23 August 2010

Wight

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.

12 comments:

  1. Elizabeth1:58 am

    Sounds great and what a wonderful memory you have to recall it all. I certainly feel envious that you heard Leonard Cohen. x

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh YP I am jealous. I was supposed to be there....but we (me with my best friend) leaked our plans to a cousin who was jealous and not included and parents found out and we were forbidden to go...practically kept under house arrest.......and as a new Leonard Cohen listener, after years of avoiding him, I just love love love him and his gorgeuous voice...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great to have your memories. Play that funky music, Wight boy!

    ReplyDelete
  4. ELIZABETH & LIBBY My own singing voice is identical to Leonard Cohen's. Groupies can line up outside my dressing room.
    RHYMES WITH... Thanks for that clip Robert. By the way you might be interested to know that in Old English the word "wight" meant "man". You can see this in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

    ReplyDelete
  5. A captivating narrative. Just like being there, with the sounds and all. Thank you YP. Joni Mitchell would have been my favourite I think.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh, Mr. Puddin'! What a blast your post is!!! So many memories of such good times. I wonder why we can't just "enjoy" these days...wonder why one would be afraid in such a gathering now-a-days.

    I was listening to Cat Stevens this morning as I was splitting wood. (The louder the music the more the bears stay away!) And I wondered where those days have gone. Where are the war protesters, where the environmentalists in the streets, do you think anyone would March on Washington these days? Hum.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a great experience. I had never heard of it before - was it England's version of Woodstock do you think?
    Those were the days !!!
    Cheers
    Helen

    ReplyDelete
  8. Happy memories. I too was at the festival and at the previous 2. Dylan in 69, Jefferson Airplane in 68.
    Like you I remember the weather as being great, the naked swimmers (I was one as well), and the incredible music. Highlights for me were, The Who, Leonard Cohen, Taste and Jethro Tull.
    I lived on the Isle of Wight back then and I still live here.
    This year is the 40th anniversary and the festival will be recreated this bank holiday weekend in the same field (a much smaller one though) with Hawkwind playing.
    http://tinyurl.com/33l5bde
    The island still has a strong music culture with a mix of festivals each year, jazz, rock, folk, to name but a few.
    Great Blog YP!
    All the best to you
    Cris

    ReplyDelete
  9. KATHERINE Yes. Joni Mitchell was one of my favourites. Mostly I was into singer songwriters who could use the English language to magical effect and she was up there with the best.
    MOUNTAIN THYME "...I wondered where those days have gone. Where are the war protesters, where the environmentalists in the streets, do you think anyone would March on Washington these days?" I agree with you, the world seems more curtailed. Young people are more likely to be into career paths, fashion, club scene music and TV trash. Maybe we should stop the music and let the bears take over again.
    HELEN HELSIE In terms of numbers attending, the Isle of Wight was much bigger than Woodstock. The media seemed intent on blemishing its true character. I think they felt threatened.
    BRONTIE B (CRIS) Thanks for dropping by and for your appreciation of this post. A previous generation earned war medals and I think we veterans of the IOW should also be awarded medals. As old timers we'd sit in the corners of pubs exchanging tales not of trench-warfare or the Luftwaffe but of "Desolation Row", Hawkwind and the woman with the blue breasts.

    ReplyDelete
  10. See, that's why I love reading blog comments. Where else would one read "I was listening to Cat Stevens this morning as I was splitting wood. (The louder the music the more the bears stay away!)"

    Not in the streets of Philadelphia.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Your experiences are what makes you such an interesting bloke and how lucky to be at such a monumentous event.

    the best I can do is Oasis at Knebworth in '96 and that was socially relevant as somehow showing a disappointment of British youth.

    I just wonder if this (Isle of Wight) was the start of the nothingness that we have now and the greed and abandon that has led us to being so unsocial or whether all those youthful idealisms just went wrong?

    ReplyDelete

Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.