Richie Havens: From the poetic '60s to the Internet '90s
July 19, 1999
By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Richie Havens is in a small library at CNN Center, wearing a blue pin-striped sports coat with an open-collared shirt underneath, his straggly goatee now distinguished with gray. He's casual-corporate, until you see that he's wearing seven garish rings on his fingers.
Havens is visiting to promote his new autobiography. But at the moment he's holding a Guild guitar. He's tuning it, using that distinctive thumb-as-capo technique. Then he stops and looks around at the small audience gathered.
For a moment, Havens seems shy, claiming he doesn't know what to play. When someone suggests he strum the Bob Dylan classic "Just Like A Woman," he starts into it.
Havens closes his eyes, lost in the music, his left leg bobbing to the beat, making this cover tune his own, as he has done since his days in Greenwich Village when musicians like Dylan, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix and Havens himself set out to change the world.
It is music that has been a part of Havens' life since he was a child. It saved him from the rough streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood. It took him to an event known as Woodstock (the original one, kids). It has put him in contact with his fellow humans and broadened his existence. And it's still providing for him on the brink of a brave new world.
And as Havens sings Dylan's song with eyes shut, it's hard to tell if he's reliving old memories, or just living in the moment.
'It's all over for them'
Havens, 58, still uses the words "they" and "them" in the same way he did back in the '60s. Mostly, it's a reference to the establishment, the one that (allegedly) tried to keep the counterculture in check during that turbulent time of love and war.
For instance, the title of Havens' book, "They Can't Hide Us Anymore" (Spike Books, published this month), refers to the thought that entered his mind as he flew over the Woodstock festival in 1969. Hundreds of thousands of people lined roads, crowded fields, waited for the music to begin in what became known as a coming-out party for Hippie America.
"When I flew over the crowd, that's what I said to myself," says Havens. "I said, 'If they put this picture in the newspaper, it's all over for them, because now they can't hide us anymore.'"
Havens, of course, opened Woodstock. It was the cap on his career at that point, which was gaining momentum as he charted several albums in the late '60s. He was the artist who could pen an original folk song, or take someone else's song and transcend it into a new entity.
'The songs that changed my life'
Written with Havens' longtime friend Steve Davidowitz, "They Can't Hide Us Anymore" sketches Havens' life, from his upbringing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where gangs and drugs were prevalent, to Woodstock '98, an event that Havens says he helped cybercast.
Havens says it wasn't hard for him to look back on his life because he has no regrets. He says music was always there.
"I believe I inherited my sense of music from my father. My father was an ear piano player; he could just hear something and play it," he recalls. "I came up in Brooklyn singing doo-wop music from the time I was 13 to the time I was 20. That music served a purpose of keeping a lot of people out of trouble, and also it was a passport from one neighborhood to another."
The passport of music, and Havens' curiosity, took him to Greenwich Village in 1961, where contemporary folk artists were providing a poetic foundation for the future of popular music.
"In the last two years, the youngest people are asking me for the oldest songs. I'm talking kids. It blows my mind."
Havens says when he heard artists like Fred Neil, Dino Valenti and Tom Paxton -- the ones who were there before Dylan and the rest -- he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
"It was the songs that actually changed my life," he says. "The songs that I heard were so much different than the doo-wop kind of thing. They were just so powerful. Finally I decided, 'I've got to do this.'"
He was not alone. Havens smiles when thinking back to the days when Greenwich Village blossomed as the epicenter for everything the 1960s would come to know, when every cafe featured a performer who gained fame later in their career.
'The most incredibly magic, magic time'
Naturally, Havens has a million stories to tell, like the one about the first time he saw Hendrix, playing guitar with his teeth, in a Manhattan nightclub. Hendrix was with a band he found through the musicians' union.
"I told him, 'You don't need to get gigs from the union. You can make your own band,'" Havens recalls. "That's how he did it. He went down to the coffeehouse I told him to go to. A month later, I'm around the corner at another cafe. Friend of mine comes up and says, 'You gotta hear this band! This guy was great!' And I went around the corner and went, 'It's him! It's that guy!' He was so magical."
When Havens talks about those days, he mixes nostalgia with fate.
"We were all, in a sense, the same," he says. "We were all people who came there to play what we wanted to play. We just happened to be in all the same coffeehouses. We played three coffeehouses a night, 14 sets a night, 20-minute sets, pass the basket, stay alive. I was there seven and a half years, every day. It was the most incredibly magic, magic time."
But Havens' book doesn't stop there. As the '60s gave way to the '70s and '80s, the folk singer branched out to theater, television, movies, commercials and painting. He became a well-known figure in the New York bohemian scene.
He also dedicated himself to several causes, including the North Wind Undersea Institute, which -- among other things -- trained harbor seals to perform underwater rescue missions.
"They Can't Hide Us Anymore" also includes the chapters "The Aliens Among Us" (aliens being our children), and "The Truth About Drugs" (Richie does some confessing).
'It's just beginning again'
Today, Havens continues to play concerts, making records when the muse comes calling. (He has a new, mostly original album that he expects to release in August.)
He has also maintained the same enthusiasm for life. He embraces this Internet-connected society as a new land of opportunity for younger generations.
"It's a brand new world, and it's just beginning again, but on such a wonderful level of being able to communicate with each other directly, being able to talk to people all over the world," says Havens, who jokes that if the Internet had been around in the 1960s, he would have been president.
When asked what advice he would give to young artists today, Havens' answer comes quick.
"Go around the middleman; get your music straight to the people," Havens says. "You've got the Web now. Do it. Don't even hesitate. Because people want to hear real music, and there's a lot of talented kids out there, millions of them as far as I'm concerned, and they really have something to say. And they just needed their medium, and now they have it. That's what I tell them. Go to the Web ... but do it."
Between book signings, Havens is playing several concerts this summer and says he's heading back to Woodstock for the 30th anniversary. But it's not the Woodstock '99 party that most have heard about, the one featuring some of the top acts in today's music. Instead, Havens is playing the August 15 reunion concert at the same site as the first in Bethel, New York.
"It's the first time that the original people were invited back to play," Havens says. "They're doing it right. It's going to be a wonderful 30th anniversary and reunion. I'm looking forward to it."
Upon meeting Havens at this moment in his life, it's apparent that he's enjoying himself. He's proud of his past, anxious for the future, and he still has his music.
"In the last two years, the youngest people are asking me for the oldest songs," Havens says. "I'm talking kids. It blows my mind. I look at them and go, 'How could you have heard that song? I haven't sung it in 20 years.' It's like I'm just starting now. I finally got a career."
Richie Havens still passionate about music, environment
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