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St. Leonard’s Passion

Leonard Cohen releases his 12th album, Old Ideas. The troubadour and poet hasn’t always been popular, but he is always profound.

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Leonard Cohen. (Margarita Korol)

The audience arrived, too, and at first, they all looked like decent kids. They had long hair and big smiles, and most of them lived on the dole, the generous unemployment payment the British government handed out to anyone who applied. They bought their ticket for three pounds sterling and rushed into the festival’s fenced-in area to catch a good spot on the grass in front of the stage. They swayed dreamily to the progressive rock band Judas Jump and cheered warmly for the California folk singer Kathy Smith and her two-hour-long set of mellow tunes. A clean-shaven Kris Kristofferson was there, too, but the sound system stuttered, and his set was soon inaudible. The crowd was kind, protesting mildly, clapping when appropriate. The organizers apologized profusely, promising Kristofferson he could play a second set in a day or two. On its first day, the festival looked like it would live up to expectations and become England’s Woodstock.

And then came the troublemakers.

They were there on command, dispatched by a militia of pranksters that called themselves the White Panthers and saw the festival, with its order and neatness and paid admission, as the triumph of oppressive capitalism over the rowdy spirit of the 1960s. They were determined to make the festival their Alamo; they would fight to the end for music’s right to be free.

The festival’s campground, with its makeshift fences and rows of wooden commodes, was designed with a maximum of 200,000 concert-goers in mind. The White Panthers spread the word in London and elsewhere, promising a chance to see rock’s royalty without paying a penny. By the morning of the festival’s second day, its organizers began to notice rows of unpaying spectators gathering on the hill just outside the campground, overlooking the stage; it was named, after Dylan’s anthem to chaos and disillusion, Desolation Hill. By noontime, the throngs on Desolation Hill numbered in the tens of thousands. By nightfall, they made their way downhill toward the fences, demanding to be let in.

In the spirit of peace, love, and understanding, the organizers tried to catch their bees with honey and hired a few dozen men they reckoned were the freeloaders’ ringleaders to mend and paint the campground’s fences, battered by the invaders from Desolation Hill. The following morning, the organizers woke up and realized what they had done: In bright colors, in big letters, were slogans and symbols, covering every inch of the fence. Entrance is everywhere. Don’t buy. Fuck the guards. Commune Free. The organizers’ names next to swastikas. The festival was in free fall. By midday, there were half a million souls surrounding the stage.

Or storming it. Joni Mitchell took the stage around noon, and she barely finished her third song when a shirtless gentleman leaped on stage, wrested the microphone away from the stunned singer, introduced himself as Yogi Joe, and began his speech.

“Power to the people, motherfuckers!” he shouted. “I’ve been to Woodstock, and I dug it very much. I’ve been to about 10 fucking festivals, and I love music. I just think one thing: This festival business is becoming a psychedelic concentration camp, where people are being exploited! And there’s enough of that! What is all that peace and love shit when you have police dogs out there! What about that? That reminds me of a lot of bad things, you know? I don’t like police dogs!”

Security guards leapt on stage and seized Yogi Joe. Mitchell looked shocked. “Listen a minute, will you?” she pleaded. “Now listen! A lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun, it’s fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen, you got your life wrapped up in it, and it’s very difficult to come out here and lay something down when people … .” She was greeted by thunderous boos.

Backstage, the organizers were panicking. Less than 10 percent of those in attendance paid for their tickets. At this rate, there would be no way to recover expenses and pay the artists. Even worse, the crowd was getting unruly: With all the trashcans overflowing and all the toilets clogged, they started hurling rubbish at the stage. Kris Kristofferson was the first hit. Immediately after taking the stage for his promised repeat performance, a bottle came whirring by, hitting him in the shoulder. He stopped for a moment, then started again. Some cans rained down on his band. And the shouting. And the smell of burning garbage. “We’re going to do two more in spite of everything except rifle fire,” Kristofferson said, not trying to hide the disdain in his voice. “I think they’re going to shoot us.” He decided to try his most famous song, “Me and Bobby McGee.” Maybe that would soothe the mob. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge,” he sang, “headin’ for the train, feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans.” By the time he got to the part about freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose, the boos were too loud to ignore. Kristofferson stopped playing, gave the crowd the finger, and stormed off stage. One organizer took the stage, enraged.

“That was Kris Kristofferson,” he said when the music finally died down. “Now, I just want you to hang on one minute. I want you to hear something, and I want you to hear it fucking good! There are some good people out here, and you are insulting their intelligence! And if you come to this country at our invitation, and we have to charge you, through no choice of our own, three pounds, if you don’t want to pay it, don’t fucking well come!”

That only made the Desolation Hill crew angrier. They assailed one artist after another. Sly and the Family Stone tried appealing to reason and failed. Mungo Jerry canceled his set. The Doors insisted that all of the lights be turned off; they played in the dark for nearly two hours, and their sepulchral music, emanating from the black emptiness on stage, drove the mob into a frenzy. The audience wanted to see Jim Morrison, so they tried to burn down the stage.

