By Devon Wendell
I was very saddened to learn that Richie Havens passed away on Monday, April 22, 2013, of a heart attack at 72 years young.
I wasn’t born early enough to witness Havens during his heyday of the ‘60s, performing the small folk clubs in New York City in the early part of that decade to his electrifying performance at The Woodstock Festival in 1969.
The first time I heard Havens was at a free concert in Prospect Park, Brooklyn when I was 13 years old. The way this fellow Brooklyn native strummed his guitar like a man possessed by some ancient divine spirit, and sang as, if he were channeling every form of American spiritual music brought tears to my eyes.
I remember getting to talk to the humble Havens after the show. I told him I played guitar and he smiled and said “never give up, ever!”
I vividly recall Havens’ rendition of Fred Neil’s mournful “The Dolphins” being performed that hot Brooklyn afternoon. Sweat poured down his face, his eyes rolled to the back of his head; his entire body gyrated to every vocal phrase and percussive guitar strum like a preacher on the verge of speaking in tongues. He’d bar the neck of his guitar with his thumb, having reached a place where “proper” musical theory and technique could no longer be contained by the spirit within.
After that first encounter, I studied his records very closely. I also rented the Woodstock film and witnessed his performance of “Freedom” which left me transfixed and also sad.
I found there to be this extremely sad and pleading quality to Havens’ music as if he was able to capture that lost, searching feeling of those people seeking higher meaning on a socio and spiritual level but never quite reaching the mark. I imagined flocks of young people wandering the planet like tired Gypsies looking for answers or sometimes just a question that made sense, only to find dishonesty, greed, violence, and division at every turn.
Havens’ music personified all of that but always with optimism. There was great hope with that sadness and that dichotomy made his music so powerful and accessible to all people, from his debut album in 1965; Richie Havens’ Record (Douglas) to his final studio album in 2008; Nobody Left To Crown(Verve Forecast) And countless number of performances that left people riveted all over the world.
In a career that spanned over 50 years, Havens was not only a brilliant poet in his own right, but also an artist who could cover other musician’s material and make it his own.
His versions of The Beatles “Here Comes The Sun” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” made the originals feel stale to me. Haven’s courageously covered these songs when they were new, adding his own very personal style and arrangements to them.
Havens’ music will always be alive and relevant because so many of us are still searching, some more tired than others but I can see him smiling and saying “never give up, ever!”
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