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Richie Havens: "Love from a Telephone Booth"


In 1993, somebody called the Dalai Lama asked this man to play a few songs. He's Richie Havens, and 10 years later he's still pumping out the same intensity that captivated the crowds at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight in 1969. He's worked with a range of cats, stretching from Bob Dylan to Richard Pryor, and he's seen a hefty lot during his incessant touring acorss the globe. And now people are looking at him to star as the next 007...

For those who rolled around in the mud at the ORIGINAL Woodstock Music & Arts Fair, the song "Freedom" means a lot more than just some catchy tune that's been immortalized as an anthem to the 1960's.  Those present when Richie Havens first cried to the world "Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone," felt the raw and passionate intensity exploding from the stage before them, and bringing their souls into a collective entity.  They were witnessing an example of pure artistic Expression, as Havens was evoking an Experience more than anything else, putting to melody a batch of human emotions that universally radiates in us all.



As Havens' three-hour performance that started off this Festival quickly became legend, there's no need to waste time repeating the story as so many have already. Not that it's boring by any stretch, just that it's been told over and over by authors much better than me (including Havens himself), and whom have a much stronger grasp of that day in 1969.


Let's face it: I was born in 1978, and I have a hard time remembering last week, let alone a decade before my birth. On the other hand, a night that sticks out clear in my clouded recollection is the evening of Saturday, November 18, 2000.  It was then, at the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland's Playhouse Square, that Richie Havens introduced me to a wondrous world that I'd theretofore avoided as much as possible. This was a time when I was more into the drives of Pantera, Sepultura, Ministry, etc.; that year alone, I had seen Mushroomhead. Basically, Folk was a style I had no interest in, mainly because I felt it lacked the passion and creativity that I yearned from Music.


Havens proved me terribly wrong, and for that I am eternally grateful. Watching his ferocious passion as he played songs from his own catalogue, as well as covered "Just Like A Woman" and "Here Comes the Sun," I was completely mesmerized throughout the performance, especially when he went buck-wild on his acoustic guitar at the end of the show, breaking several strings as he played the obligatory "Freedom" for us.


It was because of this performance that I gave Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and that Dylan guy a chance...not to mention gave myself numerous kicks to my ass for waiting so long.


What's especially impressive about Havens is that he's played for crowds virtually every weekend since 1967, two years before Woodstock, and yet his gist is more powerful than ever.  In that time, he's released numerous albums and won his share of awards, as well as appeared in several films, particularly Greased Lightning with the great Richard Pryor. However, his greatest accomplishments come more from his heart, such as co-founding the Northwinds Undersea Institute in the Bronx, and the Natural Guard which now has chapters across the globe.


His latest album, Wishing Well, is just another testament to his seemingly boundless energy. Feeding from influences like the late and magnificent Nina Simone, to the darker Pink Floyd, Havens continues to deliver powerful and truly meaningful Music, offering a portal into a realm of universal consciousness, where everyone is part of Humanity.


Below is a conversation I had with Mr. Havens a few days ago, left pretty much verbatim.  To me, this is one of those examples where the scorned "Q&A Format" works much better than twisting his words around to fit into something of my invention.  This is what Richie Havens said, in the context he said it:

You've been at the heart of Music for quite some time, and actually seen the role it can play on Society.  How do you feel Music can change Society for the better?

Richie Havens: I think just hearing Music that has a "core" of natural understanding, and acceptance of each other, actually does have an influence in many ways.  I think people who hear certain songs that they cannot deny are commonly or universally true, really are able to take confidence in making that move for themselves.     

Have you ever seen Music play a negative role in Society?

RH: I think that the negative side of the Music "platform" is the songs that deny the truth of what's going on.  So it is a battle of some sort, and the ammunition is Truth or Non-Truth.   I think that at this particular point, we have grown enough to actually be able to tell the difference.

Do you feel that the heart of Music has waned at all, or has it grown stronger in the past 30 years?

RH: Oh, absolutely grown stronger.  When I started out in Greenwich Village, there were eight guys singing songs that mattered; now, every genre we have screams this message.

I have to tell you that I've been fortunate enough to realize that another song can be written.  You know?  No matter how I think everything has been said in a way, the fact of the matter is that it has to be constantly said, and that we, from generation to generation, have been given the voice of Rock N Roll in order to say what we feel.

It's teenagers around the world who create the new music, and that's happening at infinite levels, for real.

Does Folk still has its relevance?

RH: Yeah.  In a sense, it's contemporary folk music more than anything.  When you get a singer/songwriter, singing about the things around them today, in the folk world it may not be called "Folk," but it actually is.  Rock N Roll in and of itself is a "Folk" music, it just happens to be a generational folk music.  That's still the cry, I call it the Generational Primal Scream, you know, each time it comes around, and they get old enough to say what they feel.

I think that the world has to recognize that the folk music of today is rap itself.  Rap to me is the universal folk music, the problems we have and find out others have around the world.  It's because these people are singing about what they're actually living, and that is folk music.

