Leonard Cohen & The Horse He Rode In On-Stage At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival

Leonard Cohen And The Army Cavalry Ride To Aix

In 1970, Leonard Cohen played three festivals:  one,  The Isle Of Wight, produced a Leonard Cohen performance that is now approaching legendary status; one, Forest Hills, was in reality a series of  concerts by different bands, typically separated from each other by a week or more, rather than a music festival in the common sense, and consequently the Leonard Cohen Forest Hills Festival appearance was, operationally,  indistinguishable from other 1970 Leonard Cohen concerts; and one, the festival at Aix-en-Provence was – well, that show was unique.

In fact, the Aix-en-Provence Music Festival in general, and Leonard Cohen’s role in it specifically, were uniquely weird.

The August 1-3, 1970 Aix-en-Provence Music Festival was Woodstock1  with a French twist, featuring an audience of 40,000 with an average age of 20, a ban against the Festival  issued by the Prefecture of the Bouches-du-Rhone, Hare Krishna chants, battles between local politicians, nudity, Maoists, the President of the International (classic) Music Festival at Aix-en-Provence describing its rock festival counterpart as  “devastating hordes of hippies in search of horseplay and scandal,”2 and demands that the Festival be made “open to the people” (i.e., free), along with, as one might expect, sex (exhibitionist-mode), drugs (used only slightly more discreetly), and rock and roll (by Johnny Winter, Mungo Jerry, Titanic, Majority One, …).

And what better way to open the Heck Of A Guy discussion of  Leonard Cohen’s appearance at the  1970 Aix-en-Provence Music Festival than a post on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s sojourn through the the French countryside to arrive on stage – on a horse.

And You Thought Leonard Cohen Skipping Onto The Stage Was A Big Deal

Ira Nadel, writing in “Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen,” offers a bare bones explanation of Leonard Cohen’s journey to Aix-en-Provence for his August 2, 1970 concert:

There was a traffic jam in Provence in August 1970 so Bob Johnson sent the road manager to get some horses from the stable attached to the country inn where they were staying. They rode to Aix-en-Provence, after stopping to drink a few bottles of wine at a steakhouse along the way, and decided to ride all the way and onto the stage. Leonard’s horse had to be coaxed up a steep ramp, it then reared up and he saluted the crowd.

Now, that summary always seemed a tad suspect or at least incomplete to me. Oh, I was willing to believe Leonard Cohen somehow rode a stallion on stage; I did, however, have difficulty picturing Bob Johnston pondering the logistical conundrum,  “Hmm. There’s a traffic jam between us and the concert venue. How might we most efficaciously overcome this difficulty?” and then, after a fortuitous, especially convenient epiphany, recognizing that obviously the only reasonable course of action was – of course – to rent horses to ride to the show.  After all, what could go wrong?

Consequently, I asked Sylvie Simmons, preeminent Rock Chick, noted novelist, respected pop music journalist, and – once the publishers currently in possession of her manuscript actually, you know, publish it – Leonard Cohen biographer, for the real story.  As it turns out, this episode is included in her forthcoming volume on Cohen’s life and work, and while the complete account will not be available until the book’s release, she was gracious enough to supply the following synopsis for use in this post.

There were two dates left on the European tour, both of them festivals, the first in the South of France, the second in the UK – the infamous Isle of Wight. The French one was held in the Provence countryside outside Aix and the band stayed at a country hotel. The place had stables and the band had the afternoon to themselves, so everyone went riding. Which is how, when they found the road was blocked by parked cars later that day, Bob Johnston thought of the horses. And Leonard thought of the wine. And the good Lord blessed and guided them to an unlikely Wild West bar in the middle of nowhere.

The whole band took the horses up the ramp and onstage.3 It’s the kind of decision that a large intake of wine mixed with the bravado Cohen’s European tour had engendered and the leadership style of Bob Johnston is going to produce.

Leonard’s white stallion had enough sense to initially resist joining in but, in the end, was persuaded.

Interviews with Johnston and the band provided some fine details on the escapade.

By all accounts, they were not as well-received at the Festival as they had been in Paris and most everywhere else that wasn’t the U.S – and were certainly not the favorites of the French stage crew.

Credit Due Department:

I was alerted to the astounding photo of Leonard Cohen astride a white stallion by Maarten Massa. The photo was first found by Dominique BOILE in “Leonard Cohen” by Jacques Vassal (Albin Michel Rock & Folk, published 1975, revised 1979). The image of the Pop Music periodical was found at Festival d Aix-en-Provence – Colosseum, Johnny Winter, Pete Brown.



Future Attractions: Leonard Cohen At The 1970 Aix Festival

At least one and probably more Heck Of A Guy entries about Leonard Cohen and the 1970 Festival at Aix-en-Provence – including never before published photos – will be posted soon.

  1. The Woodstock Festival at Max Yasgur’s farm took place only a year earlier, from August 15 to August 18, 1969. []
  2. Google French to English translation []
  3. DrHGuy note: Some sources report that only Cohen’s horse actually made it onstage. []

7 responses to “Leonard Cohen & The Horse He Rode In On-Stage At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival

  1. There is allegedly film footage of this concert, one of those ones I keep my fingers crossed it will eventually surface…

  2. Wonder whose got it?

  3. It’s in a French film of the festival called Guitare au Poing, which is impossible to track down.

  4. Wonderful reading!

    Thanks to both authors!

  5. French TV report about the festival here, but no images of LC: http://www.ina.fr/art-et-culture/arts-du-spectacle/video/LXC9706094259/le-festival-de-pop-music-d-aix-en-provence.fr.html . Comment: “and the Canadian Leonard Cohen, who alone has cost a fortune, over 30 million “anciens francs” (=300.000 Francs of the time), for certain people it’s a scandal and might be the reason for the festival’s deficit.”

  6. That outstanding video, even though it doesn’t feature Leonard Cohen, is already part of the draft of the next post on the Festival. And the mutterings about the fee Cohen received was only one of the criticisms of his appearance there. Thanks.l

  7. Sorry for the spoiler!