The year before the Isle of Wight 1970 Music Festival, the nation had begun to experience a shift. The days of peace were giving way to a menacing undercurrent. This undercurrent brought about the disruption at Woodstock where thousands of non-paying visitors forced their way onto the festival grounds. In spite of heightened security measures by festival organizers, the same would happen at Isle of Wight.
Isle of Wight 1970
Festival organizers had planned for 150,000 attendees. Instead, an additional 500,000 forced their way in. Organizers had no choice but to declare The Isle of Wight 1970 Music Festival a free festival in the hopes of maintaining the peace but not even that could quell the angst.
Leonard Cohen and his band The Army joined the list of musicians set to play the festival. Even though Cohen was new to the international music scene, he was scheduled to perform immediately following Jimi Hendrix on the final night of the concert. But Leonard and The Army never could have envisioned the events that would lead up to their time to take the stage.
The festival had not been like the ones before, hosted on the small island. Festival attendees threw bottles at musicians including The Who and The Doors. They rioted and fought. As the days wore on, tensions continued to rise fueled by drug use and lack of food and sleep. This was not how Leonard or any of the members of The Army envisioned their festival appearance.
From Bad to Worse
Making matters worse, when Jimi Hendrix appeared on stage- the act Leonard and The Army were to follow- the crowd erupted in renewed violence. The night was rainy; the atmosphere dangerous. During Hendrix’ performance, someone threw a lit flare onto the stage, burning up much of his set. Even the piano was burned and pushed off the stage.
Nevertheless, Cohen and The Army remained determined. Around 2 a.m., they took the stage.
Promoters and organizers weren’t sure that Cohen would be able to perform. They underestimated both him and his band. “Hendrix isn’t worried and neither are we,” Leonard insisted.
The rowdy crowd watched as they took the stage. Then, in a mark of genius, Cohen spoke directly to them. “Can I ask you all a favor?” he said to the crowd. “Can I ask you all to light a match so I can see where each of you are?”
“He mesmerized them,” Lerner, there to document the event on film, said. Leonard spoke to the crowd as if they were with him in a small, intimate room, darkened room. That was was the power of Cohen: the power of connection.
Leonard Cohen and The Army’s performance at Isle of Wight 1970 became legendary. There was no violence while he performed, no attempts to storm the stage or burn him out. Instead, for a little while, Cohen and The Army soothed their weary minds, spoke through music, and launched themselves into history.
For more stories about Dylan, Cohen, and many other artists, check out The Guitar Behind Dylan and Cohen by Ron Cornelius, band leader for Cohen’s Army, musician, and producer. Autographed copies are available exclusively on The Gateway Entertainment website.