Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
By Alan Baban | 12 December 2009
They’re funny things, Leonard Cohen songs. Here, in 1970, singing his most popular songs, though none of them were game for any real popularity, LC takes the crowd to task. He joshes with biblical grace then treats those same sermons to skids of black humour—for the hell of it. He bares his teeth. There are moments on Murray Lerner’s tremendous documentary (that accompanies the Live at the Isle of Wight album) where Cohen looks genuinely ghastly, his thick mane dead still while he ambles side-to-side in his pajamas. He also looks calm, even horribly calm, as he regards the chaos around him. It isn’t indifference, much less is it boredom. He grins but you can tell he’s only smiling at himself: a drug addict, a smoke-ender, a practical joke just a bit too honest, and a quitter. The lashes of honesty have stripped away so much and left just enough kernels of truth to survive on. But Cohen is loud and gluttonous; what little he has he makes the most of. Human frailty, to him, is a form of greatness.
And part of the greatness is that he has clearly gone insane. This isn’t the shy, wimpled yesterman of Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen, nor is it the free-enterprising man of romance first distinguished on his Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968). And though those songs are played, in their original style, the voice with which they’re expressed has undergone crazy change. It is absolutely not the effects of age, though when he performs there seems to be nobody more old, or wise, than him. On a cold August night in 1970, Cohen strolled on stage two hours late and totally killed it. The audio allows us to hear the spontaneity leaping from his voice, a sort of damned calm that he controls like breathing, that, when he gets lost in these little cathedrals we call Leonard Cohen Songs, often betrays itself as startlingly courageous.
This isn’t a sleepwalking performance. The first thing he does is ask the audience to light some candles; he can’t see their faces. He peers out into the crowd and it looks, for a moment, like he’s sighting blackheads in the mirror. It’s approaching 5 o’clock and he needs to shave. Good luck to you, Cohen seems to say, after a brief introduction, and then he launches into “Bird on a Wire.”
Throughout the set we’re reminded of the tapedeck: it crops up to rudely infringe on these songs, stubbing into hallowed verses like fingers on a showreel. Noise splits open “Famous Blue Raincoat,” pock-marks disarming sections of beauty with no regard for what is great and what’s just merely good. I realise that this is to do with the recording and not the performance, but the two, at least here, seem to be inextricably linked. Because Cohen’s voice, like I’ve said, seems to have changed—is still subject to change as he sings along to whatever comes next. This is a man who is finally standing apart from himself. There is what he’s saying, and how he’s saying it. And here he’s singing these old words with sting, throwing bile onto calm stretches and twisting the yearning of “So Long, Marianne” into something like a straight goodbye. It’s a big voice, and it predicts the course he’d take on his (my opinion) best studio album, Songs of Love and Hate (1971). That record’s Hate anthem, “Diamonds in the Mine,” is given a blistering run-through, and this set’s “Sing Another Song, Boys” was similarly outsourced, in its live form, to the Love side.
The other songs? They wait passively for someone to animate them and Cohen is their best performer. They’re perfect things that have weathered years of ersatz arrangements and gloops of schmaltz, have been twisted into all sorts of popular designs, their meanings subsidized, their soul driven to the margins. But you can change the font or you can bring in Leona Lewis and pin it with red reefer to the walls of a political office; still these songs are sturdy, driven things. Their internal logic is timeless and, on his own terms, Cohen has been taking us to the cleaners for decades. Here, at the inarguable summit of his fingerpicking days, we have a recording of him occupying his creation, articulating it—it is a beautiful, humbling thing to hear a man this in control of his art, an art that isn’t so much an extension of the man as it is his own beating heart. Cohen has the gift to sing about the most terrible events and lock it all down to the timing in his chest.
So here he is lifting the lip-end of a cigarette and smiling; here’s Cohen going clear past the mechanic’s school of songwriting into regions more mythic, less openly personal, and more concerned with discovered intimacy, with the uncharted self. There is, no joke, a hushed excitement to these slow and ponderous songs: of the audience catching its breath and Cohen catching his, both, in their own individual way, engaged in the process of finding out. Though what comes next in a Leonard Cohen Song always feels inevitable. He calls it as he sees it, and he always sees the same thing, over and over again. It’s a strange holocaust of stars he performed in on that night in 1970, and though death and decay would continue to be forceful themes in Cohen’s career, he seems here to be on a crest, moving towards the common end and gathering, building Everyone Else into his wave. It’s an assault perpetuated by someone who sounds totally, unabashedly alive. This is the best Leonard Cohen live album.