“We are sore in need of matches”November 11, 2016
“We’re sore in need of matches.”
— Leonard Cohen, at the Isle
of Wight, Aug. 31, 1970
It was four in the morning when they came for him.
They took him from his trailer and led him onto the stage — Ratso Rizzo in a safari suit, armed with only his acoustic guitar, his compassion, his pitchy baritone, a couple of hours sleep and a few Nashville cats Bob Johnston had rounded up.
Johnston was a record producer; he’d worked with Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel and, most famously, Bob Dylan (it’s Johnston Dylan’s addressing when he asks, “Is it rollin’, Bob?” at the beginning of “To Be Alone With You”). But he loved Leonard Cohen, whose second album, 1968’s Songs From a Room, he’d produced.
When Cohen asked him to put together a touring band, he was happy to comply. Johnston promised Cohen the world’s best piano player, but Ratso said no, he didn’t want that, he wanted Johnston, and that it was a deal breaker. The European tour was off if his producer wouldn’t go with him. And so Johnston became a piano player, although it probably cost him the chance to work with Dylan again; even though he didn’t play all that well. He could only claw out chord forms, fill in with a crescendo, nothing fancy. But maybe that didn’t matter since Cohen didn’t sing that well either.
He needed the backup singers — Corlynn Hanney, Susan Musmanno and Donna Washburn — to prop up his tender, wandering warbles. Cohen was all right on his own with his guitar and his eccentric sense of timing in a coffee shop or on TV, with the camera sitting at his feet and staring worshipfully up. But for an outdoor show he’d need, at the least, Johnston’s session pros to make a grander sort of noise. The little band that took to calling itself The Army (as in “you and what army?”) consisted of Charlie Daniels (yes, that Charlie Daniels) on bass and violin; Ron Cornelius on lead guitar; Bubba Fowler, who played bass when Daniels didn’t and otherwise added some banjo; and Johnston, who couldn’t play, on keyboards.
At the Isle of Wight, they’d face a crowd of (allegedly) 600,000, more than were at Woodstock. Furthermore, there was an ozone of militancy in the air. The ’60s were over, Sharon Tate had been butchered and the middle-class pilgrims who took the ferry from the English mainland felt entitled. Less than a tenth of them actually paid the three pounds (about $7.20) admission for the five-day festival.
The rest had stormed in, tearing down the fences and leading one of the festival’s organizers, Rikki Farr, to launch a tirade from the stage: “We put on this festival, you [expletives] with a lot of love and you want to break down our walls and want to destroy it, you go to hell.”
During Joni Mitchell’s set, an anarchist charged the stage and seized her microphones, reducing her to tears as she pled: “Listen a minute, will ya? I get my feelings off through my music. You’re acting like tourists, give us some respect!” Kris Kristofferson, obviously wounded by a crowd that alternately ignored him, jeered and pelted him with bottles, stormed off the stage in the middle of “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Even for the louder acts, it was hit and miss — The Who had matched the crowd’s ferocity, turned it back on them. The Doors looked torpid, but Jimi Hendrix seemed to machine-gun them into submission. But, near the end of his set, they (literally) set the stage afire.
One of the things that they burned was the piano Johnston was intending to play. Cohen was standing by the stage watching the commotion. When he saw the piano had been destroyed, he told Johnston he was going to take a nap, that they should come and get him when they found a playable keyboard. He went to his trailer to take a nap, leaving the crowd stirred in the dark, roiling in bad feelings and black rain. When he came out, he was unkempt and shambling. He was 35 years old — a few months older than Elvis — that morning.
On the DVD, Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, released in 2009, Cohen looks sacrificial, like Isaac under old Abe’s blade.
We can see what Cohen looked like because Murray Lerner’s cameras were grinding that night. Lerner was at the Isle of Wight at the invitation of the organizers, who wanted him to screen Festival, his Oscarnominated documentary of the Newport Folk Festival. They’d invited him to film the proceedings (although it wasn’t until 1995 that he finally cleared all the legal hurdles and was able to release his feature film Message to Love).
Cohen is introduced as “a novelist, a poet, an author, a singer” and he takes his time coming onstage. He lifts and cradles his guitar, with his back to the audience, and says a few words to the band. Then he turns to the crowd, adjusts the microphone and begins to softly talk to them, starting off with a brief story about his childhood and his father — who died when Cohen was nine years old — who loved the circus.
“He had a black mustache and a great vest and a pansy in his lapel,” Cohen says. “And he liked the circus better than I did.”
But there was one part of the circus that young Leonard loved, when the ringmaster would come out and ask the crowd to light matches, so that they might “locate one another” in the dark. Lerner’s camera searches the pitch-black field, picking up only a few flares here and there. Cohen remarks that there seem to be a lot of people who don’t have matches. He gazes out and observes, “It’s a large nation, but it’s still weak. Still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.”
And then, very slowly, he begins to sing the words that Kristofferson once said he wanted as his epitaph: “Like a bird/on a wire/Like a drunk/in a midnight choir/I have tried/in my way/To be free ….” Some people speak blithely of “miracles,” mistaking statistical improbabilities for special acts of grace. Cohen is probably not a miracle, just an unlikely survivor of dangerous times.
It is difficult to imagine a poet — a writer more in the tradition of Mordecai Richler, Saul Bellow and Abraham Moses Klein than Mick Jagger — holding sway over a mob in these days of escalating sensations and callused sensibilities, when pop entertainment skews to the loud and vulgar.
Cohen was more energetic onstage in his last years than he ever was as a kid. He got funnier — lightening up even as his voice has darkened. He saw a lot of miles and acquired the seasoned timbre of an ancient violin.
His final crowds came to him grayheaded and pre-smitten. He didn’t have to tame them.
But nearly 50 years ago, he did just that. He quelled the waters. He communed with more than half a million. Call it what you want; he soothed them.
He soothed us.
And now he is gone. Another light gone out.
We are sore in need of matches.