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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
Gary Wilson’s music might be a gradually acquired taste for some, but in my personal experience people either get Gary or they don’t. I’ve been a huge fan for years thanks to my friend Marcello McDonnell (Steel Tips, Spy Gods, Vinyl Dogs) and I have had the opportunity to turn many people on to Gary Wilson’s work. Some love it and never look back. Others just look completely puzzled or slightly freaked out. Personally, if I ever were to leave for that fabled desert island, Gary Wilson’s cult classic You Think You Really Know Me would be a must on the playlist.
For many years, it seemed unlikely that I’d ever have the chance to see his live performance, so I was amazed when he began performing again in 2002. Now I check out the live show whenever possible, and am excited to go to see Gary Wilson with his band, The Blind Dates on April 20th at Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn.
There is much to the Gary Wilson back story, but I’ll take a tip from Five Minutes 3 Seconds and will not reiterate here. You can read my account of the story along with insights from the man himself in this 2003 piece for WeirdoMusic.com. I will say that I’ve described various aspects of Gary with the terms “outsider rock groove,” “obsessive teenager in love,” “punk-influenced,” “maniacal repetition,” and “Steely Dan with a Love Unlimited Orchestra attitude.” All those still hold, and don’t even begin to cover it.
Gary Wilson exemplifies The Dream Between concept in many ways- his sounds and “out there” stage performance float free within their own lexicon, existing in no single musical or psychological universe. All this points toward just the kind of mind I can’t help but explore. Big thanks to Gary for taking the time to respond to these questions with honesty, oddity, and ultimately with optimism.
Robin Renée: According to my understanding, you tend to play and record all the time. How does your process change when you are getting ready to release a new recording? What was happening as you wrote and prepared for Feel The Beat?
Gary Wilson: Nothing has changed since I was 13 years old. I get inspired and I walk into the room where my recording equipment is and start recording. It can happen anytime. I might come home from playing piano in some country club, turn a horror movie on the TV, throw a cheese pizza in the oven and wait for the inspiration to hit me. Then it begins. For me, coming up with an album’s worth of material is a long process. I do a lot of self-editing. I toss out a lot of tracks that I spend a lot of time on. That can be depressing. You think you might have a song, then after working for weeks on it you throw it away. That’s showbiz.
RR: Even though your process seems to hold steady, will your audience be hearing new sounds and shifts since Electric Endicott in 2010?
GW: First of all, Feel The Beat was recorded on my new recording equipment (Tascam 2488neo). It’s always exciting for me to get familiar with the capabilities of new recording equipment. It’s sort of like a new toy. I started with a Wollensak mono tape recorder when I was 12 years old. Always had an interest in recording. Also the dynamics of life, from day to day, bring a new adventure into my world. This becomes part of my music. Each album is like giving birth to a baby. There’s excitement in the beginning, then it’s released and a sort of gloom comes over me. That’s when you go back into the recording room and start a brand new project.
RR: The people and places of your youth in Endicott, NY still persist and are the backbone of your work. Linda, Cindy, Debbie, Bermond Avenue, Northside Park– What continues to draw you into these stories?
GW: I guess it brings me back to a happier, less stressful time in my life, though growing up is no easy feat. When I perform now, I try to recreate the way I felt when I began playing professionally at 12 years old. Music was fun, exciting and innocent. Our parents would take us to the gigs. That is why sometimes I will bring a large cardboard box on stage with my home address painted on the front of the box. I can sit in the cardboard box and recreate, in my mind, the way I felt when I was a young teenager on stage – the way I felt when Linda, Karen and Lugene would come see my band (Lord Fuzz, Dr. Zork and The Warts, Gary Wilson and the Blind Dates) at the local teen centers. When I come out of the box I feel refreshed.
RR: Do you recall a defining moment or incident that solidified these memories as your palette?
GW: I recently was talking to my older brother and he mentioned that I was hit in the temple with a baseball bat when I was 10 or 11 years old. We both thought that perhaps that event, getting hit in the head with a baseball bat, was what determined my perspective on art and music.
RR: “Lugene Kissed Me Last Night” is reminiscent of the intense ending of your classic “6.4 = Make Out.” What inspired you to introduce “the new girl,” Lugene, on Feel The Beat? (Note: I asked this question temporarily forgetting that Lugene was mentioned previously in “Your Dream is Not My Scene,” in 2008 on Lisa Wants To Talk To You. It’s not easy to keep track of all of Gary’s women.)
