Note: Most of this content was originally posted May 24, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. Some editing has been done and material added in the service of updating the piece.
The 1970 Forest Hills Music Festival
Were there a SAT equivalent for music fans, it might include this sentence completion item:
Leonard Cohen’s performance at the 1970 ___________ Festival was unique for that Tour.
This is, of course, a trick question. While all but the most knowledgeable Cohenites (or the most astute test-takers) would immediately respond with the Canadian singer-songwriter’s epochal performance at The 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival, Leonard Cohen also appeared that year at a festival in Aux-en-Provence (August 2, 1970) and, more pertinently to today’s post, on July 25, 1970 at the 10th Annual Forest Hills Music Festival. As we well see in forthcoming 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour posts, each of the three festival appearances that year was indeed unique. The distinctive elements of Forest Hills show were, alas, an overwhelmingly negative review and a run-in with Bob Dylan.
It’s worth noting that by 1970 the use of the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium (aka West Side Stadium) as a pop music venue had a long, uneven history featuring acts ranging from one hit wonders to Dylan and The Rolling Stones. In the summer of 1964 alone, Forest Hills hosted Frank Sinatra (with Count Basie), Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Chet Baker, and an English group called The Beatles.1
- July 11: Sly & Family Stone with Rare Earth
- July 17 & 18: Simon & Garfunkel
- July 25: Leonard Cohen and The Army
- August 1: Janis Joplin
- August 8: Peter, Paul, & Mary
- August 15: The Band
- August 22: Fifth Dimension with Ramsey Lewis
Leonard Cohen & The Army At Forest Hills Music Festival, New York
The 1970 Tour was the Leonard Cohen’s first real tour.2 Keep in mind that in May, he and The Army3 had played venues such as the Olympia Theatre in Paris, Royal Albert Hall in London, and Circus Krone in Munich. He and the band were scheduled to return to Europe for the festivals at Aix-en-Provence (Aug 2, 1970) and the Isle Of Wight (August 31, 1970).
Performing in a tennis stadium in Forest Hills, New York, its history of hosting musical stars notwithstanding, was a dramatic shift in environment.
The 1970 Leonard Cohen show is described, albeit as viewed through psilocybin goggles, by an audience member in this excerpt from In the Center of the Fire by James Wasserman (Nicolas-Hays, Inc., May 24, 2012):
Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen – Forest Park Frenemies
Yep, this is one of those few instances when the principles of the Dylan-Cohen Mutual Admiration Society were tested. The following excerpt from Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes (Grove Press: May 24, 2011):
That [the Forest Hills show] was the only bad performance we ever gave, and I think part of the reason was that Dylan was in the house that night, and we were all nervous.4
The exact Set List Cohen played at Forest Hills is indefinite and unconfirmed, at least in its details.5
On the inside flap [of a book in her hands at the concert] I have this written:
An Evening With Leonard Cohen
Emcee: Scott Muny (NYC DJ at the time)
Bird on a Wire
So Long Marianne
You Know Who I Am (new) maybe new poem
Marriage of Joan Of Arc
Sisters of Mercy
Story of Isaac
Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
new song something and english6
and possibly The Stranger Song
From the author’s handwritten entries in Is This What You Wanted by Jim Devlin:
1. Bird On A Wire
2. Sing Another Song Boys
3. You Know Who I Am
4. Joan Of Arc
5? Tonight Will Be Fine
6. Sing Another Song Boys
7. Story Of Isaac
8. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
10? The Partisan
11? The Stranger Song – solo
Billboard Review Of Leonard Cohen Forest Hills Concert
On the other hand, Nancy Erlich’s review of Leonard Cohen’s Forest Hills performance published in the August 8, 1970 issue of Billboard is a model of pristine certainty untainted by dubiety, ambivalence, or ambiguity. Cohen is, Ms Erlich informs us, a musical Svengali, ruthlessly using “his extraordinary command of language and other people’s emotions” to oppress, diminish, and emotionally deplete those who listen to his songs.
A scan of Erlich’s report follows (click on image to enlarge):
Now, one writer’s opinion of one Leonard Cohen concert that took place over 40 years ago is unlikely to trigger a crisis of faith among those who count themselves friends of Leonard Cohen. Still, especially for those of us who came of age as Cohen fans during the accolade-saturated worship service that was the 2008-2013 World Tour, it’s useful to be reminded that the launching of Leonard Cohen’s singing career did not consist simply of being introduced to the world by Judy Collins and then arising at 2 AM at the Isle of Wight for his coronation as a musical icon.
Credit Due Department:
The yellow poster image listing the various acts appearing in the 1970 Forest Hills Music Festival was found at Simon & Garfunkel ‘ Time it was…it was.’ The first poster image beneath the heading, “Leonard Cohen & The Army At Forest Hills Music Festival, New York” was found at LeonardCohenFiles. I have edited it for easier viewing. The 1970 Forest Hills Program brochure and the other posters were found on auction sites.
- That history is interestingly presented at It’s All The Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen performed a number of concerts prior to 1970. The 1970 tour, however, was the first sequence of concerts organized as a tour from a business perspective with Leonard Cohen, along with his own band and backup singers, promoted as a full-blown headline act rather than piggy-backing off of some other existing ticket-selling dynamic such as festivals such as Newport, York, and Mariposa. [↩]
- The Army, the musical ensemble that backed Cohen, comprised the following individuals (Source: Is This What You Wanted by Jim Devlin): Bob Johnston (guitar, keyboards), Charlie Daniels (electric bass, guitar, fiddle), Ron Cornelius (lead guitar), Elkin ‘Bubba’ Fowler (bass, banjo), Corlynn Hanney (vocals), and Susan Musmanno (vocals) [↩]
- Susan Musmanno: Personal communication [↩]
- This is hardly surprising. Heck, the dates of some Leonard Cohen concerts that took place in late 1970 are not known with certainty. [↩]
- Update 07 November 2012: Thelma Blitz writes “I have a brief record of this concert in my journals. I noted Leonard played the hands. ( I also play the hands but not as well). The only song where he played the hands on his first LP was ‘One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.’ Therefore I reason that was the song in the set list called ‘new song.’ The audience member did not recognize it.” [↩]