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I am so happy that the good folks at Biff Bam Pop! invited me to write a piece on Canadian music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors.
“Biff Bam Pop! is a website devoted to the world of pop culture, from comic books and video games, to movies, books, and music.” I like it a lot.
Check out my article: “A South of the Border Salute to Stompin’ Tom“
then stick around the site to see what else they’ve got brewing.
I experience a certain amount of reflexive apprehension whenever I hear an NPR commentator mention the name of someone I like and haven’t heard about on the radio in a long time. Often enough, I’ve learned, I am about to hear an obituary. Sadly, I was right this morning. The news of Richie Havens’ passing hit me hard. When I caught my breath, tears wanted to follow the shock, but I was out and about, so they had to wait. Instead, I had time to meditate on what Havens means to me and all the good he did for the world through his words and music. He was the real deal, and just by being so, he shared and taught so much.
In 2003 and 2005 I had two opportunities to speak with Richie Havens. I had a singular kind of nervous excitement on the morning for which our first conversation was scheduled. What is there to do while waiting, knowing that the next time the phone rings the person on the other end will be the guy who struck the very first chords at Woodstock? Two pieces came from our telephone interviews – a short preview of a show at Duke Island Park in Bridgewater, NJ in the Courier News and “Richie Havens—Touch the Planet with Honesty, Optimism, and DIY,” Songwriter’s Market, 2006. It was an extra blessing to talk with such a kind and insightful artist and I am so glad I was also able to meet him and say hello on a couple of occasions at his shows around New Jersey and New York.
Some of the things he told me shifted my attitude in fundamental ways. I didn’t always know it, but his sound and image had its affect on me pretty much from my beginnings. These reflections came together for me as I remembered him today.
Here are a few of the things I learned from Richie Havens:
Be your best self everywhere.
He spoke of some early gigs when he’d never know how he was billed until he got there. Maybe he’d find that the promoter sold him to the venue as a folk-blues singer. Maybe he’d show up and the sign would say “Richie Havens – folk-jazz.” The makeup of the audiences was just as much of a tossup. Would it be a mellow listening room or a crowd of rowdy bikers? Either way, he played his best. He found he crossed over and gained fans. It seemed to me that he had the knack of just being real when it mattered most.
I know something of this kind of experience. I was once hired sound-unheard by someone who assumed I played R&B. Another time I was told “we just need any kind of mellow music,” only to find that the event was billed as a jazz brunch. I’ve been in that awkward moment singing in a gay club where the few women who have come to hear me are outnumbered by the puzzled guys who wonder when the dance music is going to start. At first in those situations, I’d try playing faster or louder, inventing scat vocals – I’d try to morph on the fly into someone more likely to be understood. Slowly but surely I’ve been learning the difference between responding in real time to the energy in a room and flat out trying to become something or someone else. Richie had it right. And what a lesson for how to show up for life in general.
Stealth influence runs deep.
I don’t remember which state I was in, which song I was playing, or how many years before the interviews it was. I was playing an all acoustic gig in the midst of one of my most energetic tunes like “Spiritual Ink” or “Silent Partner.” Suddenly in the middle of the song I was startled by a realization: “Whoa – Richie Havens is the reason I play this way. He might be the reason I play at all.”
My mom was a huge Havens fan. I can still call up a very clear picture of the old stereo on the front porch with Mixed Bag on heavy rotation. I do believe that one way or another, I would have found my way to music. In my house, I was instilled with the love of melody and lyric and cultural relevance. But I discovered in that moment that a little bit of Havens’ sound made its way into my hands, perhaps even more so than later artists I would name more immediately as favorites. And there’s another huge piece of this: Long before I would hear all of negative feedback and deal with being questioned and ostracized for my love of rock music, Richie Havens had given me permission to look like I do and play how I play. That turns out to be a gift beyond measure.
Once & for all, music is beyond black or white.
Of course, I know this. I knew it in junior high school when black kids would tell me there was something wrong with me for being into David Bowie and The Stones. I knew it when I was told by a few people in the music industry that they didn’t know how to sell what I do. Still, it was exhausting to feel as though I was constantly made to withstand overwhelming forces intending to knock down what was different in favor of what was status quo, forces that insist that black and white are to stay separate when it comes to skin color and music.
I asked Havens if he ever got flak for playing guitar, covering songs of artists like The Beatles and Dylan, and playing what some might think of as “white music.” What he said amazed me completely. He said when he was coming up in the Greenwich Village music scene, there truly was no such scrutiny. The artist community then was all about expression and experimentation. It made no difference if you picked up a guitar, a banjo, a piccolo, or trash can lid. It was about making sounds, telling stories, and telling truths. That was it. I still believe hearing and seeing Havens gave me a jump start before the full weight of this kind of outside opinion came down on me. I hadn’t imagined the kind of creative microcosm he described – so purely “anything goes.” I was fascinated that a confluence of people and energies could come together to bring about such a place and time.
