Watching the campground catch fire, most artists scrambled for safety and talked feverishly about getting off the island as soon as was possible. Standing not far from the stage, Leonard Cohen turned to Bob Johnston, his producer, and with what Johnston thought was the beginning of a smile said, “Wake me up when it’s time, Bob. I’m going to take a nap over there, by the fire.” A few hours later, one of the festival’s organizers woke him up and asked him to take the stage. Unless someone plays, he said hurriedly, blood will be spilled.
Watching Cohen get dressed, Johnston felt a pulsating fear thudding inside him. He peeked out of the trailer and saw Kristofferson, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins lounging backstage, waiting for their friend to play his set. Cohen, Johnston thought, was nowhere near as tough as Kristofferson, not as determined as Baez, not as well-respected as Collins, and if the three of them were pelted with bottles and booed off stage, what chance did Cohen have? He was 36, nearly a decade older than most of the other performers. With a black T-shirt and a safari jacket, unshaved and unkempt, he looked more like Jim Morrison’s accountant than his peer. He took the stage. It was 2:00 in the morning. His face was blank.
“Greetings,” Cohen said into the microphone, “greetings.” His tone was casual, his voice soft. He continued. “When I was 7 years old,” he said in that same mellow way, “my father used to take me to the circus. He had a black mustache, and a great vest, and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did.”
Sitting a few feet behind Cohen, Charlie Daniels, a young fiddler Bob Johnston had brought along from Nashville, was amused. Years later, recalling how he felt at that moment, he said he just couldn’t believe Cohen was trying to tell 600,000 people a goddamned bedtime story. But in a near-monotone, Cohen continued.
“There was one thing at the circus that happened that I always used to wait for,” he said. “I don’t want to impose on you, this isn’t like a sing-along … but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, would everybody light a match so we can locate one another? And could I ask you each person to light a match, so that I could see where you all are? Could each of you light a match, so that you’ll sparkle like fireflies, each at your different heights? I would love to see those matches flare.”
The audience obeyed. For five days, the men and women on stage—organizers, artists, or anarchists—were talking at them. Cohen was talking to them. He seemed like one of them. He seemed to care. Slowly, they took out matchbooks and lighters, and instead of setting things on fire they waved their arms in the air, emitting heat and light. Cohen smiled. “Oh, yeah!” he said softly. “Oh, yeah. Now I know that you know why you’re lighting them.” He strummed a few chords on the guitar and continued his speech, half-singing. “It’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people. It’s a large nation but it’s still weak. Still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.”
These were heavy words for 2:00 in the morning, but they seemed to permeate. Cohen wasn’t just telling the audience to stop rioting; he was about to give them an alternative. Playing as slowly as he could, Cohen began with one of his most famous songs: “Like … a … bird … on … a … wire …” Whoever was still standing now sat down on the grass and listened.
When the song ended, the audience clapped. Not thunderously, but still. A handful, still hopped up on the adrenaline of the afternoon, booed, but they were soon subdued. The 600,000 wanted to hear what Cohen had to say.
What he had to say was poetry. He had started out as a poet, and his first public performances consisted of reciting verse in smoky, small Montreal coffee houses. He might as well have been in one when he stared into the distance in the way that poets sometimes do when they’re reading out loud and began his soliloquy.
“I wrote this in a peeling room in the Chelsea Hotel, before I was rich and famous and they gave me well-painted rooms,” he said. “I was coming off of amphetamines, and I was pursuing a blonde lady whom I met in a Nazi poster. And I was doing many things to attract her attention. I was lighting wax candles in the form of men and women. I was marrying the smoke of two cones of sandalwood.” Then, he started playing another of his songs, “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”
Sometimes the best way to deal with an unruly crowd is by being the calmest person in the place.
Here's video of it: