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Richie Havens

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 as 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





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