Documentarian Murray Lerner, who died Sept 2, 2017, captured Leonard Cohen’s legendary 1970 Isle of Wight performance on film. His recordings resulted in the 2007 DVD – Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight – 1970. In 2009, Harvey Kubernik, author of Leonard Cohen Everybody Knows, interviewed Lerner about the experience.
Murray Lerner On Leonard Cohen
From Leonard Cohen: Agency of Yes by Harvey Kubernik
I first heard Cohen as a literary character, a poet. And then in the late sixties a couple of his records on the radio. I heard his debut LP. He came out acoustic and walked out with guitar.
“I felt hypnotized. I felt his poetry was that way. I was really into poetry and that is what excited me about him. To put music to poetry was like hypnotic to me.
“There were also moments, banter, like when he told the audience before a number, how his father would take him to the circus as a child. He didn’t like circuses, but he liked when a man would stand up and asking everyone to light a match so they could see each other in the darkness. ‘Can I ask of you to light a match so I can see where you all are?’
“But when he sang the lyrics of the songs they took over and he had ‘em in the palm of his hand. Even removing myself from being the director how this guy could walk out and do this in front of 600,000 people? It was remarkable. It was mesmerizing. And the banter was very much in tune with the spirit of the festival. And, more particularly what he said, you know. ‘We’re still a weak nation and we need land. It will be our land one day.’ It was almost biblical.
“When he did ‘Suzanne’ he said, ‘Maybe this is good music to make love to.’ He’s very smart. He’s very shrewd. The other thing he was able to do, the talking, I think the audience was able to listen to him. They heard him and felt he was echoing something they felt. The audience and I were mesmerized. It was incredible and captivating. That night, Leonard was on some sort of mission. His band was called the Army.
“My film shows the roles of the background singers. Sure, Ray Charles and Raylettes, and the Cohen singers had beautiful skin. They were a balance to him up there and the fact I was jealous of the guy that this guy was able to get all these women. (laughs). And he’s up there very late at night, the morning, unshaven. The music is great.
“The Isle of Wight journey was worth it. That was the most exciting event I’ve ever been to. ‘Cause it was so all encompassing. And new. In terms of the possibility of the crowd killing us and always living on the edge of that precipice.
“And I was always thinking, in relationship to the performers, ‘What’s my role in what they are singing about? How do I fit into that?’ I change with each one as I am watching them. Like with the Moody Blues, I liked their music. It was different and interesting, and like Leonard Cohen, it had an undercurrent of mysticism to it.
“I thought the Isle of Wight – 1970 and the Cohen footage had touched the deep chord of people. I realized how deep it was and I was startled how prophetic it was. I was proud and excited at what I had done.”
Next: Part 2 of Harvey Kubernik’s interview with Murray Lerner can be found at “There’s a mysterious quality to it and we don’t really know why it works” Murray Lerner On Leonard Cohen’s Performance