Richie Havens Died Today. 4/22/13
I just got a call from my friend Walter, Richie Haven’s longtime guitar player, that Richie died an hour ago. He’d been ill for a while, but it didn’t lessen the shock any. Richie was the first musician I ever admired that I got to open up for, and later became the first big act to ever take a professional interest and extend a hand down to me. That first gig, I was maybe 22; it was at a college in Connecticut. I’d opened for a few acts, but none as important to me. And usually the headliners were out to dinner during my set. I’d assumed it would be the same with Richie, though I secretly prayed I’d at least get to meet him at sound check, I played the living hell out of his records for years. His voice rattled my spirit in a way few did, it was so immediate, so resonant – every syllable mattered, insistently. It demanded a kind of union with the listener. I attended high school in the early 80s and I just hated my own era. I desperately felt I rightly belonged to the 60’s, and I was resentful that I’d been so misplaced in my generation. The Woodstock soundtrack, and Richie’s performance in particular, was a touchstone – it irradiated my longing for more meaningful, connected times.
I did get to meet him at sound check, he was dressed in his uniform – eastern tunic and trousers, every long finger had a large chunky ring, and there were ropes of beads around his neck. He looked like a shaman. I stammered how honored I was, feeling like an ass. He gave me the warmest smile. He was, then – and always – near beatific in countenance. The only people I’ve ever met who have the sort of calm, kindly, yet delighted to be alive presence Richie projected into this world have been elderly Tibetan monks. Richie always walked in what seemed to me to be in the happiest hippie bubble in the world. I wanted to sit at his feet, and he let me – he let everybody.
That first show he sat in the front row during my set, right in front of me. I was terrified when I saw him there. But from the moment I started my first song he listened so intently, nodding his head, eyes closed, his enormous ringed hands pulled together as if in prayer in front of his grey beard, with a huge smile on his face. I felt elevated by his attention. One of your greatest idols thinking you’re any good – well, there is no feeling like it in the world for a musician of any age. I played as well as I ever had until that point, for all my nerves. He made me feel wired into his wavelength. Invited to join him there where the real artists lived.
A couple years later a club owner in DC put me on another bill with him. I hoped he’d remembered me, but the guy toured relentlessly (one of his favorite onstage jokes was to look at his sideman and say ‘we’ve been on tour since, um…. 1966’), had a ton of opening acts in the meanwhile and I assumed he wouldn’t. He greeted me so warmly, embracing me in a great bear hug. His tour manager took me aside before I went onstage and said he’d told her when he saw my name on the bill that I was one of the best openers he’d ever had. I felt anointed. And I was – For the next several years I was invited to join Richie on many shows and tours. I got to know him a little. He loved to tell stories about himself and never tired of being asked. And as you can imagine, the man has some great ones. There are some things I learned about him that downright surprised me. For instance, he loved to gamble; if he saw a highway sign for any shitty casino he’d do his best to charm his tour manager into stopping for a couple of hours. Damned if he wasn’t good at it. Not in terms of card sharkery – his favorite games of chance were almost entirely chance; roulette, slot machines (though he insisted he had a system that when he tried to explain sounded like hippie gibberish to me). It made sense that the games he was drawn to be almost pure chance – he was the luckiest mother on planet earth, and won more than seemed plausible. Even his career making turn at Woodstock came from a bizarre conflation of circumstance. He’d made it upstate early, before the deluge of fest goers completely shut down the interstate. So when a couple of hours after the festival was due to start, he was the only act there. So he opened the damned show. He played for nearly 3 hours (in front of the largest audience in history at the time, mind you) and STILL no other acts made it in yet. He ran out of songs that he knew well and began riffing on a single chord, planning to cull together some spirituals he sang growing up to buy time. Someone from the audience or perhaps just in his head (I’ve heard him describe it both ways) called out the word ‘freedom’ and he started riffing off that. His voice singing the word ‘freedom’ over and over sounded like something being ripped out of a womb. And one of the most riveting, iconic performances of all time was born, and that moment birthed the rest of his impressive career.
He was one of the most generous performers I’ve ever met. I once opened a terribly promoted show with him in Vermont, which given its dense population of old hippies should have been a marketing no-brainer. But his name was misspelled on the marquee; there wasn’t a single ad in a single paper. And the venue was awful – one of that ski-chalet looking places with a big bar in the middle. Most of the shows I played with him were sellouts or close to it, and this dive was maybe a quarter full. But he played for 2 hours, gave the people that came there everything he had, happily. And, like after every show, he changed from his sweat drenched clothes to clean ones, came out to the merch table and gave real time and attention to every fan who wanted some. He always signed every cd and poster, posed for pictures, and pretended to remember every old hippie who reminded him of that joint they shared in 1974. As tired as he was, as much as he ever gave onstage, (and he gave all he had. I never saw him phone it in, ever.) I never saw him skimp on the fans after the show. This is one of the biggest lessons I try to keep with me from those years touring with him – be generous, kind, and grateful to your fans. He never lost sight of how lucky he was, ever. I never once heard him complain. It’s a hard model to try to duplicate, especially when I’m tired, or I don’t feel great about a performance. But his has always been the face that pops in my brain whenever I fail at it.
Every show I ever did with him, he’d come and watch me from side stage at some point, nodding, smiling, eyes closed with pleasure. It made me feel terribly special. Then one show I was opening added a second, unscheduled, opener before me – she was the daughter of one of the promoters, a teenaged budding classical singer. It was wildly inappropriate to spring this on an artist of his stature, not that Richie made a fuss about it – very little ruffled his feathers in a way I could ever see. The girl wasn’t really any good yet, her voice was warbly and more than a little pitchy with nerves and inexperience. And then I spied him watching her from side stage, purposefully in her line of sight. With that nod, the encouraging smile, the warmth. God, he does that for all of us, I thought. And it didn’t make me feel any less special. The man knew what his approval would mean to a young musician, and he made a point of showering it upon whatever of us little seedlings were in his path. It’s humbling to have known such a spirit. We’ve lost a really tremendous artist and man today.