Leonard Cohen’s captivating performance of ‘Suzanne’ at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970
We’re digging deep into the Far Out Magazine Vault to bring you a very special moment as Leonard Cohen silences the raucous crowd at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.
The third Isle of Wight Festival wouldn’t have the happy ending that previous years had enjoyed. The event was besieged by a gigantic crowd of over half a million, way over the 150,000 tickets they had actually sold and forced the organisers to make the event free for all.
It was a bold move that had been replicated at places like the Summer Jam at Glen Watkins farm and, of course, Woodstock. It was also a move that incited riots and forced the Isle of Wight residents to endure an onslaught of hippie power, all while sending crowds into a frenzied almost uncontrollable state.
That is until Leonard Cohen took to the stage and beguiled a mass of heaving bodies into a unified awestruck heap. After five days and nights of rioting, burning, and pillaging, according to many of the residents there, only one man could quell the audience. Cohen arrived to calm proceedings and deliver one of the most captivating performances of modern music.
He silenced the mob and he did it with unrivalled authenticity and grace, the kinds of which only Cohen has truly balanced with a poetic lifestyle. What makes it even more amazing is that the performance followed one of the wildest moments of the entire festival, the burning performance of Mr Jimi Hendrix.
The guitar impresario took to the stage a little after midnight on August 31st and delivered what is quite possibly the most vibrantly coloured piece of music you’re ever likely to hear. Imbued with the kaleidoscopic power of the energy that permeated the sixties and further emboldened by the hope of a new decade—Hendrix was in his element. It meant that by the time Cohen was ready to take the stage it was close to 2am. and the crowd were utterly exhilarated.
It wasn’t just following one of the world’s musical geniuses that might have put Cohen on edge. The crowd, as well as being drunk and disorderly (what festival isn’t) were also five days and nights deep into mob rule and had begun booing artists off stage without so much as a moment’s thought. Cohen’s friend Kris Kristofferson suffered this fate after being hit by a barrage of bottles, “They were booing everybody,” said the singer, “Except Leonard Cohen.”
Cohen’s producer and keyboardist, Bob Johnston, remembers in Sylvie Simmons’ book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen “Leonard wasn’t worried,” Johnston told Simmons. “Hendrix didn’t care and neither did we. Leonard was always completely oblivious to anything like that. The only thing that upset him was when they told him that they didn’t have a piano or an organ–I don’t know, someone had set them on fire and pushed them off the stage—so I couldn’t play with him. Leonard said, ‘I’ll be in the trailer taking a nap; come and get me when you’ve found a piano and an organ.'”
The singer and poet had only really been truly performing music for three years and he had never come close to a mammoth audience like the one in front of him that night. However, he still approached the situation with the same calming connection as he would have a small conversation in a coffee shop over an afternoon cigarette.
At the beginning of the documentary Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970 , “Can I ask each of you to light a match,” Cohen says, “so I can see where you all are?” As Simmons puts it, “Leonard talked to the hundreds of thousands of people he could not see as if they were sitting together in a small dark room.”
In the trailer for the film below, the filmmaker asks three festival attendees why they have travelled so far to come to the Isle of Wight Festival, “It’s like going to Bethlehem,” the bedraggled and unnamed teen suggests, “They all go to see where little Baby Jesus came to be and we all go to see Leonard Cohen.”
Much of the singer’s full performance at the festival has been removed on rights grounds following the documentary. But one artefact on the internet remains for public consumption, Cohen’s captivating performance of his most iconic hit, ‘Suzanne’.
Below watch that moment as Cohen converts over half a million people with his guitar, a smile, and a song.