GW: Lugene was my first girlfriend, before Linda. The first girl I really kissed. I have fond memories of summer days at my friend’s house in Endwell, NY. His parents worked in the day time so we had the whole day to hang out at his house. Lugene and Cheryl would bus it down from Johnson City, NY to Endicott, then make their way to my friends house in Endwell. Yes, Lugene kissed me that night.
RR: I have an artistic love of mannequins and wig display heads. At least in part, I think I have you to thank for this influence. The mannequin aesthetic has carried throughout your artwork and live shows. All kinds of theories could arise on what they indicate – beauty, uniformity, sexism, objectification, idealization… What’s the mannequin thing about for you?
GW: There is something modern, surreal about mannequins. I’ve been fascinated with mannequins ever since watching the black and white Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours” when I was 8 or 9 years old. The story featured Anne Francis. That’s the episode where the department store mannequins come to life for a short time. For me, the mannequins represent the girls in my life –frozen for eternity in the form of a mannequin, as if our love will never die. I remember my first “comeback” gig at Joe’s Pub in NYC in 2002. The record label rented 3 or 4 mannequins for the night. By the end of the performance, the mannequins were damaged. It cost the label something like $650 per mannequin. The label decided to put the damaged mannequins in their NY apartment as works of art.
RR: I once had a cassette of yours called You Made Me Feel My Misery. As I recall, a few of those tracks, like “Gary Saw Linda Last Night (Kissing Frank Roma)” reemerged on later albums. I always loved the title song. Whatever became of it? What factors help you decide which tunes make the cut?
GW: I re-recorded “You Made Me Feel My Misery” recently. I was going to include it on my album Feel The Beat but decided against it. When I self-released the original Mary Had Brown Hair back in 2003 before Stones Throw Records released it, “You Made Me Feel My Misery” was included on that release. When Stones Throw re-released Mary in 2004, (hip-hop producer and Stones Throw Records founder) Peanut Butter Wolf eliminated three cuts including “You Made Me Feel My Misery” from the original version. The song will appear on my next album.
RR: What do your noise pieces and avant garde jazz interludes (“Why Did You Kiss Me?,” “Stephanie Was Crying in the Rain”) say that aren’t said in your songs constructed in a more traditional pop fashion?
GW: I’ve been involved in the avant garde since I was 12 years old – recording my own electronic music, composing avant garde classical music, modern plays, painting, etc. The weirder the better, when I was growing up. This is what led me to John Cage inviting me to his house in Haverstraw, NY when I was 14. I always try to combine both elements on my records and performances. I also love the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
RR: Yes, I always hear that combo of distinctly avant garde and smooth, upbeat pop in your music. I am wondering: does each style help you convey or express a different set of emotions or experiences?
GW: Yes, the avant garde and smooth pop convey different emotions, though they can collide. This occurs in many of my songs such as “Chrome Lover,” “Sea Cruise,” “6.4=Make Out,” “Gary Saw Linda Last Night,” “Linda Wants To Be Alone” and others. When we do these songs on stage, you never know what can happen. I always wanted to do a 30 minute version of “6.4=Make Out” with my band and I performing with a large classical chamber group complete with a large string section.
RR: What was your visit like with John Cage? What an honor at 14.
GW: It was an honor to spend three days with composer John Cage at his house. I was 14 or 15 years old. I was playing cello and string bass with our school chamber orchestra and string quartet. I was composing experimental music and our school chamber group would occasionally perform my classical compositions at school events. This led me to contacting John Cage by phone. Mr. Cage gave me an address where to send him some samples of my music. A few weeks later John Cage invited me to his house in Haverstraw, NY, not far from NYC. My mother drove me to Haverstraw from Endicott, NY. On our first visit, my mother became lost in the wooded area not far from John Cage’s house. We stopped at the local general store and I called and told him we were lost. (He) drove down to the general store and picked me up and drove me to his house. Here I am at 15 years old being driven to John Cage’s house by John Cage himself. My mother drove me to Haverstraw for three days. Each day John Cage went over my musical scores, corrected things, and suggested things. I still have some of the scores where he went over my original notation and put in what he thought the orchestra would be better at interpreting. It still amazes me that he took the time to meet with me, a young teenager. College grad students would give anything to meet one-on-one with John Cage and have him correct and advise on their compositions. One of the highlights in my life.
Many years later, I had a chance to meet with John Cage again at the University of California, San Diego where he was a composer in residence. Bernadette Allen was a grad student at UCSD at that time. I handed John Cage a copy of You Think You Really Know Me and asked if he remembered me. He said he did. Truly an inspiration to me.
RR: You had a very long artistic and personal relationship with Bernadette Allen. I heard about her passing – I’m so sorry, Gary. If you are willing, will you please say something about your years with her? Where was your connection and what was her influence on your life and work?
