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Isle of Wight 50 years after: the enduring majesty of Baez and Cohen

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Stephen Brenkley

If you can remember the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, you weren’t really there. That follows, does it not, because the whole crazy, chaotic, ill-starred event was at heart merely an extension of the 1960s, perhaps its last spectacular act? I know, I was there.

It is now half a century ago this month since we set off, my friend Jill and I, and two others whose names and faces have long been mislaid (told you), in her purple Mini. One of the others must have driven the 340-odd miles to the ferry terminal from our home in Barnard Castle (you might know now where that is) because she was only 16 and although I had, not long since, turned 17, the notion of driving was a long way over the horizon in our small market town.

The excitement was infectious. This was a great adventure for us all. We had no idea what to expect beyond the obvious facts that it was to be a gathering of the great rock musicians of the day, the identity of some of whom eluded us, and of free-wheeling, free-spirited young people, whose company we desperately wanted to share in the wake of Woodstock. Our mission, mine especially, was two-fold: to listen to some very cool music and to be part of another summer of love, in the broadest possible sense.

A few of the acts seemed to hold a particular sense of thrill. The Who and Jimi Hendrix were established headline merchants, already part of the rock aristocracy. As were Jethro Tull and Free. But they did not possess the glow of anticipation bestowed by a few other, less strident performers. Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen were right on the top of my wish list. Nor did they disappoint.

Fifty years on I can still see them, as I did then, from about 100 yards away in the small hours of the morning, and managing to hold an audience still numbering well in excess of 400,000 in the palms of their hand. Well, those who were not asleep, that is, after four days of trying to stay awake. Oh, and except for Joni who had a bit of meltdown before somehow recovering. There are two numbers that still hold a special place and when I hear them or play them, rarely these days in both cases, they still fondly bring to mind Afton Down. They are: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.

The weather was gorgeous almost throughout. It lent itself to a week of simulated hippiedom. We arrived on the island, we country bumpkins, at fever pitch. In the decades since, every account I have read of the 1970 festival has spoken of its commercial failure, which unquestionably it was, but also of the discord among sections of the crowd and of the opposition of the islanders. I can only say that if I felt uncomfortable on the site it was only because of the sanitary arrangements, which as a cosseted teenager from a small town, I felt was taking the hippie lifestyle too far. Otherwise, everyone was kind and giving, including the people who lived there.

We arrived very late on Thursday, the second day. It was the devil of a job finding sufficient space for all of us but I remember that everyone else around – and there were thousands upon hundreds of thousands by then – being reasonable and accommodating. By Saturday afternoon, soon after Miles Davis had strutted his stuff,

the queues for the communal, open-air toilets were proving impossible. I decided to leave the site and explore the island. I had it in my mind that I needed a bit of a privacy and that a woodland copse somewhere might suffice. In the distance I could hear Ten Years After singing Love Like A Man and on my return journey The Doors’ Light My Fire. In between those two songs I had plucked up the courage to knock on a farmhouse door, explained where I had come from (they probably guessed straightaway) and what I wanted (if they were flabbergasted they did not show it, bless them to this day) and allowed me, as it were, to use their facilities.

Thus revived, I returned to the festival. It was still warm and I lit a cigarette. I was playing briefly with smoking Player’s No.6 at the time. A chap with long wavy hair tied in a ponytail, perhaps five years older, came past and he asked if he could have a couple of cigarettes. I fell over myself in giving them to him – the spirit of the age and all that – and while I can’t be sure I am pretty sure I said Peace, man’ as I did so.

The Who and what I know now to be Tommy went by in a blur, all five hours of it. I dozed. But not before my friend with the ponytail returned with what I subsequently learned to be a joint and which he offered to me. He had required my fags, I also subsequently learned, to mix with the cannabis to make the joint. He proffered it to me smiling and I said, much to the laughter of my comrades: Oh, no, no thanks, my mum would kill me if I smoked that.’ I rang Jill the other day – we’re still mates though not as close as we were then – to ask what she remembered about the Isle of Wight experience. Not much, like me. But she remembered that occurrence. And referring to my mum she said: And she would have done too.’

