Leonard Cohen was not a man to be silenced or restricted in any way and certainly not on the stage. The poetic mind of Cohen, though able to convey the mysteries of the human condition, is equally unable to comprehend the restrictions of its society and doubly determined to refute those boundaries as inconsequential to his art. It would lead to trouble at his concert in Tel Aviv, 1972.
Cohen and his band The Army arrived in Israel four months into their tour, one of the icon’s most revered tours, capture din the Bird on a Wire film. The group were tired and weary from the travelling. Yet they arrived in a country that had only recently recovered from the Six Day War and was still finding their fight as a sovereign nation—to put it mildly, the place was on tenterhooks. It would not be the regular stunning performance Cohen was becoming known for.
The country was charged with the remnants of war when Cohen arrived on one bright and breezy summer day, untroubled by the troubles that surrounded the city. Cohen and The Army had become accustomed to performing in the grandest theatres but in Tel Aviv, they were set to perform in a gymnasium, The Sports Hall in Tel Aviv. It was a change of pace that would be mirrored in much of the performance too.
The odd venue wasn’t the only strange thing about the performance. When the band members arrived at the venue and began to walk around they were told in no uncertain terms that there would be no seats directly in front of them, they would not be given their adoring crowd. Instead, attendees would have to use the bleachers that lined the sides of the venue and would suffer the violent consequences of the security team for not abiding by the rules.
Whether it was actually to protect the newly lacquered floor, as was suggested, or was just an authoritarian relic of the war, the venue’s floor was lined by an army of “Men in Orange” who were acting as security. It was a bizarre situation and not one Cohen or the Army felt at all comfortable about. But road-weary and ready to perform they complied, for the meantime at least.
It was not a great gig. Cohen and the Army were struggling to connect with the audience, hell, they could barely see them at all. About 10 minutes in on the now seemingly lost bootleg of the show, you can hear Cohen begin to direct his songs directly at the Men in Orange, whom he called The Machine. There must have been fears things would combust then and there but the moment passes and Cohen subsides if only for a little while.
25 minutes later and Cohen was again failing to connect with the audience and this time he suggests the audience defy the rules, traverse the new floor and come closer to the stage. This was not a great move. The Men in Orange soon began enacting their violent retributions and were seen to be heavily beating the audience members who made their way to the floor. “Okay,” Cohen says, “I know you’re just trying to do your job, but you don’t have to do it with your fists!”
Chaos breaks out as Cohen begins to try and make peace with the security. He sings ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in an attempt to calm proceedings but by this juncture, the concert was lost to the violence that was breaking out around them and the scene was turning uglier by the second. Cohen and the Army made their way backstage and huddled together unharmed, escaping the mutual wrath of the attendees and the security team in place.
The original recording fades out to yells and screams as the chaos begins to envelop the venue. It makes for a chilling recording and an accurate picture of the turmoil that Israel was in back in 1972. It may go down as one of the worst concerts Leonard Cohen was ever a part of but its intrigue is undeniable.
Listen below to Leonard Cohen’s chaotic concert in Tel Aviv, 1972.