More than 46 summers ago, a young Canadian folksinger named Leonard Cohen delivered the performance of a lifetime at the third annual Isle of Wight music festival.
The late, insanely great Cohen, then 35, was awakened from a nap in his trailer and brought onstage to perform with his band. The audience of 600,000 was still in a frenzy, trampling fences and setting fires, stoked by Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary performance. Onlookers stood in awe as Cohen quietly tamed the crowd and took them to another place, and for that he became enshrined in music legend, forever. Cohen, who died in November at the age of 82, lives on in immortal concerts like this.
Interestingly, “Hallelujah,” one of his best known songs because it’s been covered by so many great artists, didn’t come into being until 1984. When he took the stage at Isle of Wight, he had released two albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) and Songs From a Room (1969), and was about to drop a third, Songs of Love and Hate (1971). At this early time, Cohen’s big hit was “Suzanne,” with haunting lyrics like: “And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind, and you know that she will trust you, for you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.”
This documentary captures Cohen setting out on the first of countless concert tours that he kept on doing for the rest of his long life.
“I consider it a reconnaissance,” he told Rolling Stone in 1971. “You know, I consider myself like in a military operation. I don’t feel like a citizen.”
Cohen had learned guitar as a teenager—a flamenco guitar teacher reportedly persuaded him to switch from steel strings to nylon—and formed a folk band. After he graduated from McGill University in Montreal, he wound up on a Greek island in the early ’60s where he honed his poetry. He published his first collection of poems, with the ironic title, “Flowers for Hitler,” in 1964.
But his literary ambition stalled, so he moved to New York in ’66, where he met Judy Collins, who covered two of his compositions on her album, In My Life.
His lyrics were always imbued with nuances that ran deeper than most pop songs. That’s what set his music apart.
“Poetry is just the evidence of life,” he once said. “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”
As Rolling Stone’s Richard Gehr recently pointed out, “Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet.”
Amazingly, Cohen’s muse never went mute, despite a career that spanned half a century. Just before he died, he came out with one of his best albums in years, You Want It Darker, which was showered with critical acclaim. Not bad for a guy in his early 80s.
To catch him in concert when he was still relatively young and full of promise is a rare treat, indeed.
Ticket price includes reception with prolific rock documentarian Murray Lerner. Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington. cinemaartscentre.org $10-$15. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11.