Sometimes certain performances can outrank any other gig or tour an artist has ever done. Those performances, usually so incendiary and exciting in nature, can stick in your brain longer than most songs or albums. That’s because seeing an artist perform their song live is as close to hearing their very soul as is possible to achieve. The same can certainly be said for Leonard Cohen’s esteemed appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.
The performance at the festival came as part of one of the most riotous events in the festival’s long history. It was a performance which saw the growing anger of the crowd and quelled it with simply sung sweet songs from Leonard Cohen’s growing canon. The performance has even become a stand-alone DVD release, such was the impressive and imposing nature of Cohen’s set. Below, we’re taking a look at his rendition of ‘Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’ and the striking power he delivered it with.
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.
Enter Leonard Cohen.
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.
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. It was this very style, in fact, that became Cohen’s signature move and endeared him to the hearts and minds of millions of fans.
It was during his performance of songs like ‘Seems So Long Ago. Nancy’, that Cohen truly shined. Originally taken from the Songs From A Room record, the track is captivating at the best of times, when you add to that a thousands-strong now-hushed anarchic mob sitting at your feet, it adds even more gravitas to the performance.
The song, written about the tragic suicide of Montreal girl Nancy Challies after she was forced to put her baby up for adoption, making for one of the most arresting moments in the entire performance, if not the festival as a whole. Tim Challies, Nancy’s nephew, said of the track in 2011, quoting Cohen’s words to him: “It is her beauty and bravery that shine through. Many young women of the time came up against the hard limitations of family and society, although not every confrontation ended so sadly.”
Not many artists are skilled enough to approach such a song with such simplistic love but Cohen does it all in his stride. He, unlike any other artist, was able to convey the emotions of love, grief, loss and peril all with a twinkle of his eye and a smile on his face. It’s why he managed to quieten the mob and why we’re still revisiting this performance some 50 years later.
Watch Leonard Cohen perform ‘Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’ live from Isle of Wight Festival in 1970: