It's a rare thing to see a musician from the era of the Flower Freaks still playing live on a regular basis. Most said what they had to say, and then fell into obscurity, maybe releasing an album every once in a while. Such is not the case with Richie Havens.
According to Havens, he's been on the road every weekend all year round practically since 1967, but instead of simply relishing on past momentum, his music gets better and even more potent as the years go on.
Grace of the Sun, Havens' newest record, is a great testament to this. His brand of intense folk is one of those experiences that tugs deep at your soul, filling every inch of your body with a strong sense of Life and Understanding. Songs like "We Both Know" and "Pulling Up the Stone" strike that chord of Hope, that amid all the madness of global politics and everyday life, this world can, and should be, a better place.
Sure, ideals such as this are often associated with the 60's, but they are no less relevant to this period in time. That sense of universality is just as urgent today as it ever was, when many of us feel like this world is doomed, and it's often hard to imagine it getting better. And so it can be seen in Havens' version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," that our right to be free as humans is not something that just relates to any particular crowd- be it "flower freaks," "hippies," or whatever bogus label you feel led to use. When Havens sings "Woodstock," it makes incredible sense to our current existence, where there's a fierce yearning for some kind of retreat from all the ugliness and slime that infect our lives.
Furthermore, it's a far better version of the song than Crosby, Stills & Nash ever did, with or without the great Neil Young.
Havens' energy never seems to weaken, and with this, his 26th album, he appears more vigorous than ever. Naturally, he's still on the road, which prompted me to start our interview by asking what drives him to keep it up after all these years:
Richie Havens: It's very easy. I'm being invited to do it [laughs], for the most part. And secondly, it's always more than half new. Every night, probably half the audience has never seen me on stage, in most places. So it's always new, like it's the first day.
Are there any songs that you tire of playing?
RH: Not one. They all still have some relationship to our time, probably more now than then.
What does music mean to you personally?
RH: That's a good question. It's definitely universal medicine. In that sense, no matter where I go, the people react to the music with the same enthusiasm. Sometimes, out of this country it's more enthusiasm. It's very different in Europe and outside of the United States. Basically because they were not sold that voice of Rock N' Roll the way we were, because it was ours, because we invented it, so to speak. We had to invent it in order to have a voice. I realized as a teenager, basically singing doo-wop with my friends, that it kept us out of trouble. It was a good thing.
But it also melded some life-long friendships, in that sense. I still know the guys I sang with, and that's a very rare amount of time to hold onto a friendship.
But on the other hand, it serves many purposes- inspiration, education, dedication, spiritual connection. All of those things are in music.
How has music evolved for you since you started jamming in Greenwich Village?
RH: In my own music, it evolves very differently than my friends. Mine evolves basically on the times, on today. What was different yesterday than today, and what was all the same then as today. That kind of connection. I used to say it's a slightly uphill grade, going about an inch a year. And after all these years, I'm looking over the side, and it's about 11 feet now [laughs]. But it's still going up.
Do you think the heart of music has grown stronger or weaker?
RH: I think it's grown absolutely stronger. You see, because what we didn't realize at the time of Rock N' Roll in the 50's is that it actually belonged to us in terms of what we spoke about in the music. Being what I call the "last speak when you're spoken to generation," we needed to scream once we got past that prison. And it was called Rock N' Roll; I call it the first Generational Primal Scream, and that happened across the whole United States. You could actually see some universality in the fact that the Top 20 and the Top 40 across the States was the same songs.
So we responded to what was real, what we could get out of the music that either solved the teenage problem for us, or mended our broken hearts, or said, "What a minute, there's a better car coming." All of those things were very futuristic for us, too. I mean, we landed in the future, unbeknownst to our parents. And we landed in a brand new America as well.
I was born in 1941, but by 1945 when the War was over, then our country (and every other country that was involved) became brand new. And what each of those countries didn't realize- in terms of the people who went through it- they didn't realize that their children really now were outside of the box. So that was across the world.
And that showed up, of course, when Woodstock happened, and a few months later the Isle of Wight happened in England. Another half a million people...actually 600,000, and ours was 800,000. I get to tell kids the truth. The first day, it was 520,000, and the press put 250,000, as they always do, to any movement that's awakening. So, it showed us that, even across the world, the Europeans had found their own voice. They no longer had to sing "Blue-Suede Shoes" [laughs]. You know, our music. They could sing their own, and talk about their own lives.
It's been an incredible thing. And I look at Rap, and I call it "Rock N' Roll, circa 2." Because what are they talking about? Their lives, their hopes, their dreams. And sex [laughs], like it always was. They try to make it like it never existed, but that's the very reason our parents didn't want us to listen to that music back then [laughs].
It's no different. It's maybe more in your face than...I can't even say that, because I would imagine what we were saying back then, we were saying to our parents as well. And that was in their face as much as it could be. And so, it was about the change that was happening to their world and our world. That's what it's still about.
Are there any newer artists in particular that inspire you?
RH: There's a bunch of them out there. A lot of them, I don't even know by name, but when I hear them and what they're doing, I realize that they came from somewhere. It might have been the ghosts of the 1960's and 70's, but they came from some sense of universality amongst the world that they're living in.
It may seem that there's a lot of difference, but there really isn't. We really need the freedom that we still don't have. And I think with these kids now, the change is already here. It's called the Kids Under Four Feet Tall, and I call them the "adults" in the world [laughs]. I've never seen an adult in the last 20 years over four feet tall [laughs]. And we're still going, "Why aren't we growing up?" We're never going to grow up, because we were fortunate enough to come into this brand new world where we saw the horizon, and we realized it could be reached if we worked real hard at it. And that's come to prove itself. We still exist without having to go out in the street and get beat up by the cops for doing something Right. That's over. We're a lot more natural in our approach to the things that, in my time, in the 50's and 60's, we actually had to fight for the right to have a political view. Today, it's DNA. Your political view is global. And that's the best thing that could've happened to us, and it's still happening, thank God.
Is there any underlying theme in your newest album?
RH: I think each song represents a strand that I've been on for the last 25 years, or maybe even 35 years. My albums were created by title. So, it was a concept, we came up with concept titles. Then we had to fill up the spokes, round it to tell the story of the title of the album.
The songs come to me as I go along my working way, and I'm very grateful for songs that come through me. I can't say that I can claim them, they're so clear. I get the title of the song, I know exactly what the song's about, and I write it down immediately. There's no space in between it, I don't start a verse and work on it later. I never sit down to write a song. I sit down to copy the song down that has been written by the title in my brain.
And along the way, there are songs that still change my life, which is how I started out in Greenwich Village. I started singing songs I heard from the singer/songwriters there at the time that changed my life, and created a new way for me to think, a new way for me to believe, a new way for me to challenge, a new way for me to be inspired by good things. And I still get stopped in my tracks by songs that do that to me.
Is Bob Dylan one of those guys that does that to you?
RH: Yeah, he does it to me. Dylan is definitely a forerunner of concept music, for sure. He's a poet; I used to call him "the poet that gets to sing his poetry." And there's only one other out there like that, and that's The Boss [Bruce Springsteen]. He is a poet who gets to sing his poetry.
I could never imagine how these two guys could remember all those damn words [laughs]. Twelve verses long, all of that stuff. It's amazing. The interesting thing is that, about Dylan's writing, I've always seen his songs as epic films. For instance, I used to sing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and it used to kill me. I used to get so taken by that song while I was doing it, that I actually couldn't do it within the set anymore. I had to do it in the end, so I could at least get up and be moved, and move off the stage. If I did it in the middle, somehow I couldn't sing any song after it [laughs]. It really hit me that way.
But, I really got to understand his writing by that particular song, for instance. There isn't one sentence in that song that isn't an entire epic movie in and of itself. Every line speaks of an entire chapter. It's just unbelievable to write like that, and have to remember every scene that is spoken about in that song.
How do you feel media consolidation has affected the growth of music?
RH: It's affected those who are great talents in terms of their voice, but are not writers. They become prey to the business, and the business creates them, so to speak. Then there are those who decided, "I'm not sending my disc around anymore. I never get it back, I never even hear from those people. I'm just gonna put it out on the web myself." That is the actual gateway that was built by those guys having to come together. They don't come together to actually own all the music that they get to do- they come together to survive. Because a lot of kids are not buying as many records from that Pop medium, or what we used to call Bubblegum in the old days. The Bubblegum was even worse than this; at least there's some talent singing [laughs]. And some of it even makes sense; some of it even ties into a thinking situation.
But, the fact that they didn't write it, in a way holds them prisoner of the business. Media consolidation, they're just doing it to survive. Most of our music is owned in Europe, by Europe. You can go to France, and find every great American Jazz player in the world, you can find 40 albums on them. Where over here, you look in this bin, and even when they were making records, you'd find two. It's an amazing place to go where the audience is getting to know the person, not just his music.
That's the difference between America and everywhere else. The people outside are appreciating the person who is bringing the music to them. Here, we appreciate the music as just another group. It could be any group, if they like the song, it doesn't really matter who it is.
You play bigger shows, but you also play smaller shows...
RH: I play like I started out. I play every venue that asks me to play. I could be doing a club today, a festival tomorrow, the day after that a civic center, the day after that the park in some town where they give away the concert to the town free. I do everything that I've been called to do.
Why do you feel other artists- like Dylan and Springsteen- don't play like that?
RH: Well, they could do it, and sometimes they're driven to it, because that was who they were, and they still feel something about that. And sometimes what they're having to do gets a bit routine, so they sort of go secretly into some coffee house, and it becomes a big media thing for them, it's like, "Wow! You mean he was here and I missed him?!" That kind of thing works two ways: it works as publicity for them, but it also shows me that they need to do that every once in a while, to get back to basics.
Do you feel that if musicians started doing that more and more, that would help eliminate the domination of the likes of Clear Channel?
RH: It absolutely would, sure. There's two businesses out here: there's show business, which I actually got out of when I discovered Greenwich Village, and when I got to Greenwich Village I got caught up in the communications business. So to me, what I do is communications; it's not show business in the sense of, you know, I'm going out to do a show here and there and there, and I sing the same songs every night. I've never done that. I know the first and last song I'm gonna sing. What comes out of me then is what the audience drums up in me. And that's the way the set gets done.
And when I get off stage, the other half of the show is sitting outside with all the people that came to the show, answering the questions they need to know, signing whatever piece of paper they have. It doesn't matter to me whether they buy a CD or not. I sign whatever they have. That's the second half of the show...which a lot of the guys I came up with don't do. And it's unfortunate, but it's never gonna make them appear that they're lacking for not doing it. Because there's always kids growing up who want to see them, and the audience stays the same, in terms of numbers.
And there's a difference with me, too. All the guys that I came up with, they were strictly what they were. They were either Rock, or Folk, or Blues, or Jazz, etc. What they were sort of delineated where they got to play, what kind of venues, what kind of festivals. When I left Greenwich Village in '67 to go out on the road, the first thing to scare the heck out of me was I'd go to the place where I'm supposed to go to play for five days, and it said Johnny's Jazz Joint, and I freaked out. I'm like, "I don't play Jazz! What did they put me here for? These people are gonna kick me out! I don't even play the guitar right!" [laughs] But I'd walk up to the window, and the smaller bill would say, "Richie Havens: Folk Jazz Singer." And the next day it would be a blues club, and I'd freak out again, and I'd walk up and it would say, "Richie Havens: Folk Blues Singer." And the third was "Folk Rock Singer."
So I got to do every kind of venue and festival, which is so different from the guys I came up with, and that's a very interesting thing for me. Because that's really what the kinds of songs I sing appeal to.
Why do hippies smile so much?
RH: Because they know how much better the world could be. They've actually, in some way, made contact with people that see them for who they are, that appreciate what they're doing for their community.
The first so-called hippies that I ever saw- cause in actuality, my generation never called ourselves hippies. We weren't even beatniks; all of those names were made up by some guy in a newspaper. And he also wrote the descriptions, so he could bunch us all together, so they could beat us all up at the same time [laughs]. Whether we were there or not.
When I first saw my first hippies, they were sort of a delegation from the West Coast that came to live in New York City, as a commune. They came here as a commune. What they used to do, was every morning they'd get up, and get these brooms and bags, and they'd clean the Lower East Side. They would actually sweep the streets, bag it, and set them out for the garbage. And they did it every morning, for a couple of years at least. They also opened up a store, called a Free Store. They would go around, and they'd pick up stuff that people would give them- just about anything you could find, clothing, pots, pans, dishes, a fork, spoon, knives- and they opened a Free Store, where if you needed it and walked in, you could just take it and walk out.
That's what they were about. Now, you can call them "flower children," you can call them "hippies," or what have you, but they actually see the smile on the face of the person they help, and the person they help sees the smile on the face of the person who's helping them. That can never be broken.