Be the change and SEE the change.
For so many progressive Americans I knew at the time, the George W. Bush presidency represented a particularly dark time. Frustration and disillusionment were common, and though I try not to dwell in anger, it was the place that many of us went to in light of what felt like the twilight of meaningful communication between the major parties and other perspectives. Essentially, it seemed as though the idealism of the sixties had given way to a reality of growing conservatism and the culture of war.
I asked how he felt about the world today, having been in the vanguard of the protest song and the music of social change and responsibility. His answer was by far the most surprising thing he said to me. He talked about how when he started out in folk music very few performers – maybe as few as five – were singing songs of social consciousness. Most popular music was still the “moon and June” love song. But as the folk movement grew, people became empowered. The idea that we all have voices spread, and over time there were songs of social change in all genres and from all corners of the planet. Today, everyone knows inherently that it’s possible to pick up a guitar or any other instrument and sing to protest, sing for change, for nature, for celebration, and yes, for love. What’s happened is that the protest song hasn’t disappeared, but it has expanded. All manner of expression has become possible in every musical style and every other form of communication. It is simply part of the fabric of our world.
I was floored. I had been the inheritor of a shift so complete that what came before it had been invisible to me. My faith in the world and a sincere optimism were restored in an instant.
Community is possible.
My conversations with Richie Havens led me to realize this: Change, growth, and gatherings of loving, powerful, creative people aren’t relics of Woodstock or the Greenwich Village of the 1960’s. We have all we need to be all of who we are. We can write it. We can sing it. We can speak up. We can create the communities where we will thrive. Though these simple facts might sometimes hide in plain sight, we have only become increasingly more equipped to know our own power. The time is now. It always is.
The last time I saw Richie Havens perform live it was an outdoor show in the theater district of New Brunswick, NJ, with The Indigo Girls also on the bill. It was just up the street from my old apartment. I have always had very positive memories of that show, and today they have become that much sweeter. It still hurts to say it, but Farewell, Richie Havens. I could never thank you enough.
Richard Pierce Havens
January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013 – Earth Day
It looks like I’ve waited a little too long to blog about my experience at Zombie Run. A week ago Sunday, it was exciting to run though the campy horror-fantasy, but today posting pics and going on about death at a race event does not seem the thing to do. So, another time for that. My 6k run in Berlin Park yesterday evening could hardly approach the impact and dedication of a world-class marathon, but I ran it as an offering of love and healing to everyone affected by the madness in Boston.
This has truly been a season of Monkey Mind for me, but Monkey Experience has been keeping pace. New romantic curiosities, absurdly awful (non)communications, another easeful friendship deepening. There was the closing of Fluid Nightclub, where I rediscovered essential bits of my being. Played at a great event last week, the first Hub City Music Festival, and got to share the stage with old friends who I admire hugely. I’ve been asked by a friend to write a song or poem about the problem of transphobia, so I’ve been letting those thoughts percolate. There isn’t a whole lot on the official schedule, but that is actually a good thing right now. My brain is busy catching up to a thousand details.
I keep trying to find words to express how I feel about the Boston Marathon bombing, but they don’t show up. It seems as if I couldn’t say it any better than the compassionate internet memes that are already trying. Petty concerns of all of the above – and just about anything – are snapped way back into perspective. I am recognizing more than ever how music and art soothe and teach, learn, respond, and heal. So, yes. More of that, please. At this moment, I am much more a listener than a maker of sounds. I will, however, be chanting kirtan this Sunday in Langhorne, PA – the more voices the better: http://rainbowsofhealing.com/kirtan-with-robin-renee/.
I want to be sure of what I think I believe and how I behave that I believe – that by living quietude we can have a small part in helping quiet the angriness in the world.
There are a lot of things I could focus on today – the hearings in the Supreme Court these past two days and the movement toward marriage equality – all of the emotions brought up by a very moving Passover Seder I attended last night - I have all manner of business and personal work competing for time. Of course I do have my attentions on these things, in reasonable measure, but what am I really determined to buckle down and tackle today? The Zombie Apocalypse.
On April 7th, I’ll be up bright and early in FDR Park, where a toxic spill will begin the city’s descent into chaos. If I were an unsuspecting person attempting to run a regular old 5k, I’d be in for a big surprise. Apparently, zombies will start the chase after the first kilometer, liquid vaccinations will fail, and we’ll all run for our lives through a military zone thick with creatures back from the grave and up to no good at all. Luckily, there’s a Quarantine Party at the end for everyone, whether you make it through “dead” or alive. I’m definitely getting psyched for, and a little nervous about The Zombie Run.
