THERE IS A BEAUTIFUL anecdote about Leonard Cohen from his performance in the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. Between August 26th and 31st, this tiny island off the southern coast of England came to host one of the greatest musical events of those times. It featured all the heavy rollers of that era—Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and several others. The organisers had expected some 150,000 people. But instead, over the course of five days, more than four times as many turned up. As the audience swelled, the venue began to tremble under their riotous mood. Pumped with the adrenaline of that era and fuelled by the electronic rage of rock and roll’s greatest musicians, the audience began to break and burn things. One man wrestled the microphone off Joni Mitchell. The Doors, afraid of getting hurt, played their set for over two hours with the lights all switched off. And then Hendrix came on. A few weeks later, he would die of an overdose, but that night, it’s said, he played like a madman, paying scant notice even to a Molotov cocktail that burnt parts of the stage.
The audience seemed in the grip of pyromania. The artists wanted to scramble off the island. At around 2 in the morning of the final day, Leonard Cohen showed up. He had just taken a nap and popped some Mandrax. With a grubby unshaven face, Cohen looked—according to an article by Liel Leibovitz, who wrote a book on Cohen titled A Broken Hallelujah—more like The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison’s accountant than his peer. For the next two hours, Cohen performed, in his characteristic speech-song manner as though he were reciting a poem on intimate moments from his life. At one point, he asked the audience, “Can I ask each of you to light a match, so I can see where you all are?” All the matches and lighters that were setting things aflame only moments earlier began to sway. He had transferred his peace to this restive crowd. By the end of his set, the audience was on the ground under the spell of a reflective calmness.
At one point, Cohen asked the audience, “Can I ask each of you to light a match, so I can see where you all are?” All the matches and lighters that were setting things aflame only moments earlier began to sway
How does one account for Cohen’s immense popularity? When he emerged in the late 1960s, his songs were more poetry than music. He was about a decade older than anyone else. Even Bob Dylan had plugged in and gone electric. When the political music of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the peppy music of the 1980s, Cohen kept doing melancholic ballads. In 1984, Columbia Records turned down his seventh album, Various Positions, with its president Walter Yetnikoff telling the artist, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” The album had some of his most celebrated songs now, but back then these mournful numbers (Dance Me to the End of Love, If It Be Your Will), including a biblical anthem, Hallelujah, must have seemed out of place. But he was like no other. He did not urge you, like Morrison, to Break On Through to the Other Side. He told you how to stay on and face this one.