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The ill-fated third (and final) Isle of Wight Festival was held on an island just off the southern coast of England, in August 1970. Among the musical acts performing were The Doors, Kris Kristofferson, Jethro Tull, Donovan, The Moody Blues, The Who, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix (his last ever U.K. performance before his death just 20 days later), Miles Davis and, of course, Joni Mitchell. Although there were 600,000 attendees during the long weekend of shows, only about 50,000 of them actually paid for tickets.
The grounds chosen for the event were on East Afton Farm in Freshwater- a huge field with a sweeping hill behind it. To prevent folks who hadn't paid from getting into the show, the promoters put up two huge corrugated-iron fences, and hired police to patrol the fences with trained guard dogs.
This prison-like atmosphere produced a response in the form of a critical pamphlet from a group called "The White Panthers." Later exposed as a fraud, "The White Panthers" and the pamphlet were actually the creation of "International Times" journalist Mick Farren and a friend, who were disgusted by the oppressive scenario they discovered at the festival site about ten days before it began. Farren told a British radio show in 1995: "We noticed that overlooking the site was this enormous hill, and in terms of the usual agitprop mythology, we put out this pamphlet that said 'at the Isle of Wight Festival you can sit on the hill and watch the show for free.'"
A multitude of Hippies came and camped out on the hill; the mood was pleasant enough in the beginning, but the crowds became increasingly hostile as time went on. The "Desolation Row" Hippies resented stories they were being told from the stage about how some of the acts were demanding money up front before they'd perform. They didn't like the guards with their surly dogs, and most of all, they hated the fences.
Just before Jethro Tull's set, the promoters attempted to clear the field by announcing that the bands wouldn't come onstage to do their soundchecks unless the audience left the grounds and came back in again with their tickets (Ian Anderson immediately negated this claim before starting his first number).
The Hippies on the hill became progressively more demanding and belligerant. They painted graffitti on the hill side of the fence with messages like "The Fence Must Die" and "Fuck the Guards." They eventually insisted that the fences be torn down and the festival become a free one. Joan Baez, no stranger to counter-cultural demands, told reporters:
"The question of kids now wanting everything to be free is very hard to handle, because it's hard to talk to those kids, but I am not going to be forced into giving a free concert because they insist upon it. That doesn't make sense either. I mean these kids have been handed down an evil sticking rotten world, and they're rebelling against it. They're sick of it and one of their ways of saying it is I'm not going to pay for it."
Rikki Farr was both one of the promoters and master of ceremonies. His peace and love platitudes on the first day gradually deteriorated into angry tirades; he addressed certain members of the crowd as "fuckers," "bastards" or "pigs," while repeated waves of bad vibrations rumbled down from the Hippies on the hill and up from the audience. Toward the end of the festival, he spent more of his time begging the crowd to buy enough tickets for him to reach his break-even point, which he claimed was 170,000 tickets (his requests were less than warmly received).
During the set by Kris Kristofferson (who was little known at the time) the crowd became so hostile that they were banging and drumming on the fences, trying to stomp them down. Kris left the stage before his scheduled finish for fear of being killed, turning to his band saying "I think they're gonna shoot us."
When Joni came out on stage, the size of the audience amazed her. She told them "It looks like they're making "Ben-Hur" or something!" All through her hour-long set, she had to deal with the noise of the rowdy and agitated crowds, and the frequent and distracting sound of small airplanes taking off. About two-thirds of the way through her song "Chelsea Morning" she stopped and told the audience "I don't feel like singing that song very much. Let me play you one on the piano." After singing "For Free," Joni paused and spoke again to the crowds:
"You know maybe I'm kinda weird but when I'm sitting up here and playing and I hear all those people growling out there and people saying "Joni, smile for Amsterdam" and stuff, it really puts me uptight and I forget the words and then I get nervous and it's really a drag! I don't know what to say. Just give me a little help, will ya?"
Just then she was interrupted by Yogi Joe, a Hippie she knew from her time spent visiting the caves in Crete. He flashed Joni a peace sign as he jumped up on stage and sat down with his congas in his lap. Joni and the stage managers, fearing they might antagonize the crowds, allowed him to stay onstage, and while Joni sang "Woodstock," he proceeded to play his drums. Joni told "Q" magazine in 1988 : "This guy I knew from the caves at Matala, Yogi Joe, he taught me my first yoga lesson, he leaps up on stage. He sits at my feet and starts to play the congas with terrible time. He looks up at me and says 'Spirit of Matala, Joni!' I bend down off-mike and say, 'This is entirely inappropriate, Joe.' It was "Woodstock" of all the songs to be singing, because this was so different - it was a war zone out there."
As the song ended, Yogi Joe stood up and insisted on taking the microphone from Joni so he could give his message to the people: "I have an announcement that I've been asked to make. Desolation Row is this festival, ladies and gentlemen." The stage managers tried to talk him down as they pulled him away from the microphone, but he refused to cooperate and the stagehands finally had to drag him away. The infuriated crowd, seeing him as one of their own, reacted defiantly, booing, complaining and nearly bringing Joni to tears as she attempted to play the piano intro to "My Old Man." Her anger rose as she rallied her defenses, turned to the crowd and told them:
"Listen a minute, will ya? Will ya listen a minute? Now listen ... A lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it's fun, ya know, it's a lot of fun. It's fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen ...
