Today in Music August 26, 1970 – The Isle of Wight Festival opens….later Leonard Cohen quells the crowd!


Isle1970On Thursday August 26, 1970, a few weeks before I would leave home to go to school at the University of Florida, across the pond on the Isle of Wight the last, for a long time, Isle of Wight Festival opened! Here’s what promoter said on the Monday morning after the festival….

“This is the last festival, enough is enough , it began as a beautiful dream but it has got out of control and become a monster. ”

The Festivals were held from 1968 to 1970, from Wikipedia…

The original events were promoted and organised by the Foulk brothers (Ron, Ray and Bill Foulk) under the banner of their company Fiery Creations Limited. The venues were Ford Farm (near Godshill), Wootton and Afton Down (near Freshwater) respectively.[5] The 1969 event was notable for the appearance of Bob Dylan and the Band. This was Dylan’s first paid performance since his motor cycle accident some three years earlier, and was held at a time when many still wondered if he would ever perform again. Followers from across the world trekked to the Isle of Wight for the performance. Estimates of 150,000–250,000 attended. The 1969 festival opened on Friday 29 August—eleven days after the close of Woodstock. Dylan was living in Woodstock, New York, at the time and it was widely believed that he would perform there, after the event had been “put in his own backyard”. As it happened, Dylan left for the Isle of Wight on 15 August—the day the Woodstock festival began.
The 1970 event was by far the largest and most famous of these early festivals; indeed it was said at the time to be one of the largest human gatherings in the world, with estimates of over 600,000, surpassing the attendance at Woodstock. Included in the line-up of over fifty performers were The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, The Doors, Lighthouse, Ten Years After, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Melanie, Donovan, Gilberto Gil, Free, Chicago, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Leonard Cohen, Jethro Tull, Taste and Tiny Tim. The unexpectedly high attendance levels led, in 1971, to Parliament passing the “Isle of Wight Act” preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special license. Read More

Probably, the most important performance of the festival came from Leonard Cohen, who took the stage a little after two in the morning on the last day. It was a rainy night and things gotten to the boiling point. During Hendrix’s performance that preceded Cohen, someone had tossed a flare on the stage, which set it on fire. In her book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen journalist Sylivie Simmons paints the scene….

Tension had been rising at the festival for days. The promoters had expected a hundred and fifty thousand people but half a million more turned up, many with no intention of paying. Even after the promoters were forced to declare it a free festival, ill will remained. During a set by Kris Kristofferson, bottles were thrown and he was booed offstage. “They were booing everybody,” says Kristofferson. “Except Leonard Cohen.”

I bought the Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 for my wife a few years back and Leonard’s set is amazing …From Leonard Cohen Plays a Spellbinding Set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Cohen had a glazed-over look in his eyes throughout the performance, the result of his taking the sedative Mandrax. “He was calm because of the Mandrax,” Johnston told Simmons. “That’s what saved the show and saved the festival. It was the middle of the night, all those people had been sitting out there in the rain, after they’d set fire to Hendrix’s stage, and nobody had slept for days.”

….when Cohen brings the massive crowd together by asking a favor: “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.” Or as filmmaker Lerner later said, “He mesmerized them. And I got mesmerized also.”

Here’s “Bird on a Wire” part of that mesmerizing performance from 44 years ago this week!