Do you feel there's too much of a push to be commercialized, or even just being signed up with a label?

RH: I think that the labels have circumvented the natural creation of this by basically creating their own stars, like they did in the 1950's.  So as far as I'm concerned, the business is back to the 1950's, and it's trying to dumb down as much as it can.  Which is why sex plays a big important part for the commercial world, so they'll push that rather than the gangsta rap.

Clear Channel certainly doesn't help, with their attempts to monopolize as much of the media as they can...

RH: Of course, and that's to be able to play only the music that they want to be played.  When you buy up the ticket sellers, that means they're gonna choose what we can go and see as well.  It's very clear that they're trying to bring it down to a kind of Censorship that we almost can't complain about it, because it's a private company doing it.  However, I think that only fertilizes the Underground.  And that's not an entirely bad thing.

Do you feel that it's, in that sense, harder for an artist to come from obscurity and the Underground?

RH: No I don't, I really don't, because the artists now have the Web, they now have every college and university in the country, and what they are listening to is basically music they like, and fostering even them to sing a bit more about what's going on.  So, the audience determines what really gets out there, and the medium that they find to put it through becomes the big media.

Artists are surviving on their own.  That's the actual "movement," if you could call it a "movement," that they intend to keep doing what they are doing, and the more they intend to do that, the less control can be put on it.

The method of the commercial world is to repeat itself, as it has always done.   If you get one good person up there and he has a message and he gets through, then the business has to kind of surrender to letting more through, and there's nothing they really can do about it.  They have to go with the flow at this point, in order to stay alive.  And it's told in the fact that there's only probably three American companies in the whole world, when there used to be hundreds.  They had to merge to survive, in order to just put out Bubblegum. 

They're losing the battle very quickly, because we're talking, when I go to a festival, I get chased by packs of 11 and 12-year-olds.  And I go, "yeah!" [laughs]  It's over already, you know, 'cause these kids aren't buying any of that, the stuff that doesn't mean anything.

We have to go with the flow of the kids.  The younger they are when they start listening to more sophisticated music, the younger they're getting It.

Have you seen the movie Spun?

RH: Not yet.

Did you like Billy Corgan's version of your song "Freedom"?

RH: I haven't really heard it yet.  I heard it's in there, and as far as I'm concerned, it's the way it's used.  If it's shared in its own message as to what we're talking about, then it's a good thing.

See, I think, as far as that song goes, it was created on stage, at a time when everyone around us was looking for that right here in our own country.  So, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't even belong to me; it belongs to everybody who has to hear it to fortify their own sense of being alive, and being a citizen where they can actually speak up and say something about their surroundings and their problems.

How I see it is that the whole world has been given a song which they can use to tell their own story.   And then that gives us a picture that the whole world of people has problems with governments, and dictators, and things like that.  Leave it to the people, they live side by side. 

So, it's the opportunity to give merit to those who wish to live side by side in peace, that we have the work to do.  It's really a people-to-people thing at this point, you know, with all the marches against the war around the world, that's an indication that the world's people are ready to just be left alone.

As Eisenhower said, "One of these days, the Congress and the Senate have to get out of the way, or else they just won't be there," and that's what's gonna happen.  I think it's gonna happen even still, in or around our time right now.

Are you still acting?

RH: Well, I've only done things that I felt I could do.  I mean, I was talked into most of my roles [laughs].

How's acting with Richard Pryor?

RH: Oh, fantastic.  I knew Richard every day for six years on stage; Richard and I came up in the same coffee house in Greenwich Village.  I watched him develop from his first day on stage, which he never cursed.  Richard Pryor never cursed the entire time that I lived in Greenwich Village.  There was a reason that that happened to him, it was a revolution for him.

I remember the day that he was supposed to go on Johnny Carson for the first time, and he received a message that his grandmother was sick in the hospital, and he couldn't go, because he couldn't get out that late at night to get there.  And it was the same night that he was supposed to go onto Carson.  So, he decided that he was gonna do the show, and leave as early as he possibly could.  But he was too late; his grandmother passed away.

So he spent like two weeks out of the business, and when he came back to New York was the first time he cursed.  I saw a two-hour show he did the night he got back, and it was the most incredible thing I'd ever see him do.  He got on stage, and he started out with History, telling jokes.  I mean, it was jokes to most people, in terms of the fact that they had to laugh at the way he portrayed it.  He started out with Columbus, and he ended the show by saying, "and we let them kill Kennedy."  The entire audience was brought down to the Reality level when he said that.  He walked off the stage, and there wasn't a peep in the room for a half an hour.

Do you see any more roles for you in the future?

RH: Well, if the right thing comes along, and I think I can do it, and if I'm offered the opportunity to do it, I will take it.

Would you take the offer to star as the next James Bond?

RH: [laughs] No no no, you see, I'm not in the movie business, or even the music business as far as I'm concerned.   I'm in the communications business, and I've been in that since the first day I found Greenwich Village.

For more information, go to Richie's website: www.richiehavens.com

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