On August 31, 1970, Leonard Cohen was scheduled to play the third Isle of Wight Festival. The conditions were not optimal. While 100,000 or so tickets had been sold, there were nearly 600,000 in attendance. Fans overran the island to see and hear the Who, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and many others over five days. Given the gatecrashers, things got ugly and violent. Some acts were booed from the stage while others were pelted with projectiles; fires were set -- even the stage got torched during Hendrix's performance. Murray Lerner, the award-winning documentary filmmaker who had been commissioned to capture it all, packed up his gear. Thank goodness he stayed.
Leonard Cohen was 35 and had two albums under his belt with a third on the way. He was scheduled to play after Hendrix, right in the middle of the chaos. Organizers tried to find a replacement piano for the one that had been burned -- he was asleep in his trailer when he was awakened at 1 a.m. An unkempt Cohen took the stage without hesitation at 2 a.m in a safari jacket and jeans over his pajamas, along with the Army -- producer Bob Johnson on organ, piano, and guitar; Elkin "Bubba" Fowler on bass and banjo; fiddler Charlie Daniels; guitarist Ron Cornelius; and vocalists Corlynn Hanney, Susan Mussmano, and Donna Washburn. Cohen opened with a story about a man at a circus asking people to light a match so they could see one another; he requested that from the rowdy crowd. Some granted it early, many more later. Lerner instinctually reset a camera just before his performance and got most of Cohen's show, the vibe of which transformed the festival's last day.
It's all here on CD and DVD from Legacy. Cohen played songs from his first two albums, debuted a few, recited poems, and told stories. He offered personal confessions about being in a cheap hotel, trying to pick up a blonde woman in a Nazi poster while coming down from a speed run; he talked of friends who committed suicide because they had no one to talk to; and shared effortlessly, politely, and honestly without artifice or "showmanship." In other words, the qualities he has become known for throughout his career.
The CD captures the entire performance in nearly pristine sound. The hits (of the time) are here, the banter is here, and the entire performance by the band is so special it will leave the listener utterly satisfied. Whether it's "So Long, Marianne," the poem "They Locked Up a Man," the stellar reading of "The Partisan," or the chilling version of "Famous Blue Raincoat," this is top-notch Cohen. The DVD is imperfect, but that's all right; it is still essential viewing artistically and historically. What Lerner captures is utterly magical, and not to be missed. His sense of timing is impeccable, his taste unassailable. Since he hastily reset his gear, there is one camera instead of three, but it hardly matters. He captures the essence of what happened, he understood instinctually what was going on on-stage and with the crowd, and he portrays that throughout the gig. The concert is interspersed with brief interviews with eyewitnesses Judy Collins and Joan Baez, but their input is unnecessary and self-serving. Kris Kristofferson's first-person commentary, however, is wonderful, because it is journalistic and simple, without nostalgic interpretation. Cohen is not present as a commentator, which is unfortunate, but this is only a small complaint, really. This is one CD/DVD package that is so complementary, its pieces are inseparable.