I first encountered Richie Havens on vinyl, as did most of us out in the hinterlands. (I wouldn’t arrive in New York, his hometown, for twenty-odd more years.) His debut album MIXED BAG on Verve/Forecast was mind-blowing. It was squarely in the folk tradition, but Richie used a sexy baritone that he could squeeze up into the tortured sound of a field holler as soulful as Levi frickin Stubbs, PLUS he’d invented this percussive, lightning-fast strumming style that nobody else can get. (I know, because I’ve listened to many pretenders and even tried myself.) Roger McGuinn used to play in some of the same little Village coffeehouses when Richie was getting started. He says they used to pass the wicker basket real fast before Richie played, because by the end of his set the crowd would give him all the dough they had left.
Richie went on Carson with “Handsome Johnny” when nobody’d ever heard of him, and killed so hard that (1) the studio audience’s applause lasted right through the commercial break and into the next segment, and (2) Carson invited him back the following night, then and there. Richie opened the Woodstock festival and dutifully played his set, then was forced to keep on vamping before hundreds of thousands of people when the next scheduled acts had trouble getting to the site. That song “Freedom” that you see in the movie? Improvised on the spot for the biggest audience he’d ever seen.
He was the single finest interpreter of Dylan and the Beatles, and everybody knows it. His oddball tuning made damn near every chord a dreamy sustained holiness whenever he desired, and those gossamer tones guided you into reconsidering the guts of songs you thought you knew backward and forward. Richie casually proved you mistaken.
In late 1998, I acquired his autobiography for Avon Books. It would be one of the first releases of our new pop culture imprint, Spike. Working with Richie through his co-author Steve Davidowitz, and then directly with the man himself, was one of my most rewarding experiences in publishing. Richie Havens was the world’s last unrepentant peacenik. By that I mean he honestly believed that if we could all just sit down around a big table and talk it out, we could put an end to war. Most of us eventually “grow out” of that attitude as cynicism attaches itself like barnacles. After getting to know Richie, I say the shame’s on us.
I remember presenting his book to our sales force on the thirtieth anniversary of his Woodstock gig, to the very hour. (Trivium: the song he sang to open the festival was “Minstrel From Gault.”) He was a gracious author, lunching with key booksellers, giving us time to inscribe books and posters, hanging for longer than he needed to at the photographer’s studio for the book cover. We changed the book that day at the cover shoot. I told Richie that I’d used all kinds of contortions to try and fake the lissome chords of such tunes as “Follow.” He said, “How did it sound?” “Not good enough.” He laughed and said, “That’s because you were using the standard tuning. You were trying to do something impossible. You did good just to get close!” I said, “We have to get a new chapter in there, and show people how you tune and play!” So that’s exactly what we did. If you can find a copy of THEY CAN’T HIDE US ANYMORE (that’s what Richie thought to himself as he first surveyed the Woodstock masses), you’ll get the skinny, with photos. If you play guitar and you like Richie, it’ll save you hours of frustration. You’re welcome.
Put on MIXED BAG today – it’s never gone out of print — and it still sounds as fresh as it did in 1967. For some unexpected fun, dig up Albert Brooks’s first album, COMEDY MINUS ONE, and enjoy a tremendous sustained bit of stand-up as Albert describes opening for Richie in San Antonio. (I asked him if he’d ever heard Albert’s bit. “Of course I have! Too funny!”) Then listen to MIXED BAG once more, and do what I’ve done every couple of years since it was first released: play it again. And again. And again.
“A light went out,” people sometimes say when somebody moves away or passes. Never was that phrase more appropriate than today. As Richie used to write,
A friend forever