You got your life wrapped up in it and it's very difficult to come up here and lay something down when people ... It's like last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists ... and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and there were Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you're acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect."
Joni actually succeeded in calming the crowds with her teary chastisement. Backstage, Yogi Joe was ranting for the cameras:
"I believe this is my festival. If I had been allowed to go on stage, we might have discovered that I was one of the most coherent people around here ... coming to talk to an old friend of mine, Joni Mitchell. 'We are stardust, we are golden, we got to get ourselves back to the garden, we are caught in the devil's bargain.' Ricky Farr, or whatever his name is, came to me on Wednesday. He gave me a hundred tickets and made me the head of the official committee to paint the fences invisible. Ok, he wanted to paint the fence invisible at the time because it was embarrassing him. At that time I suggested to him that he put a few swivel panels on it. Since then we've discovered that it isn't a question of money. We're all middle class children and we can afford to have our festival. Basically this was all a plan. It was a plan of friends of ours to meet Joni Mitchell on stage, get stoned and make music..."
By the time Joni finished her set with "Big Yellow Taxi," she'd relaxed considerably and had long since won over the crowds, encoring with her already-classic composition "Both Sides Now."
Joni's full set list :
THAT SONG ABOUT THE MIDWAY
MY OLD MAN / WILLIE
A CASE OF YOU
BIG YELLOW TAXI
BOTH SIDES NOW
(ed. note: The actual setlist was as follows:)
That Song About The Midway
My Old Man
A Case Of You
Big Yellow Taxi
Both Sides, Now
On the last day, the promoters finally declared the festival a free one.
Filmmaker Murray Lerner shot a film about the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, but it took him 25 years to secure the financial backing needed to complete and release the movie. Finally, in August 1995, 25 years after the festival occurred, a film called "Message To Love" was first shown on TV in the U.K. At around the same time, a two CD set of festival highlights, also called "Message To Love," was issued and made available in the U.S., with the film playing mostly at small "art" cinemas.
On Columbia/Legacy - C2K 65058
The film shows the last verse of Joni's performance of "Woodstock," the afore-mentioned incident with Yogi Joe the Hippie, and finally a complete performance of Joni singing "Big Yellow Taxi." The CD set contains the full performance of both of the two songs. Her performance was, unfortunately, tainted by the hostility of the rowdy crowds and the distracting onstage events; the stress is obvious in her voice. Huge venues like this one are not the best forum for Joni's music due to the fact that her approach is so intimate. But there are not that many records of Joni playing live in those early days, so I recommend that you pick up this CD and see the film if you can find it. Perhaps one day we'll be able to buy Joni's complete set from the festival. The Who & Hendrix performances have each already been issued as single disc releases.
Ian Scott: I was there and remember her performance was marred by a noisy helicopter flying overhead, which Joni could neither see nor hear. This resulted in 100,000+ people booing, jeering and shouting "go away" at the helicopter. Sadly, Joni thought the boos were aimed at her and started to cry. The helicopter incident is particularly significant when you consider that the festival was the biggest live entertainment event in the history of the world: roadies who worked at both were unanimous that it was bigger than Woodstock. Now, the impression that I get from all publications is that there was some hostility between the crowd and Joni that day. This is ABSOLUTELY not true. I was sitting inside the arena and in a good position to feel the general mood of the crowd, and I can assure you that the only hostility was directed toward the helicopter pilot flying overhead and NOT at Joni. 95% of the crowd did not even notice the Yogi Bear incident(he had no mike and was not centre stage) and more than 99% had no sympathy for him. By the time Joni struck into "Big Yellow Taxi" the helicopter had gone and everybody was listening to Joni.
Phil Aldridge: I was an innocent 18 year old at the Isle of Wight in 1970. I don't remember helicopters. What I do remember was that there were lots of people on the hill (known as "Desolation Row") overlooking the festival site. They wanted the festival to become "Free" and I think they'd tried to break down the fences a bit earlier. The organisers, and those who'd paid for their tickets, didn't like the fact that these guys weren't prepared to pay their three quid (about $5) but were happy to share the music. There had been growing tension over the previous hours. I think Joni's comments came as she started her set and were aimed at what had been happening and not at the way people were treating her personally. I do remember being moved by what Joni had to say. It still makes the hairs on my neck stand up when I listen to the recording. Incidentally, a few hours earlier I'd been given a press pass by a hack who was leaving early. This got me between the two security fences. The real advantage to me was not the superstars that I could meet, but the chance to buy food without queuing for an hour. I got myself some fish and chips then turned round to see... Joni. I gave her a chip - don't remember if I offered or she asked. I still tell the "Joni ate my chips" story to anyone who'll listen - and you're the latest :o)