This time last year, I decided to take on a sprint triathlon with my friend LauraLynn Jansen who was training in Panama City, FL. We formed a small support group and scheduled phone conversations to stay motivated and to learn about things we could do to best prepare for the swim-bike-run. I wound up deciding the trip to Florida wasn’t the best for me at the time, but that I’d stay with the two-month training, find the best places for me to do the distances, and complete it on the same day and time as the official event. It was intense and exhilarating, and I found myself enjoying running more than I’d ever imagined.
The inconvenient trip to FL was my stated reason for not attending the actual race. In truth, I was pretty intimidated by the thought of racing against other people. I am way into fitness and pushing on towards personal best, but not so much the competition. Yes, I did hear all the anecdotes about how so many other people do it all in fun. I guess I just wasn’t ready. Apparently, I’ve discovered what will get me over my exercise self-consciousness. Just add zombies! I’ll be running away from the undead while trying to prevent them from popping my (optional) latex-free “life-balloon.” Why worry about looking silly? If I’m going to take comfort in fitting in, I’ll do it with flair.
I have to admit, I don’t really get the fascination with zombies. I am a geek about other things to be sure. I guess I’m zombie-curious. My old friend Betty definitely gets it. I may ask her for advice, as my knowledge of zombie culture is shaky. So I’m kick-starting my workouts, and I’ll run as a participant, but also an observer and journalist. Who are the people who are drawn to dress up in torn clothes, blood, and decay? Who are the ones, like me, who’d rather run through the craziness and stay relatively unscathed? So far it’s about the theater of the absurd for me – and basically, if it involves costumes, I’ll probably like it.
I am looking forward to writing about my workouts and my experience of the event. Fitness, health, and the creative spark are still incredibly fused within me. I keep searching for the coming out party for the next burst of inspiration, songs, and newness – The undercurrent of excitement I have about The Zombie Run hints it could be the thing.
I’ve started working on getting faster, training on the street and treadmill, alternating with speed walking, exercise bike, and yoga. Two Saturdays ago, I took on my first outdoor 5k of the season. 40 minutes 6 seconds. Yikes. I’ll have to do better than that if I want to survive.
Philadelphia is only the first city to be affected by the zombie problem. They’ll apparently be visiting a lot of other cities across the U.S. this year if you want to join the fun.
Getting the word out on the new chant CD, This., has so far been a gradual, but purposeful process. The official press release is finally here. I have been sending some info out myself as well as finding more efficient, mental health-conducive ways to let people know there’s new music about. The business of music had me down when I last wrote here. Now I find a great deal of optimism in new approaches, and so today you (and I) have a happier me. It’s a buzzword, but true – I feel incredibly empowered to make different and better decisions, having decided to dispense with the status quo.
I listened to “Keshava,” the first song on This., today, and it made me smile. It is one of my favorite kirtans to share live. Having not been on the road much at all in recent months, I am looking forward to singing this with others for the first time in a while tomorrow evening near the Jersey shore. Another of my favorites on This. is “Blessed Be, Namaste.” It is one of those songs where the lyrics seemed to show up fairly miraculously at the right time and in the right order. Bridging and blending spiritual traditions is important to me, and this one does that. It feels good to enjoy the music again, after a bit of time away from hearing these recordings.
One common frustration I’ve heard other musicians talk about is the need to perform and publicize the current project while the creative impulse has already moved onto the next. I have been taking an easeful approach to the new songs. They are in there, but not yet clamoring desperately. Interesting phrases and definitely some wild dreams have been showing up. I’ll court the REM stage influence for a while longer and find instrumentation I’ll love. Today it felt comforting – not at all a frustration – to immerse myself again in the sounds of This. and embark on finding more ears to hear it and souls to sing along.
I’ve been sitting with this news for the last couple of hours. I’ve been trying to find a way into the right poetic expression, but that’s not showing up. So, I’ll just let you in on my decision.
I won’t be booking shows myself as a primary focus anymore. Trying to do my own bookings has been an exhausting process for too long now. It feeds neither my soul nor my finances enough to continue.
This doesn’t mean I’m through with music. Music has been alive in me more than ever in perennial and surprising ways. That is exciting. So are some of the other aspects of the business of music that I’ve neglected while chasing different pieces of the puzzle. I’ll be more on track with this newly-created space in my life.
I have long believed that when people say they don’t have time for something, it is really an indication of priorities. If it actually matters, time will show itself, I thought. When I continually was feeling I had no time to book a proper tour or get to the details of show x, I had to consider whether or not being a working musician was something I even wanted. My answer is YES, it is something I want, and so I had to modify my understanding of making time. Time, at least on this plane where business and 24-hour days happen, is not limitless.