GW: Bernadette Allen passed away in 2011. My heart is broken. We were together for 32 years. I miss her dearly. Bernadette performed with me often and we did many videos together. Bernadette even attended (though didn’t perform) our last CBGB’s gig back in 1979. Stones Throw Records has been converting all her 3/4″ videos to DVD for a future DVD release.
RR: How wonderful to have such a partnership for so long. What qualities made her such a special person in your life?
GW: The great thing about Bernadette was she let me be myself. I felt comfortable with Bernadette. She was very intelligent and artistic and put up with me for 32 years.
RR: Thank you for being willing to share that, Gary. Is there an essential story you ultimately wish to tell? One’s roots are never forgotten? Something about life as a romantic quest? The surreal nature of consciousness? Love is pain? Is it really all much simpler?
GW: Life has its ups and downs. We all try to get through life the best we can. Try to follow your passion. Try not to hurt people and animals. I know sometimes following your passion can be difficult if you have family and many responsibilities. One has to sometimes put your dreams aside to take care of your family and your responsibilities. That’s sad. But still, you still can do what you love part-time. My father worked for IBM for about 40 years. He still played music at the local hotel lounge four nights a week. He didn’t give up music even though he had a wife and four children and work 5 to 6 days a week. In other words, don’t let life bring you down to the point where you lose your dreams. I’ve been fortunate in the last ten years to be able to do what I really enjoy and will continue as long as I can.
RR: Is there anything else you’d like to share today from the heart-mind-soul of Gary Wilson?
GW: Please don’t sport fish and hunt. The poor fish and animals have it hard enough already without humans killing and hurting them for sport. How can someone laugh and smile while they hold up a gasping fish on a hook. Poor fish is dying. What’s so funny about that? Or chasing some animal through the woods for the sole purpose of killing the animal. Don’t the hunters see the fear in the animal’s eyes right before they blast away at the poor thing? It’s one thing, and that’s even sad, when one has to hunt and fish for survival, but not for blood sport.
RR: It’s good to hear you speak out for non-violence. I am also so glad that your re-rediscovery has led to your being able to do what you enjoy. Fans who never imagined new recordings and live shows are pretty happy, too. So, I can see how the songs themselves convey the “follow your passion” message, particularly if your passion is pursuing Linda, Kathy, or Karen. Is there anything else you hope the songs themselves convey directly to the listener?
GW: Yes, I appreciate all that has happened to me. When people listen to my music and come to my shows, I do get different reactions, which is good. I hope I convey to the audience what I learned from John Cage. Walk one’s own path. Be yourself. Have fun with your art, and your life. Don’t worry what other people think. Ask yourself what would you like to see and hear. Then do it. It takes time to get one’s personality imbedded into one’s art but if you keep working at it, you never know where it can lead.
Gary Wilson will perform at Glasslands Gallery, 289 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, Friday, April 20th
Doors open 8:30pm (Early Show)
Also on the bill: The Immaculates, Moonmen on the Moon, Man, Slowdance (DJ set) and Mr. Fahrenheit (DJ set)
$10 adv/$12 day of show
Gary Wilson online: www.sixpointfour.com
On November 10, 2005, I had the good fortune to have a phone interview with the wonderful Phoebe Snow. I spoke to her and several other artists for an article that ran as “Even Women Get the Blues” in Elmore Magazine in January 2006. On the sad news of her passing on April 26th, I remembered this transcript, and felt moved to share it. Some of this material first appeared in that original article.
Her words have so much to teach about struggle, perseverance, and diligence in bringing raw talent to fruition. At a few points she spoke about her daughter who was disabled and of caring for her, but felt those comments weren’t for publication. I will honor that. I will say, though, that I am pleased that this came together on Mother’s Day. I believe it is perfect timing.
I am so glad that I had the chance to hear her live performance at Donald Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue at the Beacon Theater in 1992. What a phenomenal voice. Thank you, Phoebe, for the interview and for the inspiration. Blessings on your journey.
Robin Renée: It’s wonderful to talk to you, first of all. I wanted to get into a little bit of your experience of being involved in blues singing, particularly as a woman. Are there any stories you might have to tell about how being a woman has affected your career? There are probably many.
Phoebe Snow: I don’t even know, you know, if it is connected to blues particularly. Being a woman and being in any kind of professional career is an uphill battle.
PS: Being a woman and to be employed on any level <laughter> but um, I guess I think –
I did start out and my goal was to be primarily a blues artist, and I was more interested, when I started, in being a guitar player as opposed to being a singer. I didn’t think I had a very good voice, which people are always surprised to hear me say. I was incredibly shy, I was incredibly self-conscious, so I already had that going against me. It was very difficult for me to get up in front of people and sing. So I focused on the guitar a lot.
