Even as much as I enjoy the albums I have of his catalog I can’t say he was best represented on the plastic platter (though all of his records have great moments – and at least one is a stone classic, but more on that later). Like probably most of humanity I first saw / heard Richie Havens via the Woodstock Movie. Now, talk about a defining performance! If his star was slowly rising at the moment when he walked on stage in the heat of that August day in 1969, he walked off of it as the father of the Woodstock Nation, for better or worse. He kicked the festival off in such a profoundly powerful way – simply iconic. Especially cemented by the film. In fact, the rest of the musical performances pretty much go downhill from there with a few exceptions. Richie Havens was arguably the BEST thing about that whole festival, musically speaking.
But Richie Havens was different. First of all I don’t think I’d ever seen a person with nothing but an acoustic guitar hold an audience spellbound before. His delivery was powerful, yet he projected an immensely friendly vibe. I remember him singing this interesting, intricate song only to realize halfway through he was doing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” – a song I knew well, just like everybody else – yet I didn’t recognize it at first because Richie did it HIS way, yet it was still AWESOME! That blew my mind. Also – he told some crazy story about a guy who he learned a song from that he knew from the Village scene in the early 60s. Then he did this song - called “What About Me”. I’d never heard this song before, but in its original incarnation it was a semi-wistful hippie ballad from Quicksilver Messenger Service (from the pen of Dino Valenti). Richie’s performance the night I saw him was like full-on raging fury and indignation at injustice culminating in the line “If you’re prepared to stand up for what you do believe be PREPARED TO BE SHOT DOWN!!”
When he hit that point in the song you could have shoved a banner in my hand and I would have been ready to march from Poughkeepsie to San Diego in protest of ……..just about anything! Never before or since have I heard a singer rouse an audience quite like Richie Havens did that night. RIVETING! Immediately after the applause died down he clutched what looked like a roll of rough, brown paper towels – like the kind they use in school cafeterias – tore off a slice and proceeded to blow his nose onstage! He apologized for having a cold that night (never would have guessed) and, when looking somewhat dismayed about what to do with a handful of snot-covered industrial rough brown paper-toweling onstage in front of hundreds of people, he did the only logical thing: shoved the lot of it inside the hole of his acoustic guitar saying, “Well, you know – sometimes guitars have to eat too!” And right onto the next tune…………I just about died! Arlo Guthrie could have whistled the Star-Spangled Banner from his nose, standing on his head and spitting pennies and wouldn’t have caused as much of a sensation.
Years later in the early 90s I won tickets to see Richie Havens perform at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. This time he had a full band with him which included the great Hudson Valley guitar sensation Bill Perry. Bill has also since left us, but he was Richie’s main second guitar foil for many years. Many local blues musicians looked up to Bill Perry – he was a great talent. It sure was cool to see him onstage with Richie that night. Yet, the performance was kind of subdued. Still great and inspiring of course, but something happened that night in Lincoln Center that really stayed with me and got me thinking. At some point during the show, Richie Havens was ready to perform a John Lennon song (I think it was “Imagine”) and he prefaced the tune with a little introduction about Lennon’s dedication to world peace – really holding Lennon’s memory in high esteem and interestingly the audience that night gave very tentative applause for the sentiment. In the intervening years since Lennon’s tragic murder a lot of information had come out to reveal his very human nature and problems. I got the sense that the audience just wasn’t really willing to go along with Richie in elevating John Lennon’s memory in quite the way he was hoping they would. Actually, I felt then and I feel now that, if anything, Richie Havens embodied the sentiments of the 60s better than John Lennon ever did.
Anyway, I kept looking for a recording of Ritchie doing “What About Me”. I eventually found a CD - The Richie Havens Collection on Rykodisc. This was a compilation of tracks from his solo albums of the early 70s – none of which I had. “What About Me” was on there, but it was – amazingly – kinda smooth, mellow and slick-sounding in a studio production kind of way. Shucks. I liked it raw and acoustic. The rest of the disc had some good moments, but nothing as energized as that 1986 performance. So I kind of shied away from buying any of his more recent releases. And, stupidly, I missed opportunities to see him one more time. I really thought he would live forever since he was so profoundly energized and full of life and generally inspiring in his art!
I have read that his more recent albums are quite good and I must make the effort to track them down. But one of his old albums has a “desert-island disc” status for me:
This is not just Richie Havens’ masterpiece, but it is simply one of my all-time favorite records – period! I would not want to be without this album. Most of the two LP album is studio stuff, but it was the “live” side four that sent me out to track it down. A local college radio station played pretty much that whole side of the record on the air which included a fun little piece of audience participation via Richie’s cover of the Beatles song “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Hearing that concert performance reminded me of what I saw and heard so I went looking.
I did eventually find what amounted to a re-issue on the MGM label. But it was clean and sounded good (and it remains the only copy I’ve had – pretty much satisfied!). I was happy to hear the live stuff I heard on the radio again, but as I gradually dug into the other three sides I began to realize this was a really solid and excellent double album!
Side One commences with a pretty rockin’ cut – “Stop Pulling and Pushing Me” is a quick, insistent psych-folk-rock song with some fairly manic drumming from Skip Prokop. After such a jarring leadoff track, the next song is quite the opposite. “For Haven’s Sake” is a long, meditative song that eventually evaporates in thin air (as opposed to fading out). The next track is a very good cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Richie would eventually have his own hit single with “Here Comes the Sun” and in both of these cases (and many more) he manages to prove that he can sing other people’s material and not just do it justice, but in some cases rival the original. Although it may be a bit much to take that position on his Beatles covers he does manage to make their songs sound as much like HIM as it will always be THEM. The same is true of his Bob Dylan covers and especially his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Priests”. I really like how Richie does this song on the album and I’m not a Leonard Cohen fan!
I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to participate in Richie’s farewell at the Bethel site last month. He wanted his ashes to be scattered over the original festival grounds and his wishes were honored. Although there are a lot of great talents that keep leaving us here on planet earth, I will really miss not having the opportunity to be inspired by another one of Richie Havens’ live performances. In these jaded and cynical post-industrial days of madness, the ability of an artist to slice through the many built up layers of BS to reach right into the hearts of an audience is a truly magical thing. To get the chance to experience and re-experience that is what keeps us going to shows hoping to get connected to THE BIG NOTE one more time.
RIP Richie and thanks for passing on those great vibrations………..