I do make time for a lot of what I need to do, and a lot of what I love. But too much to do, all of which feels important, leads to everything done almost well enough. Living too long in that state has left me ragged.
I am not giving up performing live. I will put some more thought and effort into finding someone willing and able to handle bookings for me. I believe viable live tours are possible, and that help to make them possible can somehow come to fruition.
I still fully encourage people and venues who would like to hear me perform live to get in touch. I will be happy to respond to serious requests for concerts and other appearances. I realize I may not see some of you as soon or as often as I’d like to for a while. Right now, I am open to change and a different kind of freedom. Becoming an honestly creative being again is most definitely on the new agenda.
I have gone through, and am still going through a full range of emotions around this decision. I plan to keep raising it up to a positive state of surrender. It isn’t giving up. It is rebooting. It is releasing what clearly doesn’t work and leaving space for what will.
I had the pleasure of meeting Robin for the first time when I booked her as a performer for the 5th Street Coffeehouse music venue in Philadelphia several years ago. The coffeehouse featured African-American female, folk-inspired artists and Robin became an instant favorite of mine and the venue patrons. I have continued to stay in touch with Robin over the years and have recently been privileged to work with her on business marketing strategies as well as writing projects.
New Year / New Order – 1/4/13
Dancer’s invisible hand, this time
did not push me to the platform
No particular synth rhythm
tonight is motion, sex
shiny with silver fleck sequins
‘wish you cud see the glitter’
the ones not here
on stage, suddenly
leading pristine, sweaty, t-shirt, gender bent ball gown crowd
in a chorus of electric
she joins me
hips hair arms miming the instinctual
I pretend not to see DJ’s camera
as saving grace
She is taller than I
I wait for kisses
to take them
we draw a small crowd
of admirers – I know the beauty
is in every face mid-lyric
with favorite song
in silver-painted spikes
in blue luminescence
in every joyous dance floor grind
as much beauty here
as on renunciate mountaintop
and the living-the-moment
make desperate, impossible love
right here, in public
just below the balcony
until which is which, a memory
for armchair gurus.
I was ordained by sound before the womb
into the Order of Bodylight
Dance trance rishi has spoken
and this is my mantra.
♪ I know, you know, we believe in a land of love
I know, you know, we believe in a land of love ♫
Too-drunk chick yells above edgy guitar thump
“YOU… are a PARTY girl… and I DON’T take that LIGHTly!”
Nor do I.
I posted these lyrics on Facebook yesterday and am happy that quite a few people are enjoying them. I was just about to post it here earlier this evening, but started watching the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief that is going on at Madison Square Garden. Just then Adam Sandler came on and sang a Sandy-ized rendition of “Hallelujah” which was… well… interesting. So, it felt like pretty much perfect timing to share this here.
Here’s my perennial silliness meeting my love of celebration – a parody for the Pagan folk. And of course, Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and Joyous times to all! Perhaps there’s a holiday album in my future… I am apparently accumulating the tunes.
The Yule Song
- to the tune of The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler
Lyrical adaptation by Robin Renée
It’s gonna be so cool again, time to celebrate Yule again
Why not play the fool again and have some fun at Yule again
Yule is the holiday of returning light
The sun gets stronger after the year’s longest night
If you feel like the only one with no Nativity,
Here are some Pagan people just like you & me:
Robin Gibb’s wife Dwina was a Druid Priestess
Alice Walker knows what the Sabbat feast is
Do you wanna hear a Pagan while you’re driving in your car?
Tune in to Margot Adler on NPR
Not sure if his mom served tofu pups or brisket
But who was raised a Wiccan? Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit!
You don’t need Silent Night or The Chanukah Song
‘Cause you can rock with George Takei around the fire all night long (Oh, myyy!)
It’s gonna be so cool again, time to celebrate Yule again
It’s like a shiny jewel again, the sacred time of Yule again
Barack Obama – not a Pagan – It’s easy to perceive it
He’s not a Muslim either, but some people won’t believe it
And yes, she spent a lot of time speaking out for PETA
‘Cause Chrissie Hynde’s one badass vegan Pagan mamacita
Not everyone’s a Pagan who holds nature dear,
But I think Captain Planet is, and every Planeteer!
There are so many holidays that people find pleasin’
But remember Winter Solstice is the reason for the season
So don’t be a hooligan
Just spread the love at Yule again
And tell the kids at school again
It’s the lovely time of Yule again
I’m like a stubborn mule again
Determined to do Yule again
So feel the inner fuel again
And sing the songs of Yule again
The season is so cool
So have a happy, happy, blessed, happy Yule!
Robin Renée December 2012