Now my earliest influences were… I’m trying to think of who it was I heard when I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. People like Bill Broomsey, Memphis Minnie, guitar-oriented blues artists, rural blues artists… Charlie Pickett.
There was a guy in Lower Manhattan around that time who was putting out reissues of old 45 blues records and his name was Nick Pearl. They were all pretty much under his umbrella. He would find these fantastic obscure old blues artists and he would reissue them and try to remaster them in whatever technology existed at that time. I think any blues artist who was around at that time, any kids coming up knew about this guy. I even went and auditioned for him: “I know I’m a contemporary artist and I was in the 70s, but hey! Check out how I can play this!” I would try to impress him with some of my guitar stylings and in return he gave me a lot of great records to listen to. That’s kind of how I started my guitar style.
Also, I was a huge fan and follower and ultimately friend of David Bromberg’s. He was kind of a clearinghouse for great blues stuff. I know that’s not exactly what you asked me, but these are my roots, these are how I made my decision to be… The other thing I was really influenced by, believe it or not, is bluegrass music. I developed a picking style, a very fast picking style. I had a teacher back then, Rick Schoenberg, and he actually made a couple of albums with a guy named Dave Laibman on Verve Records. My family knew the Schoenberg family, so he said, “All right, I’ll give you guitar lessons.” What they were doing at that time when I was trying to study guitar with him was transcribing Scott Joplin piano rag tunes into two-guitar picking style. There exists a master of this somewhere—Rick and Dave doing it, and it’s among some of the most beautiful music ever recorded.
RR: You did say that being a woman in any profession is enough. Do you have any anecdotal stuff about what it was to break through a ceiling?
PS: I think anytime, see… There’s also this typical thing about a woman playing a man’s instrument. And unless she’s dressed like a playboy bunny they have all these perceptions…. Maybe she’s this, maybe she’s that… No… maybe she’s a musician who really wants to do this. The guitar lends a lot of perceptual stuff to this I’m sure. When I heard all these people speculating, “Who is she? Where did she come from?” That was funny stuff. I would like people to think in a very linear way about what I do and just notice the music. In a perfect world, they would, but it’s not a perfect world. My biggest breakthrough would be when people just talk to me about what they’ve heard me do musically and they don’t mention anything else, like “Why are you wearing that?” You know? I actually had another woman say to me years ago, “Girl, we’ve got to do something about your drag.” I’m like, what?? Drag. My clothing. I’m like, why? Leave me alone. If you’re in this for the music, people can really get hung up on the wrong things. So, I really think the greatest triumph for me is that people say “Wow, you’re really a great musician. You’re a great singer.”
RR: So you’re doing some new stuff, I hear. I have Natural Wonder. Is that the most recent?
PS: That would be the most recent one. It was very well under the radar. That’s ok with me. The other thing is I’m really looking forward to performing again. I’d lost my passion for performing for a while, you know. I’ve had a life full of huge challenges at times. Some people know about it, some people don’t. It’s not really important what they were or why I was challenged, I kind of had my musical heart broken because I was trying to juggle so many things that I couldn’t give everything I needed to give to music. When I was vulnerable in that way and I was going through personal challenges, I have to say this, I was somebody who was very easy to manipulate. If someone would yell at me or be dictatorial, like you kind of have to do a certain kind of thing, I would go ok, let’s not get into anything, you just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll just go on autopilot and I’ll do it. I regret that, but I don’t dwell on regretting that. I’m not overwhelmed by whatever my life circumstances are anymore and I think I can really do much better work, at this stage of my life. I didn’t really know where I was gonna be. Were you at The Bitter End the other night?
RR: No, unfortunately I didn’t make it.
PS: We are planning other venues. Once they know that I’m out there and wanna work… so that’s what we’re working on right now – polishing up the live performances and I’m concentrating on a lot on original material. I’ve been validated as a songwriter— that’s another triumph! Gotta mention that in the triumph column! I never knew if my songwriting was viable or not. Now people are saying, “Yeah! You write hooks!”
RR: Just out of pure selfishness… What do you think a songwriter trying to break out today should know?
PS: I had the benefit of advice by iconic songwriters…. Take everything with a grain of salt. Take what you need and leave the rest. Mostly follow your own muse. If something feels like it’s exciting and you want to write it, listen to your muse. That belongs to you. Don’t let people push you around. Especially songwriting, because that’s coming out of your heart.