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.
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.
Orthodox klezmer and bluegrass virtuoso Andy Statman and evangelical country star Ricky Skaggs cross genres and faiths to form a mighty duo