Maoists, Music, Mud, Money, & Mayhem: Leonard Cohen’s 1970 Aix-en-Provence Show

1970-08-02 Progressive Festival D'Aix En Provence - Handbill-900

Reports, Recordings From The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Show

This post is the continuation of  Leonard Cohen At Another Other 1970 Festival – Aix-en-Provence (Part 1). While Part 1 of this post focused on the Aix-en-Provence Music Festival itself, this entry centers on Leonard Cohen’s August 2, 1970 appearance there.

As noted in an earlier post, Leonard Cohen & The Horse He Rode In On-Stage At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival,

the Aix-en-Provence Music Festival in general, and Leonard Cohen’s role in it specifically, were uniquely weird.

In addition to Leonard Cohen making his onstage entrance astride a white stallion,1 for example, he also reported having been shot at:

I think I was shot at once at a big festival in Aix-en-Provence. That was when the Maoists were very powerful in France and they resented the fact that they actually had to buy a ticket. A lot of them broke down the fence and came into the concert and I did notice one of the lights on the stage go out after a kind of crack that sounded like a gunshot. I don’t know. But they’re tough critics, the Maoists.2

On the other hand, when asked in the same interview, “What about the French generally? You have said you are French. How do they respond to you?” Cohen responded

My work has been well received in France. One of the reasons is that they have a tradition that my work fits into. They like to hear that battle in the voice. They want to hear the real story. The well-known ones are Brassaens and Brel, but they have hundreds of such singers. They don’t have a preconception of what the voice should be. So my songs have struck home there.3

Leonard Cohen’s Opening Statement

Then, there was the declaration issued by Leonard Cohen at the beginning of his performance.  Delivered in French (the English translation that follows the French is for the convenience of readers; it was not spoken by Cohen at the concert), the original typewritten version of the speech is seen below the text.

Je voudrais dire une chose sur les rapports entre les Festivals et l’Argent. Quand les Festivals seront à vous ils ne seront pas a d’autres.Si vous m’appelez,je serai la déja.Mais une chose…il n’y a pas Une revolution. Quand quelqu’un parle d’une revolution,c’est leur revolution.Laissez la revolution aux proprietaires de la revolution.Ils sont comme tous les autres proprietaires:ils recherchent un profit.Dans le Choeur de la nuit,j’ai cherche ma liberte….like a bird on the wire….

I’d like to say something about the link between money and the festivals. When the Festivals will be yours they will not belong to others. If you call me, I will already be there. But the thing is,there is not a revolution. When others talk about the revolution,it is their revolution.Leave the revolution to the owners of the revolution.They are like any other owners: they’re seeking profit. In the Choir of the night,i tried to be free…4

AIX EN PROVENCE0001ltr

The Audience Vs Leonard Cohen and The Army

Some in the audience at Aix-en-Provence called Cohen a fascist, accusing him of condoning “The Regime of the Colonels” in Greece because Cohen had lived  and continued to own a residence on Hydra. Cohen’s reply follows:

I have not spent much time when The Colonels were there. Most of the time I spent there was in the 60’s, but I had friends there for it all, and I had a life.  It  is not a question of supporting the so and so or something like that!5

Further, “fascist” was just one of the pejoratives hurled at Cohen during the Festival.

On the one hand it was generally apparent that people got off on (were getting off on) his songs, on the other hand the remarks that he made in the interlude were appreciated and interpreted very differently:  “fascist”, “communist” (“ a tyranny of words: poor slaves!”, he commented),  “demagogue”, “anarchist”, “reactionary”, and “opportunist” are the main adjectives that were attributed to him.6

Along with the verbal abuse, the audience also hurled objects with rather more potential to do physical damage, such as bottles, at Cohen and his musicians.  These attacks and the aforementioned fear that someone had shot at the stage, knocking out a spotlight, resulted  in the band that day bestowing upon themselves the name by which they became known: The Army.7

Cohen’s band musicians in August 1970 were Bob Johnston (who was also Cohen’s Nashville-based Columbia A&R staff producer) and Nashville-based musicians Charlie Daniels (electric bass, fiddle), Ron Cornelius (lead guitar), and Elkin ‘Bubba’ Fowler (guitar, banjo). Backup singers were Corlynn Hanney  and Susan Musmanno (aka Aileen Fowler). 8

While several political issues were raised, the primary issue triggering protests from the crowd was money. In fact, according to David Mellor and Laurent Gervereau, writing in their 1997 book, The Sixties: Britain And France, 1962-1973 : The Utopian Years, Leonard Cohen’s fee for performing at Aix-en-Provence in 1970 and Bob Dylan’s fee for appearing at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival were specifically held up as examples of pop musicians who had betrayed the Revolution presented as evidence that the festivals had to be “open to the people” (i.e., offered at no cost).

