“There’s a mysterious quality to it and we don’t really know why it works” Murray Lerner On Leonard Cohen’s Performance


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.

This post is the followup to “It was incredible and captivating. That night, Leonard was on some sort of mission.” Filmmaker Murray Lerner On Leonard Cohen At The Isle Of Wight.

Q: Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight – 1970. A full-length DVD out in 2010.
Murray Lerner: I shot color for the Cohen and the Isle of Wight performers. It was high-speed Ectochrome reversal. And I’m glad I did it because the color lasts a lot better in reversal. The camera people I had were with their own cameras for the most part but they used Arriflexes, and the clas and a new camera, the main camera man used an Aaton, a kind of avant garde camera at the time.

Q: The Isle of Wight Cohen footage captured close ups and focus on the dramatic aspect of faces. Cohen, some band members, female background singers is terrific.
Murray Lerner: Yes. I always use very very long lenses as an adjunct to my photography. I believe in the long shot because I would like the thing to feel musical and not jumpy. I think film is visual music. And it should be, and I believe in editing that way. You can moments where you are doing quick montage. Most of the time you need to relax. I like really long and before anyone ever did it I used 2,000 millimeter lenses and for crowd shots, moving in slow motion on Broadway. A lot of unusual stuff. I love people coming towards the camera and coming into close up. And then I got a 600 millimeter lens for my 16 millimeter camera, played around with it during Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee at Newport. Real close ups.

Q: At the August 31, 1970 Isle of Wight music festival on a small island off the southern coast of England Leonard Cohen was billed with Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, the Who, the Doors, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix. But the crowd, alas, had its own agenda, metastasizing into a heaving, barreling beast, crushing the gates and fences, rubbishing the prim seaside community. The throng numbered 600,000 and Cohen was at the epicenter of the event which now had fire and smoke encroaching structures and equipment. When Cohen and his band, which included  Bob Johnston and Charlie Daniels, finally took to the stage, it was two o’clock in the morning. My brother Kenneth Kubernik described the scene remarkably well after viewing your Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight-1970 DVD in my book on Leonard, Everybody Knows.

“The punters, restless in the aftermath of Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary performance, were instantly tamed by this unkempt, unprepossessing gentleman, adorned in pajama bottoms (he’d been having a nap backstage and barely answered the bell to perform). As poised as Caesar before his legions, Cohen took command of his ‘Army’ – his group’s nickname – and held the half million attendees in thrall.

Murray Lerner: I’ve gone to some Cohen concerts over the last twenty years. Really incredible. It was hard to believe it was the same person. The songs hold up. I was really excited he was so good. I really was. His talent hasn’t diminished, especially in terms of songwriting. On stage I thought he was overdoing it in terms of his own energy. But there’s a mysterious quality to it and we don’t really know why it works. I just thought it’s amazing and I like some of the songs and some of them I had not heard. I really liked it and said to myself it is amazing he can still be doing this. He knows what he is doing and you do sense, when I went to the Beacon and Radio City Theaters, you sense there is a kind of formula to what he was doing. That part was not as good. His so called off the cuff remarks were the same at both. Isle of Wight, Leonard was much different than Miles, Jimi, the Doors and the Who. Because the talking on stage was very insightful of him, you know. He must have understood that by talking and speaking to them it gave him, or put him in touch or gave him a kind of camaraderie with the crowd that no one else tried to do. Maybe he felt he needed it and he may have. Leonard also had that fabulous guy, the producer who was in his band, Bob Johnston. I had quite a time over decades later getting him to be interviewed for the DVD. All performers have a common thread of some kind or they wouldn’t perform.

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“It was incredible and captivating. That night, Leonard was on some sort of mission.” Filmmaker Murray Lerner On Leonard Cohen At The Isle Of Wight

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

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The 1970 Leonard Cohen University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert, The Anti-War Movement, & Joe Way

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Madison – Brigadoon with a touch of Havana
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Leonard Cohen

 

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.

 

manchild 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.

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  1. Portions of this material were posted Feb 16, 2009 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. []