I love this man.
To Murray Lerner, a middle-aged filmmaker from New York whose camera crews had documented every moment of the festival, the effect was hypnotic. Throughout five days of performances, he’d been too busy shouting out orders to stop and listen to the music. But Cohen’s words made him put down his camera and look up at the man on stage. Two hours earlier, Lerner was packing up his equipment, certain that the fires and the violence would lead to a massive stampede. He was ready to run for shelter. But now everything was still, and Lerner had no idea how Leonard Cohen had pulled it off. Standing beside Lerner, Joan Baez was equally baffled. “People say that a song needs to make sense,” she told the filmmaker. “Leonard proves otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily make sense at all, it just comes from so deep inside of him, it somehow touches deep down inside other people. I’m not sure how it works, but I know that it works.” Lerner nodded in agreement as he listened. It reminded him of something he’d once read T.S. Eliot say of Dante—that the genius of poetry was that it communicated before it was understood.
On stage, Cohen was done with the ephemera. He was smiling. He turned to his band mates frequently now, nodding his head encouragingly or saying a kind word or two. In his confidence, he decided it was time to speak honestly. He played a few basic chords and delivered a short speech-song.
“They gave me some money, for my sad and famous song,” he sang. “They said the crowd is waiting, hurry up or they’ll be gone. But I could not change my style, and I guess I never will. So I sing this for the poison snakes on Devastation Hill.” And then came a noisy, joyous rendition of “Diamonds in the Mine,” with Charlie Daniels singeing the strings and Bob Johnston, playing piano, pounding happily on the keys.
“He’s taking them on,” said Kristofferson, standing a few feet away with Lerner and Baez. “He’s taking the fuckers right on.”