DrHGuy Note: This extraordinary personal account of the 1970 Leonard Cohen University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert and its sociopolitical context has been unavailable recently.1 Now, however, Cohencentric, in cooperation with the author, Joe Way, is proud to publish the report in its entirety. I heartily recommend this article, written at a time when the Gulf War was this country’s key political issue, not only to Leonard Cohen fans but also to anyone interested in the social protests and peace movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies, the contentions over the war in Viet Nam, or the atmosphere in which the Boomer Generation made the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
1970 Leonard Cohen Madison Concert Review by Joe Way
“The fifteen minutes of the sixties” (as Leonard Cohen has characterized them) wore on into the summer and fall of 1970. Examine this timeline:
- May 4, 1970. Four students are killed and eight wounded by National Guard troops in an anti-Viet Nam demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio.
- August 24, 1970. Sterling Hall (in which is housed the Army Math Research Center) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is destroyed by a homemade bomb killing one young researcher in another Viet Nam war protest.
- August 31, 1970. Leonard Cohen performs at 4 AM at the Isle of Wight festival following a Jimi Hendrix appearance that according to Ira Nadel “set the stage on fire.” Leonard first appeared in pajamas, but then followed his seventeen song set with a fourteen minute encore that according to Kris Kristofferson was “the damnedest thing you ever saw – he charmed the beast.”
- September 18, 1970. Jimi Hendrix dies in his sleep.
- October 4, 1970. Janis Joplin dies at 27.
- October 5, 1970. British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, is kidnapped by FLQ (Front de liberation du Quebec) terrorists in Westmount, Leonard Cohen’s childhood Montreal home area. (Read the FLQ’s communiqué and demands after kidnapping Cross.)
- October 10, 1970. Quebec reporter, Pierre Laporte, is kidnapped by FLQ (Front de liberation du Quebec) terrorists.
- October 16, 1970. Pierre Trudeau implements Canada’s War Powers Act establishing martial law. When questioned about the act, an angry Trudeau replies: “There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is go on and bleed.” (View the CBC interview clip with Prime Minister Trudeau where he made this comment.)
- October 17, 1970. Pierre Laporte is found dead in a car trunk.
- October 30, 1970. Leonard Cohen performs at the Wisconsin Student Association sponsored, anti-war, “Bring them Home from Viet Nam” Homecoming celebration at the University of Wisconsin Field House in Madison.
Insert here an eighteen year old freshman from a very small town in northern Wisconsin called, “Tigerton” who arrived in Madison somewhere in the middle of September 1970 to start his college life. The people of Tigerton were concerned that he would turn communist and lose his religion on this godless campus. That person was me.
I discovered Leonard’s music by hearing a cover of “Suzanne” done by Chad Mitchell (late of the Chad Mitchell Trio) on 1967’s Love, A Feeling of which arrived from the Columbia Record Club along with the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Peter, Paul and Mary’s Album 1700. Even this bowdlerized version, which has Suzanne spending the night “forever” and which leaves out the entire second verse appearance of “Jesus the sailor,” is enough to make me watch for this new artist, Leonard Cohen. I buy both the album, Songs of and the Selected Poems, in 1968. In 1969, I purchased Songs From a Room, and the guitar instruction book containing the tablatures to most songs. This last purchase changes my guitar style forever.
I lived in a small apartment with my roommate, Loren, also from Tigerton. The campus was still reeling from the bombing that had taken place several weeks before my Madison arrival. A group of four anti-war protestors, dubbed “The New Years Gang” for their failed New Year’s bombing of the Badger Ordinance plant in Baraboo, had destroyed Sterling Hall in what was the single most destructive terrorist act in the United States prior to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The group consisting of two brothers, Karl and Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt had not intended to harm anyone but unbeknownst to them a young, post-doctoral researcher by the name of Robert Fassnacht was finishing up a physics experiment when the bomb exploded at about 4 AM. Fassnacht, a married father of two young children was killed. This act took the heart out of the anti-war movement in Madison which up to that time had been active and militant. The National Guard had been called to campus in 1969 to combat the student takeover of the school of business protesting the recruitment efforts of Dow Chemical (makers of Napalm). Madison had been called the “Berkeley” of the Midwest and along with Columbia University and California-Berkeley was at the forefront of the radical movement.
My older brother had returned from Viet Nam in December of 1969 having served in an infantry rifle and mortar platoon. “Go to Canada,” he had written me, “it’s not worth it – and, by the way, I don’t want a frigging military funeral if something happens.” My student deferment was temporarily making this a moot point.
My roommate and I learned on October 8th that Leonard would be the featured performer for the “Homecoming” show in late October. The Wisconsin Badgers were scheduled to play the Wolverines of Michigan on Halloween but there were not as many students as usual who were looking to participate in these fall revelries. In fact, the Wisconsin Student Association had usurped the normal Homecoming committee and organized an anti-war march and rally to focus the homecoming on the return of the soldiers from Viet Nam. The Cohen show was to begin at 7:30 on Friday, October 30th in the Field House, the University’s basketball and sport venue. A newspaper clipping from October 8th states that the linkage between the homecoming and the anti-war efforts would be brought together “in a tasteful manner” by getting Leonard to perform. I guess that the sentiment reflected the shift away from militancy and the destruction of buildings toward an enlightened aesthetic that beauty would prevail over these ugly times. I would have loved to have been privy to the thoughts of the planning committee.
