Leonard Cohen, Forest Hills 1970 – “Nervous, Uncomfortable, Oppressive, Lifeless”

Leonard Cohen and The Army Play Forest Hills, New York

Were there a SAT equivalent for music fans, it might require applicants to solve this equation for the value of X:

Leonard Cohen + 1970 Festival = X

This is, of course, a trick question.  While all but the most knowledgeable Cohenites (or the most astute  test-takers) would immediately respond with the Canadian singer-songwriter’s epochal performance at The 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival, Leonard Cohen also appeared that year at a festival in Aux-en-Provence  (August 2, 1970) and, more pertinently to today’s post, on July 25, 1970 at the 10th Annual Forest Hills Music Festival.1

The 1970 Forest Hills Music Festival

The 1970 Forest Hills Music Festival lineup featured some of the era’s most popular groups:

  • July 11: Sly & Family Stone with Rare Earth
  • July 17 & 18: Simon & Garfunkel
  • July 25: Leonard Cohen and The Army
  • August 1: Janis Joplin
  • August 8: Peter, Paul, & Mary
  • August 15: The Band
  • August 22: Fifth Dimension with Ramsey Lewis

The Army, the musical ensemble that backed Cohen, comprised the following individuals:2

  • Bob Johnston (guitar, keyboards)
  • Charlie Daniels (electric bass, guitar, fiddle)
  • Ron Cornelius (lead guitar)
  • Elkin ‘Bubba’ Fowler (bass, banjo)
  • Corlynn Hanney (vocals)
  • Susan Musmanno  (vocals)

The exact Set List Cohen played at Forest Hills is indefinite and unconfirmed, at least in its details.3

From a LeonardCohenForum post by victhpooh

On the inside flap [of a book in her hands at the concert] I have this written:

An Evening With Leonard Cohen
Emcee: Scott Muny (NYC DJ at the time)

Bird on a Wire
So Long Marianne
You Know Who I Am (new) maybe new poem
Marriage of Joan Of Arc
‘Loud Song’
Sisters of Mercy
Story of Isaac
Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
new song something and english4
and possibly The Stranger Song

From handwritten entries in Is This What You Wanted by Jim Devlin:

1. Bird On A Wire
2. Sing Another Song Boys
3. You Know Who I Am
4. Joan Of Arc
5? Tonight Will Be Fine
6. Sing Another Song Boys
7. Story Of Isaac
8. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
9. Suzanne
10? The Partisan
11? The Stranger Song – solo

Billboard Review Of Leonard Cohen Forest Hills Concert

On the other hand, Nancy Erlich’s review of Leonard Cohen’s Forest Hills performance published in the August 8, 1970 issue of Billboard  is a model of pristine certainty untainted by dubiety, ambivalence, or ambiguity. Cohen is, Ms Erlich informs us, a musical Svengali, ruthlessly using “his extraordinary command of language and other people’s emotions” to oppress, diminish, and emotionally deplete those who listen to his songs.

A scan of Erlich’s report follows (click on image to enlarge):

Now, one writer’s opinion of one Leonard Cohen concert that took place over 40 years ago  is unlikely to trigger a crisis of faith among those who count themselves friends of Leonard Cohen.  And, yes, no small part of the choice of the topic for today’s post was determined by this  blogger’s realization that his initial goal, adding another poster to his Signs Of Leonard Cohen collection, has somehow escalated into yet another spontaneous internet research romp that now leaves him with 12 minutes to shower, dress, and drive to his dental appointment.

Still, especially for those of us who came of age as Cohen fans during the accolade-saturated worship service that was the 2008-2010 World Tour, it’s useful to be reminded that the launching of Leonard Cohen’s singing career did not consist simply of being introduced to the world by Judy Collins and then arising at 2 AM at the Isle of Wight for his coronation as a musical icon.

Update – The August 2, 1970 Leonard Cohen Aux-en-Provence Festival Concert: It turns out that the other 1970 festival, the August 2, 1970 Aux-en-Provence gig, triggered the ire of critics who expressed their unhappiness with Leonard Cohen in a less sublimated manner.

One of Cohen’s early concerts, at Aix-en-Provence in France, was invaded by rowdy Maoists. One of them took a potshot at the singer, the bullet smashing a light behind him. “They’re tough critics, the Maoists,” he [Cohen] said.5

Cohen described the scene in a 1974 interview with Herve Muller:6

[Google English translation] … I played this pop festival in France (Aix-en-Provence, 1970) and had been attacked by a number of spectators. I do not know exactly who they were, but they attack me on behalf of political principles. If their concept of revolutionary action was to sabotage my trip was absurd. What benefit could they learn?

Of course, Cohen may have prompted some of the audience reaction himself. His introduction to Bird On The Wire, for example, follows:

I’d like to say something about the link between money and the festivals. When the Festivals will be yours they will not belong to others. If you call me, I will already be there. But the thing is,there is not a revolution. When others talk about the revolution,it is their revolution.Leave the revolution to the owners of the revolution. They are like any other owners: they’re seeking profit. In the Choir of the night,i tried to be free…7

So, all the music festivals in 1970 were – well, let’s go with memorable – for Leonard Cohen


Credit Due Department:

The poster image atop this post was found at LeonardCohenFiles. I have enhanced and enlarged the graphic for easier viewing.

The 1970 Forest Hills Program brochure was found on an auction site.

The yellow poster image listing the various acts appearing in the 1970 Forest Hills Music Festival was found at Simon & Garfunkel ‘ Time it was…it was.’

  1. The use of the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium as a pop music venue has an erratic and sometimes violent history featuring acts ranging from one hit wonders to Dylan and The Rolling Stones.  In the summer of 1964 alone, Forest Hills hosted  Frank Sinatra (with Count Basie), Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Chet Baker, and an English group called The Beatles.  That history is interestingly presented at It’s All The Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago. []
  2. From Is This What You Wanted by Jim Devlin []
  3. This is hardly surprising. Heck, the dates of some Leonard Cohen concerts that took place in late 1970 are not known with certainty. []
  4. Update 07 November 2012: Thelma Blitz writes “I have a brief record of this concert in my journals. I noted Leonard played the hands. ( I also play the hands but not as well).   The only song where he  played the  hands on his first LP was ‘One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.’  Therefore I reason that was the song in the set list called ‘new song.’  The audience member did not recognize it.” []
  5. Profile: Leonard Cohen. The Scotsman. 21 December 2008 []
  6. A Certain Smile by Herve Muller – Found at the French Leonard Cohen Site []
  7. From Diamonds In The Lines []

3 responses to “Leonard Cohen, Forest Hills 1970 – “Nervous, Uncomfortable, Oppressive, Lifeless”

  1. Fascinating post with excellent research Heck.

    Some critics just didn’t get it I guess?

    We had a mini meeting in Conn in 1998 where we first met Lizzie Madder and Geoff and Donna Gompers and the Victhepooh family. Also saw Vicky briefly again this moonth at MOMA for Lorca’s video presentation. Long live Cohenheads!

  2. Thelma Blitz

    It should be noted, for the books, that at Forest Hills, July 25, 1970, my journal reminds me that Leonard played the hands-that is , blew air into the hollow of his hands, varied the shape of the cavity and produced different musical notes. It sounded like the Shofar ( ceremonial rams horn of Jewish New Year).
    I also used to play the hands but did not have the control that Leonard did and was most impressed. I also realized at that time that he had played the hands on his first album. I couldn’t identify the sound until I saw him do it.