Despite some crowd-pleasing declarations from Cohen, such as his dedication (in French) of The Partisan “to the police; that they leave their armour, internal and external, and that they join us,” 9 the shouting of radical slogans and politically-inspired insults persisted – until Leonard Cohen, in turn, challenged his antagonists in the crowd:

At the end of the song, Cohen intervenes one last time in English: “Those who are trying to sabotage know that they are faced with armed men;  I want to say: armed with guns and ready to use them.  If you believe that freedom is being able to shout anything at anytime, then you know nothing of freedom.  But if you want to attack us, then come  up on the stage.  We will defend ourselves.” Needless to say, no one went up and the silence was respectful during the last two songs.10

Nadel, writing in Various Positions, reports this episode similarly:

Cohen took the microphone and challenged the people to come on stage if they were unhappy, intimating that they singers were also armed, an expression of western bravado from a group of horse-riding musicians from the gun-totin’ south. ‘If you don’t like what you hear, come take the microphone. Until then we’ll keep singing,’ Cohen said. The concert went on, although with difficulty.

Jacques Vassal review in Rock and Folk no 44 Sept 1970 photo iby Steve.Aix-en-Provence0010Jacques Vassal review in Rock and Folk no 44 Sept 1970 photo iby Steve.Aix-en-Provence0011

While Cohen and crew did manage to finish the set, not everyone was pleased with Leonard Cohen’s appearance at the Festival.  The summary at Le Festival De Pop Music d’Aix en Provence casually dismisses Cohen’s political declarations as boring en route to praising Johnny Winter:

If Leonard Cohen wearied part of the crowd with the statements with which he peppered his songs, Johnny Winter, who appeared with the young Norwegian group, Titanic, was a  great hit.

More damning is the excerpt from the essay at Rock Stories (1967 – 1974):

Thus the French groups, enjoying a reputation less grand than the English or American performers, were satisfied to perform before a big audience and leave their stamp: they were warmly applauded for this gesture nobility.

But a certain, already well-known Canadian, Leonard Cohen, had no desire to come down off his high horse; not only did he defend his exorbitant fee, but he continued on with the demands of a diva: at its own expense, the committee rented some horses for him and his band, and he appeared on stage riding a beautiful white stallion, for which it was necessary to erect (build) a specific wooden ramp, much to the dismay of the purists who booed and hissed at him. Some claimed, not unreasonably, that the fantasies of this artist of such personality were disappointing. He was believed to be the only star here who one would imagine to be more sincere and generous, who would give one reason to attend the festival, a festival which seemed to be going smoothly without any significant problems.

And From Leonard Cohen’s Point Of View

In response to his experience at the 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival, Leonard Cohen wrote “On Leaving France,” a poem that appeared in The Energy Of Slaves (published 1972):

On leaving France

the blue sky
makes the plane go slow

they say I stole their money
which is true

let the proprietors of the revolution
consider this:

a song the people loved
was written by a thief

Videos

Two videos featuring Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Aix-en-Provence Show have been posted:

Credit Due Department:

  • The image of Leonard Cohen’s typewritten introduction is from the private collection of Dominique BOILE.
  • Translation services were provided by Coco Éclair.

Note: Originally posted Sept 15, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

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  1. For a photo of and the story behind that equestrian event, see Leonard Cohen & The Horse He Rode In On-Stage At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival []
  2. Leonard Cohen: Various Positions, Transcript of 1984 CBC interview by Robert Sward []
  3. Ibid []
  4. Diamonds In The Lines – Leonard Cohen In His Own Live Words []
  5. Encyclopaedia Universalis – Leonard Cohen – Le Partisan []
  6. Leonard Cohen by Jacques Vassal, Rock & Folk n°44 September 1970 []
  7. Various Positions, Ira Nadel. p 177 []
  8. There is a story or two worth telling about the members of The Army – but that ‘s another post. []
  9. Leonard Cohen by Jacques Vassal, Rock & Folk n°44 September 1970 []
  10. Ibid []

4 Replies to “Maoists, Music, Mud, Money, & Mayhem: Leonard Cohen’s 1970 Aix-en-Provence Show”

  1. Christophe

    A very well-documented and absorbing post, once again… Thank you! If I may just quibble over a detail in the translation of Leonard Cohen’s statement, when he says “il n’y a pas Une révolution”, it actually means that there is not one and only one thing that may be called a revolution. In other words, “revolution” is just a word, and when someone speaks about “the” revolution, it is only “their” revolution, that is what they call revolution, or the kind of revolution form which they expect profit. The word may create the illusion that there is such thing as “the” revolution, with its objective features, but that’s just an other example of the tyranny of the words Cohen also speaks about. He emphasizes “une” (in French) because it is not the indefinite article, but the number (as opposed to several, dependent on the person who is speaking). It implies that there may be other kinds of revolutions than the one that is wished by his tough critics. Now, sorry for that long tirade about nothing… I’ll let you figure out how this may be translated into proper English, if you think it is suitable. Anyway, thanks once again for the pleasure I had while reading your blog!

    1. Eve

      I totally agree with the point. The translation just change what Leonard Cohen’s statement means.
      Nevermind, I always do enjoy reading your blog, professor !