December 15, 2013

Leonard Cohen, “Live at the Isle of Wight 1970”

One of the best books I read this year was I’m Your Man, the biography of Leonard Cohen by one of the best music writers going, Sylvie Simmons. The richest parts of the book happen when it slows down to retell key events, something the author can only do when there’s a tidy document to reference. The Isle of Wight festival set from 1970, luckily, was well-documented. Because of this, it’s one of the best parts of the book, and of course it’s also the best live album in Leonard’s stack (he has five or six to choose from). The music is excellent. Leonard is really high — Simmons talks about Mandrax and LSD, among other things, being consumed at all times on the tour — and he speaks and sings slowly for most of the performance. But this was at 2:00 in the morning, following Jimi Hendrix if you can imagine such a thing, in front of a crowd of over half a million people. It was a magical moment filled with levity and exhaustion and revery. The glory of it all really comes across in the footage; the illicit clip I’ve embedded above is also available as a commercial Blu-ray which you should check out. The double LP sounds even better. I’ve got this one on vinyl, and when I read that chapter in the book a few months ago, I took it down off the shelf. It’s been in constant rotation ever since. The needle drops, the house fills with poetry and that thin guitar and those singing ladies and pretty soon you’re signing along too.