By the time Jimi Hendrix came on, they succeeded. It was after midnight, and Hendrix was wearing tight orange pants and a pink-and-yellow tie-dye shirt, looking like a flame himself. Something, probably a makeshift Molotov cocktail, had hit the scaffold above his head, and soon it caught on fire. This seemed to amuse Hendrix. He held his Stratocaster guitar as if it were a machine gun, pointed it at the crowd, and fretted fast. The riffs were high-pitched, difficult to take. A few security guards rushed onto the stage to try and put out the fire, and their walkie-talkies interfered with the amplifier’s frequency. The howling of Hendrix’s guitar flickered, sounding otherworldly. In three weeks’ time, the musician—ravaged by stress and sleeping pills—would asphyxiate on his own vomit in the basement of a posh London hotel, but that night on Wight he seemed more exuberant than he’d been in months. He played faster and faster, and anyone in the audience who was in possession of a lighter flicked his thumb on the flint and went searching for something to burn.

Watching the campground catch fire, most artists scrambled for safety and talked feverishly about getting off the island as soon as was possible. Standing not far from the stage, Leonard Cohen turned to Bob Johnston, his producer, and with what Johnston thought was the beginning of a smile said, “Wake me up when it’s time, Bob. I’m going to take a nap over there, by the fire.” A few hours later, one of the festival’s organizers woke him up and asked him to take the stage. Unless someone plays, he said hurriedly, blood will be spilled.

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It is so good to have more of Leonard Cohen:
Listen to
Think about
Feel his spirit
See his sweet smile

bette tiago says:

Beautifully written, evocative tale of a moment in history, a poet,
the strength of speaking from your soul, your self, TO, not AT, an audience.
How do you calm the violence of a mob? What power the power of integrity and sense of self? What power the ability to convey your ‘knowing’ that every human being has a place where s/he can be ‘reached.’ How many Leonard Cohens are out there? Who is the Leonard Cohen of this generation?

This article evokes more of Leonard Cohen than anything I’ve ever read. Thank you, Liel. I look forward to reading your book.

carter bise says:

Thank you for a lovely interlude for a long day. I am 58. “St. Leonard” has long spoken to my soul. I am also happy that my son now listens as well.

I’ve been waiting for this piece of writing to arrive. Wonderful Liel!

This is the story of a great teacher.

Iconoclast Leonard Cohen has always had a solid following drawn to his brilliant poetry. I named one of the best paintings of my career “I Came So Far for Beauty.” When I was asked to pose for a portrait of Joan of Arc, whose swollen appetite never resonated for me, I agreed because the artist was a kindred Leonard Cohen fan. Listeners discomfited by Cohen’s singing voice should find Jennifer Warnes gorgeous album of Cohen songs “Famous Blue Raincoat.” They might well convert and become a “Cohen by Choice.”

If the illustration that accompanies Liel Leibovitz’s review of Leonard Cohen’s new album is typical of her work, I’d more than welcome seeing additional graphics of any type by Margarita Korol. Just stunning…

Bill in AZ says:

Wonderful piece…thanks for it.

I only got to see him once but I still remember his introduction to “Sisters of Mercy”. In telling how the song cams about he started with…”I’d just been asked to leave this Chinese restaurant…”

I don’t find Leonard Cohen’s music iconoclastic. I find it realistic.

Odin Alfather says:


There have been many Messiah’s over the years, each one unable to fulfill the prophetic requirements needed to fit the profile.

I say, change the requirements to fit the Messiah.

(1) We all know that every religious scripture has been manipulated over the years by the hand of man, regardless of implied spiritual influence. So, change scripture.

(2) What the world needs at this very moment is a redeemer, a savior who will stop the madness that is developing around the world as we speak.

(3) This leader will need followers from around the world, willing to stand behind the Messianic Government and its leadership.

4) This leader will need people like you and me, who see change coming, which no man has been able to enact to date.

(5) If you want a free world, a world without secrets or borders, wars or famines, poverty or corruption, illness, or lack of anything to sustain a standard of living, you need me.

(6) I am prepared to accept all people into the Messianic Government, as members and shareholders of this world class corporation.

(7) Membership will include: (a) “Indefinite – Lifetime Passport” for entry to all countries, to live and work where you chose, without immigration issues.

(7), (b) Being an advocate for the Messianic Government, and influencing people worldwide for the betterment of all.

(8) If you truly want change, you must change yourself and become one with all. Become one with the Messianic Government.

(9) To voice your opinion, leave comment on U-tube. For contact, via e-mail:

Tkorin says:

Thanks God for Leonard Cohen and thanks for this beautiful story about him

Thank you for writing about Cohen. My favorite song: “A Thousand Kisses Deep”. My take on his poetry: Cohen mixes religious imagery with sex, drugs to create urban epiphanies. His voice and his bass line are hypnotic.

Ahh, what wonderful warm glowing nostalgia by Leil about the hippies.

The article really speaks for itself.

Reminds me of the present day “Occupiers.” Thank G-d it is just a few of them now, instead of hundreds of thousands of unbelievably self absorbed baby boomer immature spoiled little children.

