Monday, April 22, 2013

Don't Mind Me Cause I Ain't Nothing But A Dream: RIP Richie Havens - 1941 - 2013

Richie Havens died this morning.  And he was the only goddamn hippie worth his salt. 


Sure, hippie culture has plenty of appeal.  Everyone likes sex.  Everyone likes pot. Everyone likes music and dancing and community.  And, no, it wouldn't kill you to recycle.

Plus, let's just get this out of the way: if you've had even one eye open for the past ten years, you should immediately be able to grasp the fundamental value of pacifist politics, and the needlessly tragic consequences of that worldview having been turned into a mean-spirited punchline.

On the other hand, as a kid who came of age during the apex of the military industrial complex, the AIDS epidemic, 80's excess and heavy metal radio, hippie culture seemed to have been utterly trampled by the time I was a teenager, conquered in so many ways by its antithesis.  It didn't seem like there was much to respect about it.

But I made an exception for Richie Havens.  Because no matter his politics or the topics about which he wrote, Havens simply didn't fit the mold of the hippie as far as I was concerned.

Havens wasn't in it for the free love, he wasn't in it for the grass, and he wasn't in it because he couldn't be bothered to get a job.  Richie Havens paid his dues.  He worked. He was a professional.

Havens wasn't a West Coaster. He was a Brooklynite who had spent years hanging out with beatnicks and folkies in Greenwich Village, long before hippie culture took hold. And everything about the way he approached his craft reflected that kind of ethic.

The man didn't sing the kind of ethereal melodies and harmonies with which hippie music is most often identified.  Havens sang like a man.  He roared.  When he did a ballad, he may have toned it down, but his gravelly baritone was always world-weary and utterly masculine.

None of that hippie shit.

That same quality extended to his guitar style, a hyper-percussive, hyper-aggressive strumming technique that always sounded like a vaguely Afro-Carrbean flamenco. And on top of that, his technique of barreing with his thumb continues to be one of the most outlandish things I've ever seen a guitar player do.

No 12 bar blues jams.  Play like a man, hippie.

Was he a leftie?  He sure was.  He sang war protest songs.  He sang about saving the environment. He sang about civil rights. But he backed all of that up with a commitment to activism that many of his generation just couldn't sustain.  In fact, he co-founded not one, but two non-profit organizations (including a children's museum) dedicated to educating children about the environment.

Richie Havens was authentic. He got his hands dirty.

And what better example could there be than his three-hour festival-opening set at Woodstock?  When the majority of the peace-and-love bands couldn't figure out the logistics to show up on time (and the others were too shy to kick things off), Havens stepped up and did it on his own.

When MTV launched a corporate sponsored rape-fest to commemorate Woodstock 25 years later, Havens bowed out and did his own festival.

I thought the guy was awesome.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to see the man perform.  On a hot summer morning, he played a totally free, seven-song set on the Western concourse of  Union Station in Washington, D.C.  No more than about 30 people showed, yet every single person coming off the Metroliner took a very long stare at him as they walked past with their luggage and their attache cases, trying to place that voice.

I was in heaven.  I could not possibly have been standing more than fifteen feet away, watching the guy who opened the Woodstock festival play "Here Comes the Sun," "Freedom" and a handful of other songs that don't immediately come to mind. Afterwards I got to briefly meet him and shake his hand, and I remember being in disbelief at how a person could look so young and so old at the same time.  He was well-rested, well dressed and well coiffed, clearly in excellent health, but still with the deep lines around his eyes that betrayed a life on the road.

It turns out that his appearance at Union Station was part of a five-city railroad station music tour he'd been doing....which only sounded strange until I'd learned that he had penned Amtrack's current jingle (There's Something About a Train That's Magic...which you might know by its other title, "All Aboard America"). 

It also turns out that this had turned into a tidy side-business for Havens in his middle age.  He'd also recorded the Maxwell House jingle, as well as the absolutely elegant "Fabric of Our Lives" jingle for the cotton industry.  Because a guy's got to pay the bills.

God damn it.  I just cried listening to that.
As I try to wrap this up, I'm a little stunned at how saddened I am about Havens' passing. I've been pulling up song after song after song on YouTube, and I have to admit that I'm completely broken up. Just terribly sad.

The thing is, I listened to Havens an awful lot in between bursts of all sorts of jazz and metal and classic rock, I retreated to Havens constantly. And it was never those intense, percussive songs I mentioned earlier.  It was always the ballads.

The fact is, I was incredibly lonely in college.  I wasn't necessarily sad all of the time; I had good friends and I had more than my share of insane fun.

But I felt chronically alone through those years, and the songs "Follow" and "The Dolphins" became a safe haven for me during that time.  

Through the circular hippie-drip of "Follow", every single time I heard Havens sing the lyric, "As I walk on through the garden/I am hoping I don’t miss you" I felt tremendous empathy for every lost, squandered, neglected or aborted connection I'd made  through those years -- often painfully aware that I was fumbling them in front of my eyes.

Then I'd flip the tape and put on "The Dolphins" and obsess over the lyric, "Sometimes I wonder if you ever think of me."

...which is terribly embarrassing. But it speaks to the person I was at that time: a kid who was kind of lost and kind of sad and kind of destructive...and totally, completely longing for a human touch more than he could bear for anyone else to know about.

And it speaks to why I'm so broken up tonight.

Rest in peace, Richie Havens.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was awed by Richie Havens' performance at Woodstock because his talents were unique amongst his peers, let alone past and future musicians. He had a lulling and comforting affect in his gentler "Follow".
Richie Havens was a gentle man as could be heard in many of his songs.
I am happy to have shared his music with my children !

Unknown said...

I loved Richie Havens too. I saw him in Portsmouth NH. I do think you're harsh on the "hippies" though. You're judging us through the media image. I've worked since I was 14, raised 2 children and have 3 grandchildren. I'm now now a proud supporter of Bernie, the George McGovern of this day.

Unknown said...

Thanks for yr excellent thoughts here. I've loved Havens since college (or before?). I've just been listening nonstop to Mixed Bag for the past 2+ days and fallen in love with Follow all over again. I was a later and pretend hippie, as a pot habit and baggie clothes were my only qualifiers, although I did March in the mpls-st Paul national Moratorium March. Thx again

Carol Hedberg said...

Thanks for yr excellent thoughts here. I've loved Havens since college (or before?). I've just been listening nonstop to Mixed Bag for the past 2+ days and fallen in love with Follow all over again. I was a later and pretend hippie, as a pot habit and baggie clothes were my only qualifiers, although I did March in the mpls-st Paul national Moratorium March. Thx again

t-o-n said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments. For two years now, this post has ben out-performing every other page on my infrequently-updated blog. It's nice to see that people are reading!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your wonderful words
remembering Richie Havens. I have tears
streaming down my face while reading
your comments. Follow makes me feel
that way Every Time I hear it.

Art and Pauline Cecchini said...

Born 1951. Hippie yes. Still I hope. Richie Haven and what you wrote. Reignite the fire. Thanks!