master would get the circus crowd to light matches to give everyone a sense of the crowd’s dimensions.
“Could I ask you, each person, to light a match, so that I could see where you all are? Could each of you light a match so that you sparkle like fireflies at each of your different heights?” he says gesturing to the dark hills filled with campers surrounding the area. “I know that you know why you’re lighting them. … There’s a lot of people without matches.”
Cohen’s bit of quiet showmanship seems to metaphorically address the state of the counterculture. He appeared to be saying that if everyone couldn’t join together in solidarity to show themselves, then all of their grand hopes for change might be misguided or naive.
Strumming his guitar he sings. “Ah, it’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people,” and then talking again he says, “It’s a large nation, but it’s still very weak, it needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.”
Then he launches into “Bird on a Wire.” The band sounds great, if a little tired. With three women singing the ethereal oohs that show up again and again in Cohen’s songs and players alternating from banjo and spirited but low-key guitar thrumming. Fans will be interested in seeing Cohen’s songs performed live with a crack backing band. Just watching Cohen execute the finger-picking on “Suzanne” gives one renewed appreciation for the man’s understated talents.
Perhaps the juiciest bit comes early in the film when an interviewer asks some of the festivalgoers why all of the interest in attending these gargantuan rock events.
“It’s like going to Bethlehem,” says the genial bandana-clad fan. “They all go to see where baby Jesus came to be, and we all go to see Leonard Cohen.”