During the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970, Joni Mitchell’s performance of ‘Both Sides Now’ encapsulates everything that made those three days isolated on the south coast so special. However, not everything was as rosy as the history books suggested.
Astonishingly, somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 counter-culture revellers to the shores of a sleepy seaside resort, but among them were also the glittering gold of the rock world at the time. It meant performances from Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, The Who, The Doors, and Joni Mitchell entered British folklore.
The third consecutive event for the festival since 1968 meant the organisers were quietly confident they could sell out their allocation of 150,000 tickets, and they did so way before the event was intended to take place. Non-tickets holders descended on the tiny island, and chaos ensued. The festival was a mess; it wasn’t the hippie-love-in that everybody expected and instead was a riotous disaster.
The uproar caused by the crowd led festival MC Rikki Farr to scream: “We put this festival on, you bastards, with a lot of love! We worked for one year for you pigs! And you wanna break our walls down, and you wanna destroy it? Well, you go to hell.”
Mitchell was supposed to take to the stage in the evening. However, her set was instead bunged forward to a mid-afternoon slot for some unbeknown reason. The crowd would treat the artist in the same way you would as an amateur playing a cover of ‘Wonderwall’ in the corner of a pub, seeing Mitchell as a mere inconvenience to the melee that was ensuing around the festival site. “I have a feminine cooperative streak,” Mitchell later reflected about accepting the festival’s request to perform at an earlier time. “So I said yes. And they fed me to the beast.”
Three songs into the set, the crowd’s disgruntled attitude towards Mitchell made her plead with them, “It really puts me up tight, and I forget the words, and I get nervous,” she said. “It’s really a drag, and so I don’t know what to say. So just give me a little help, will you?”
Unfortunately, her request fell on flat ears. Mitchell then stumbled through renditions of ‘Woodstock‘ and ‘For Free’ before stopping her performance of ‘My Old Man’ while fighting back the tears to silence the crowd with a speech from the heart.
“Listen a minute, will you? Will you listen a minute!? Now listen, a lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it’s fun, you know, it’s a lot of fun,” a passionate Mitchell said. “It’s fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen. You got your life wrapped up in it, and it’s very difficult to come out here and lay something down.
“It’s like last Sunday, I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert, and there were a lot of people there, and there were tourists. And there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and Indians who were getting into it like tourists. And I think that you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!”
Following that verbal dressing down that Mitchell handed to 600,000 festival-goers, the crowd finally listened, and for the final section of her set, they were eating out of her hands as you can see from the performance of ‘Both Sides Now’. When most people would have walked off-stage, Mitchell was resilient and somehow changed the opinion of over half a million people who ended up thinking she walked on water by the end of her set.