Then came Jimi the flash. Sparks flew, but it all seemed very loud and pointless to me. My favourite writer on music at the time, and I still thank him for giving me some sort of grounding, was Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times, who was largely a jazz critic but whose programme on Radio 3, Sounds Interesting, I had started listening to occasionally, more out of a pretentious desire to sound knowledgeable than to learn properly at the feet of a master. Throughout Hendrix’s explosive set, his last in the UK before his death three weeks later, Jewell’s description of him kept running through my mind. Writing of some wrongly overlooked jazz guitarist, he expressed amazement at the popularity of the emetic obscenity of the ludicrously overrated Jimi Hendrix’. The phrase has resonated with me down the years.

Time for Joan Baez. My, I loved her. Still do. And what she stands for. She sang beautifully at that festival, given all the strictures of playing to a mass audience and terrible sound quality, and the late-night/early morning reception to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was something to behold. I sang along with the rest. But it seemed as oddball a song then as it does now. A barnstorming tune, which she sang in her characteristic heartfelt way, but the words emanating from her lips did not square with the person singing them.

As they had not when first coming from the lips of Levon Helm of The Band, for whom they were written by his colleague in the group, Robbie Robertson. The Band (and Joan) were too cool for school, they were part of a new dawn, a different way of life, in short The Sixties, and here they were coming up with a song which could be construed as celebrating the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. From time to time down the decades I have called to mind Baez and that occasion. It still tingles my spine and I still feel a tinge of guilt about it.

Written from the perspective of a poor Tennessee farmer caught up in a war not necessarily of his making it was still hard to square with The Band and with Baez and what they stood for in a world which had never been more progressive. Therefore, I was pleased to see only the other day, 50 years on from my little jig on the island, that the country singer Early James, appearing in a virtual gig from Nashville, changed the words. No longer The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down but Tonight We Drive Old Dixie Down. And the final verse. No longer, Like My father before me I will work the land, And like my brother above me who took a rebel stand’. But instead: Unlike my father before me who I will never understand, Unlike the others below me who took a rebel stand’. About time in the days of Black Lives Matter. But I have to say my love for Joan Baez remains undiminished.

If a tired audience was stirred back to life by Baez, then Cohen was something else again. It was as though we were resurrected. My template for music then had been shaped by one record. Bob Dylan had not exactly passed me by but after The Beatles nothing much shook my tree. Then I spotted a compilation album which the proceeds of my paper round just about allowed me to afford. It was called Rock Machine I Love You (a follow-up sampler to The Rock Machine Turns You On) and although Blood, Sweat & Tears, Simon and Garfunkel and Grace Slick all featured on it, my favourite track by a country mile was one by Leonard Cohen.

And now here he was in front of me, or at least five or so cricket pitches away (it was a jolly good job by the way that the Test matches for the summer, England v Rest of the World, had finished a week previously otherwise I would have been forever agitated about the score, whoever was on stage).

Cohen was magisterial, a state I now understand was helped by Mandrax, but who cares? He took the audience with him in an understated yet intense fashion that was as intoxicating as any of the stimulants that were being peddled among his congregation. He said that he wrote HTNWTSG in some hotel room or other. It has a melancholic air, at once about the sheer joy of being loved as if you were the first and the sadness of parting.

We left soon after, our quartet, bedraggled, knackered yet also filled with life’s joys. The return journey has disappeared into the mists of time but for a few months afterwards I was filled with a sense of immense well-being about those few days in the sun. You know what it’s like: over the years I must have met 600,000 people who claimed they were at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. They probably all were.

Stephen Brenkley started his journalistic career on the Darlington & Stockton Times and via several more newspapers ended up as cricket correspondent of the Independent On Sunday for 18 years (his perfect job) and then of the Independent. Eight years ago he moved back to his home town of Barnard Castle, a place which was suddenly elevated to global fame by the visit of a certain Prime Ministerial aide during the Covid-19 lockdown, where he now lives with his wife and daughter. His social history of the town and the vital part the cricket club and its players had in its development, Small Town, Big Dreams, will be out in the autumn. His rock festival career started and ended with his few days on Afton Down. Much of his musical attention these days is devoted to listening to his daughter, Evie, playing the oboe with various orchestras and ensembles. He can attest that watching her appearance at Carnegie Hall last year was a better experience even than the Isle of Wight in 1970.


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