I was saddened today to hear the wonderful Richie Havens had died of a heart attack yesterday, April 22, 2013. Havens had been flying under most people’s radars for the last little while, popping up in occasional cameos in movies, but still producing some incredible music. Five years ago he released Nobody Left To Crown, proving he was still as vital and active as he was when he first began performing back in the 1960s.
Like many people, my introduction to Havens was via the Woodstock Festival of 1969, first through my brother’s copy of the record album and then watching a flickering print of the film in a second run movie house nearly a decade after the festival had taken place. Watching this man pouring his heart out on screen amazed me. To later learn he had actually played for three hours and maintained that level of energy the whole time astounded me. It turns out none of the other scheduled performers had been able to make it on site in time because of traffic conditions and organizers asked him to fill in.
Havens was probably best known for his amazing ability as an interpreter of other people’s songs. As he showed on Nobody Left To Crown, it didn’t matter whether it was the power rock of The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, or the softer sounds of Jackson Browne, “Life’s In The Balance”. He could bring any song to life and make it soar in new ways. Unfortunately, his own ability as a songwriter was often overlooked. On the same album he proved how he was every bit as capable of writing music as powerful as anybody else out there. One only need listen to the release’s title track, where he bemoans the lack of real leadership in the world, to realize how skilled he was. Not only could he pinpoint issues with unerring accuracy, his artistry lay in making songs simultaneously poetic and accessible.
However, it’s not just Havens’s talent I’m going to miss. I’m going to miss him personally. Around the time Nobody Left To Crown was released, I was fortunate enough to interview him. Most interviews with public personalities are limited to what are known as 20 minute “phoners”. The person you’re interviewing is doing about 20 of them in a row and you’re supposed to ask pat questions about their new release and they give you their pat answers. That wasn’t the case with Havens. He and I talked for only slightly more then a half hour, but by the time we ended our conversation I felt like I had known him for years. He ended up making sure to invite me to drop by a folk club in upstate New York, where he still played on a regular basis. I felt like he would be genuinely glad to see me if somehow I ended up sitting in the audience one night.
If you read the interview you’ll see I warn you in the introduction we both had a hard time staying on topic. We were supposed to be talking about the new album, but we’d become fascinated by some other subject and head wildly off in a new direction. However, what I most remember about our conversation was what a gentle, humorous, and unassuming man he was. I remember him laughing about how he developed his very distinct style of playing guitar. He basically said it was because he wasn’t very good and had to find the easiest way possible to play the thing. There used to be a page on his website where he explained how this worked, but the link seems to be dead now.
Here’s how he described to me how he overcame the biggest obstacle facing him when he became a solo artist: “The problem was I didn’t know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy (Fred Neil) helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs—it’s great.”
It’s impossible to capture in words on paper, or whatever this is, the truth of a person. However, based on the few precious minutes I spent with Richie Havens one afternoon, I came to realize what a truly gentle spirit he was. It amazed me how a man could be so passionate about life and his art while still being filled with such kindness and awe for the work of others and the world around him. As a conclusion to my interview I offered up the words, “The world would be a lot better off if there were more people like him in it”. On the day after his death, I would change that. The world is worse off for not having Richie Havens in it anymore.