For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be one of the wasted wordsmiths like Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson. Before moving towards a life of overindulgences in the French Quarters of New Orleans, I grew up a confused soul in the suburbs of Ann Arbor and San Antonio. I knew I wanted to take the road less traveled, so I followed the adventures excess of Thompson. But instead of Vegas, I went to New Orleans. I attempted to be like Hunter, but failed miserably. I was no drinker or aficionado of drugs. All it did was made me hung-over, sick and feel even more alone in the city of myths. Some of my favorite moments in New Orleans were when I was locked away in my room, writing all hours of the day. Even my neighbors knew my routine. When I would leave they would snicker, “there goes the poet to lock himself in his house for days. See you in a couple of weeks, dude.” At the time, I was hurt by the snide comments. I didn’t want to be a recluse. I lived to be the life of the party. I never was.
In reality, my life mirrored the romantic frustration of one Leonard Cohen. I wouldn’t want to compare my writing with Cohen. If I could one day equal one of his eternal lyrics, just one line from one of his songs I would be grateful. Looking back, without the greatness, my life as a loner writer was like Cohen’s. I experienced the lows and loneliness of bachelorhood and desperately searched for love in every siren I longed to be with. Most of the times those sparks faded to blue after a first kiss but still searched for her. It would take ten years to find my true love but all those years on my own taught me to keep writing and never give up.
To this day, I follow the reflective wisdom of Leonard Cohen. To me Cohen is a truth-telling troubadour who was born a sonneteer, a poet whose words reflected the pain and longing that scar us all from within. But even through all the hurt, after all of these years, and even in those early days of the 1970s, Cohen never lost his hope. And just like Cohen, what I leaned most from Leonard was his unwritten creative creed. He loved, lost and learned to write through the scars and sing through the agony. The thing is that his results are international treasures such as “So Long, Marianne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Cohen sang a plethora of what are now classics during his legendary performance at the Isle of Wight in 1970. Cohen was awakened from a nap at 2 a.m. and followed the explosive set of Jimi Hendrix with his transcendental lyrical journey in front of 600,000 friends. At the time Cohen took the stage, he had released two albums: Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room. A few weeks after, he would record his third album Songs of Love and Hate, which would include “Sing Another Song, Boys” from this same event at the Isle of Wight.
What makes his performance unique was the stripped, honest nature of each song. It starts with Cohen’s voice who sings like a lover sharing his tales of lost love, proud of his scar-like choruses as a choir of backing angels harmonizes behind him in such songs as “Lady Midnight.” The choice of “Lady Midnight” is a curious selection for it contains some of his most powerful religious imagery, like future wordsmith singers like Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, whose conflict with their personal faith is something you can hear them struggle with in almost all of their songs. To me “Lady Midnight” has more kinship with the myth of Orpheus that Cave himself sang about 30 years later. In Cohen’s song, you hear his fair maiden calling out “You won me, oh Lord.”
One of my favorite aspects of the Isle of Wight show was the way Cohen changed some of the lyrics of songs like “Bird on the Wire” if only slightly. But just like a master poet, once you replace a word with another one it changes the meaning completely. Instead of saving the ribbons Cohen switches that line with “I have saved all my sorrow for thee.” It matches the reflective mood of his desolate life of unrequited love.
But my favorite part of “Bird on the Wire” is at the end of the second verse when Leonard updated his lyric from “and if I have been untrue/ I hope you know it was never to you, ” to “and if I have been untrue/ It’s just that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too.” His one lyric was a reflection of my own past lies and romantic failures. Who else can do this? With one line he encapsulates a lifetime of heartache. This is why, to me, just like Dylan and Shakespeare, Cohen is one of the eternal lyrical geniuses.
Other highlights are the acoustic solo version of “The Stranger Song.” In this performance, Cohen’s words come to life. He was the stranger and with every chord he has mesmerized the crowd with his poignant journey. And Cohen became something more, a lyrical laureate of truth and love. I loved the emotional version of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” with Cohen playing what sounds like a flute-like instrument with his hands. You can see this on Murray Lerner’s documentary of Cohen’s concert. This version includes interviews with Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Kris Kristofferson as they recant their memories of Cohen’s amazing performance. The film is remastered and looks beautiful, but not all the songs from the show are featured and for some reason Lerner edited them out of order. Seeing a young Cohen crooning to this conscientious crowd is a delight.
Comparing Cohen’s Live in London live disc that was also released this year with this performance at the Isle of Wight, I prefer this one. This one is for the die hard Cohen fans. There were not many hits in this show and Cohen’s young voice has yet to ripen to the lower register we have grown accustomed to. His emerging voice still sounds powerfully poetic as he sings the lyrical letter of “Famous Blue Raincoat.” (Surprising this song was absent from the Live in London show.) To me this Isle of Wight rendition is my favorite and one of the best on this amazing performance. It has a flamenco guitar vibe that I still can hear delightfully in my head.
Leonard Cohen’s Isle of Wight 1970 CD/DVD is an album that all music connoisseurs must own. There’s something mythically inspiring by his performance during his magical show. Leonard Cohen has always transcended time and lyrical spaces with his songs. And this show is no different. Cohen may now be a middle aged crooner but looking back at this magnificent concert is like watching the master with new and unheard gems that he shares from his arsenal of artistic greatness.
Not only do you get the songs but you also hear reminiscences with poems and stories from his childhood. He tells a story about when his father would take him to the circus when he was younger. There was one part that the young Cohen always waited for, when a man at the circus would stand up and he would say “would everybody light a match, so we can locate one another…” Cohen then asks the crowd to light a match so “you can sparkle like fireflies at your different heights.” He longed to see those matches flare.
Long after this performance, Cohen has been lighting the spark of inspiration in my life as a solitary writer and lover. Now on the cusp of my wedding, I can look back with the pride and glory of Leonard Cohen’s young voice. Going back with his lyrics I have no regrets, just a lifetime full of memories that ring truth in the songs that have guided me throughout these years from the poet/singer that I still long to honor. Thank you, Leonard, for this beautiful and timeless lyrical gift. I will continue to reach for the moon. Your voice will guide me as my journey continues the same one that started in June, a year after your famous performance at the Isle of Wight. I am listening with matches that I light from within.