I also would love to know if Leonard was given any instructions for his role in this anti-war homecoming. When he and his group arrived on the stage, they began with a bluesy version of “Solidarity Forever.” Afterwards, he asked, “Anyone ever hear of the Wobblies?” The reviewer from the Capital Times speculated that he was expecting a room full of undergraduate history majors. After performing a number of his early compositions, Cohen’s attention was drawn to a commotion that seemed to be taking place outside the Field House. I remember hearing some loud knocks – one of the reviewers mentions that you could hear a crowd shouting, “Let us in! Let us in!” This began an improvisation to the tune of “You Know Who I Am”” of “Let them in, let them in.” Eventually those outside were admitted to the cheers of both Leonard and the crowd. I wonder now if they ever made their contribution to the WSA bail fund to which the organizers of the concert promised all proceeds would go toward.
This concert was in the days long before I ever considered making a set list so my recollections are mostly anecdotal. I remember Leonard getting a drink from a paper cup handed to him by one of the lovely back-up singers (Corlynne Hanney and Sue Mussmano) and turning to toast them saying, “Even the dregs is sweet from you, my dear.” I tucked that line away, anticipating using it on some unsuspecting co-ed and hoping that she wouldn’t recognize the plagerization.
At one point in the concert, Leonard paused and explained that a group had approached him and offered to be his “bodyguards” (remember Altamont had demonstrated that even concerts could be dangerous). He said that he had declined this invitation not because of their politics but because the name they called themselves, “the White Panthers” sounded like a Disney character and as such was an affront to his sensibilities. He suggested that a name like the “Snow Cobras” would perhaps have been more effective.
The songs he performed were mostly from his first two albums. For some reason, I think that he may have performed, “Passing Through” as I seemed to recognize it when I heard it on Live Songs. He may have done, “Diamonds in the Mine” but I can’t swear to it. I do remember that he introduced, “Joan of Arc” which was as then unrecorded and used his “Prince of Peace, hanging on this final tree” intro that depicts the lever in the universe. He then dedicated the song to Janis Joplin amid a poignant round of applause to honor her death which had occurred several weeks earlier. I’ve always thought that the song was written with Janis in mind with the “heroin/heroine” play on words reflecting her dependency.
He did stop to discuss drugs at one point. He said that they were nothing new and that he and his friends in their early years called using them, “investigating a phenomenon.” Now when I hear the line in “The Smoky Life” – “there is nothing to investigate” – I remember this.
I was enthralled for the entire concert and was certainly one of the first to jump up for the standing ovation after “Suzanne.” The reviews as you can see were mixed. He was honored as an artist, poet and literary figure. His performances were noted as subdued with the notable exception of “Tonight Will Be Fine” with the bluegrass violin provided by Charlie Daniels. I loved the improvement. I also noted that he changed the words in “”Bird on The Wire” from “Knight from an old fashioned book” to “monks bending over the book” which I also thought was interesting.
I also remember a picture of him drinking coffee in the Memorial Union Rathskeller and a story that explained his desire to understand the radical movement on a U.S. college campus. He spoke of his impressions and called Madison, “Brigadoon with a touch of Havana.” But, alas, this touch of Havana did not compare to the turmoil that was taking place in his native Quebec. He spoke of the soldiers in the street in Montreal and left everyone the impression that Madison was an idyllic scene in comparison. I wonder now if we felt envy or relief – so strange were those times.
Now, I wonder how do we put those times in perspective? There was a war certainly and many stood on either side convinced that simple conviction would outlast the anguish of complexity. Like the narrator of Leonard’s poem, “The Better Way” many thought no one but a fool would bless the meek. And in our post September 11th world where shallow self-certainty leads to acts of immense destruction, do we stand now with the dreamers or the men of action? And who, indeed, is more reassuring? The happy endings of life, like the happy endings of song exist only for the survivors of these wars.
Later in life, Leonard develops a friendship with Pierre Trudeau and becomes an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. The Sterling Hall bombers are captured and pay their debt to society (with the exception of Leo Burt who is never captured and goes on to become the most famous missing person in Madison history). One of the brothers, Karl Armstrong, operates a smoothy concession, called “Loose Juice” outside the Memorial Library where I did much of the research for this memoir. The music of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Leonard Cohen are revered even by our children.
Leonard moved us toward beauty. The militants, the thoughtful, the farmer’s sons and daughters, all those gathered together in the name of homecoming shared in the recognition of beauty. I look now through the clippings, lovingly acquired from the archives of the library and the historical society – and I see an advertisement for the concert – “WSA presents Leonard Cohen, Homecoming, Bring Them Home, Vietnam ’70” – and next to that headline is inserted one of the drawings from Leonard’s poem, “Millenium” labeled “My personal fire.” I compare it to his recent drawing of the “Burning Bush” and think that those of us who have followed his career are able to recognize the growth of that fire. I warm myself now with it and read by its light.
So to continue the timeline (from my personal perspective):
- End of October 1972. I meet my future wife at a party and woo her by singing and playing “Famous Blue Raincoat.” She mentions that she has seen Leonard at a concert back in 1970. (I still shamelessly use the “even the dregs my dear” line).
- October 30, 1976. Anne and I are married in Madison – (she hasn’t wised up to my fraud, yet).
- Portions of this material were posted Feb 16, 2009 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. [↩]