Leil, you could not have summed up better (atlhough accidentally I am sure) the grotesque excesses of that cohort group. They have all grown up now…and given us every social ill we suffer to this day.

I hate hippies.

Ann arbor says:

Lovely, nostalgic, true. I wish I had written this article.

Thanks Liel, you do Leonard proud. I was at one of the concerts on his recent tour. His generosity and grace were matched by his soaring artistry. His humility, his respect and love for his band members, for the audience, for music and language were breathtaking. Thank you for this amazing story of LC at 36.

I saw Cohen here in Helsinki a couple of years ago with my wife a couple of years ago before she died. Cohen has the alien power to grasp life through the same hall of twisted beautiful mirrors that comes with Lewis Carroll and his wild fantasies and it is beautiful and horrifying and astonishing and mysterious and very real. A great piece of writing.

Thank you for sharing this illuminating, satisfying, and detailed article on this grandmaster of poetry and memorable music.

This article reads like a made-for-TV movie.

annie morgan says:

Long before he set his work to music, he made the music with his words.

Enjoyed the Isle of Wight story. No use overhyping Cohen though, he was always a peripheral participant in pop music. For every good song he recorded he wrote 20 dogs. You kept hoping for another Suzanne or Bird on a Wire, but the waits were very long

george says:

Drug-fueled paranoia and neuroses channeled into music. Cohen made it work for him. Nice work if you like a steady diet of downer songs.

Fantastic article about Leonard Cohen who is, YES…. a brilliant poet. Many thanks.

wonderful piece, thank you Liel.

Maybe I’m dreaming, but as far as I recall it was Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat in 1990 that showed the world what a great song writer Leonard Cohen is. Until her recording, a lot of people couldn’t seem to get past his voice to the words.

Graham Combs says:

Fine piece. In the 70s I used to drive up to Toronto from Detroit to buy the Canadian editions of Mr. Cohen’s lps. The first 3 are nothing short of classics. I may not share his politics or his religion (Buddhist Judaism?) but evoked something if inexpressible for me. His sly Catholic references were a guilty pleasure for this Catholic. But the article does explain why I never enjoyed “festivals.”

beejeez says:

Wonderful story. YouTube has some of the footage from that show, and it’s worth checking out.

I’m sure the many artists who’ve covered Leonard Cohen’s songs think they’re doing him, the world and listeners a favor. But I feel sorry for people who don’t see how his voice illuminates their dark corners better those of his well-intentioned admirers, however stronger and more polished their voices are.

Wow. Well told.

I yield to no-one in my love for Cohen’s music, lyrics and respect for his audience. So I am sure he did a good show at the Isle of Wight. However, Mr Leibovitz favours a rather lurid tone. While any rock festival has its moments, this festival was not quite the eye of destruction he portrays.

From Wikipedia (don’t make that face!):

Chief Constable, Hampshire Constabulary, Douglas Osman emphasised the peaceful nature of the event in his evidence given to the Stevenson Report, 1971, (submitted to parliament as evidence in favour of future Isle of Festivals) “. . . By the end of the festival the press representatives became almost desperate for material and they seemed a little disappointed that the patrons had been so well behaved.”

Back to me. If you want to find a zone where things go too far, don’t go to the Isle of Wight. Just go to Cohen’s lyrics. Blake was thinking of Cohen when he wrote “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Connie says:

I feel as though I have wasted so much time – not knowing the gifts of Leonard Cohen – and, like him, I am not getting any younger but this journey has allowed me to discover so much. I am praying for his good health and a generous (heaping helping) portion of joyful peace topped with outrageously contagious laughter!! and the next time you see him, please give him a big hug for me.

Susie Desmond says:

I respect Leonard. I love most of his thoughts and his poetry. I ordered the new album without previewing it. I listened once. I felt so depressed. I understand facing the end of life because I am near to that as well. Over and over I heard his dirge on each selection. It only made me sad. Very sad. Too sad to listen often as I do to his earlier work. Take care Leonard! Love you lots. Each day is a gift.

It was a quieter and more peaceful crowd at the Isle of Wight, from where I saw that festival in the centre of the crowd, though the mythology has come to tell otherwise in the intervening years. I remember Leonard, looking slightly bemused as we called him back for his 4th encore, and saying, “Well, I guess it’s good music to make love to.”

It was. It still is.

Shirley Herbert says:

What a beautiful, well-written tribute to the magic of Leonard Cohen and how moving the description of how he mesmerized an angry crowd on the Island of Wight back in 1970. I eagerly await Leibovitz’ book on Cohen after being given the disappointing unproof-read 2010 bio by Anthony Reynolds.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

” like Jews he believed that salvation was nothing more than a lot of hard work and a small but sustainable reward”

That is “parnasah”. This is ‘Yiraat shamaim” and it is the most satisfactory retribution from Gd

There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
All set with my tickets for 12/18…MSG. Have 2 left, anyone interested???


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St. Leonard’s Passion

Leonard Cohen releases his 12th album, Old Ideas. The troubadour and poet hasn’t always been popular, but he is always profound.