Jimi Hendrix August 30th 1970
It's hard to believe that this coming weekend will mark the fortieth anniversary of the famous 1970 Isle of Wight music festival. It was one of the highlights of my teenage years and memories of that long, wonderful weekend are still stored near the front of my brain.
Let me take out the box, dust it down and blow the cobwebs away. What do we see? There's me aged sixteen with my little ex-army rucksack and a rolled up sleeping bag onto which I have had my mother sew a small union jack flag. And there's Lee Dalley aged eighteen from our village. We're standing just outside Hull on the A63 with thumbs raised skywards. By the early evening we're at Lymington on the edge of the New Forest, waiting for a ferry over to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.
We pitch up our ancient two-man tent in an area nicknamed "Desolation Row". It is already becoming busy with festival goers - united in our love of music with knowledge of Woodstock, flower power and the peace movement fresh in our minds. If we had gone back in time just ten years to 1960, such a festival would have been absolutely unthinkable but by 1970 youth culture was strong on both sides of the Atlantic. We were redefining what it meant to be young and we had our heroic troubadours to provide the theme music to this cultural groundswell. Nothing could stop the music.
Lee and I quickly made friends with a bunch of Welsh lads and a couple of London girls from the next tent. How we laughed! The weather was gorgeous and remained so throughout the festival which is contrary to the description given in the Guinness Book of Popular Music but records verify that only on the very last morning, as the "hippies" drifted away, did a thin rain begin to fall. On the Friday morning, I recall walking over the grassy down that overlooked the festival site to Freshwater Bay to see hundreds of naked young people swimming or basking in the sun. We simply had to join them. It was as if we were stripping off the prejudices and hang-ups of postwar Britain. We felt not only young but also free.
And then the music began. I was lost in it. It was stupendous. Most sessions we were very close to the stage. I remember the brass section of the band Chicago - like an engine making the music motor along. And there was the New Yorker - John Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful singing "Do You Believe in Magic?" and we did. I discovered a new hero - Richie Havens strumming his guitar with such wild abandon, his eyes closed as he sang "It Could be the First Day". Another vivid memory is of Tiny Tim, one of Bob Dylan's first buddies when he arrived in New York City in 1960. Accompanying himself on a ukulele, Tiny Tim sang "Tiptoe through the Tulips" in a weird falsetto. It went down a storm as bubbles drifted across the vast crowd - estimated at 600,000.
Aerial view of the 600,000+ crowd
The festival's bountiful line-up included Mungo Jerry, the raunchy English band Free led by their brilliant frontman Paul Rodgers, the lovely simplicity of Donovan Leitch, the marvellous yet fragile Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, The Who, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, The Doors led by Jim Morrison and then as the last night bled into the following day on to the stage came the legend who was Jimi Hendrix. Little did we know that within three weeks he'd be dead. He stood there in the cool night air, in a colourful silk poncho, his amplifiers turned to "max" as he made his plectrum deliver an ironic slow version of "God Save the Queen" with wailing electrical feedback and wah-wah. England had adopted him and built him into a huge world star and now he was playing our anthem just as he had played "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.
As dawn approached, Leonard Cohen's words mingled with stars and pale wisps of clouds over in the east. I knew every song and had read every word he had ever had published. How could anyone describe this man as "morose" or "funereal"? He was a communicator, an intellectual, a wordsmith, a vulnerable realist. When Richie Havens finally put down his battered guitar, in the dawn of Monday August 31st, the festival was over.
Leonard Cohen at The Isle of Wight 1970
The site cleared rapidly and in the thin rain some people huddled under plastic sheeting like desperate victims of a natural disaster in the Third World. Lee and I headed to the steam ferry at Yarmouth but by night-time we had only made it to Winchester in Hampshire. A man noticed us standing forlornly outside a chip shop and invited us back to his house for the night. Things like that happened back then. He was a doctor at the local hospital. He said he'd be gone in the morning and we were just to push the keys through the letterbox when we left. "Make yourself some tea and toast".
There are tales of anarchists and fence breakers, people intent on disrupting the 1970 festival but I swear that as a music lover in the middle of it all, I was absolutely unaware of any such happenings apart from when some idiot jumped on the stage and grabbed Joni Mitchell's mike. The Isle of Wight Festival 1970 was brilliant no matter what lies are told about it. I know because I was there.