Richie Havens

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 30, 2002, in New York.

Richie Havens: I’m Richie Havens, and I’m speaking freely.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly show about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson, and this is Richie Havens.

Havens: [Plays and sings] “There’s a thousand roads that get there,/ and each one looks the same./ And we’ll never stamp your thinking,/ should you have gone the other way?/ There are those who give directions,/ even though they’re lost themselves./ And those who finally get there/ never leave no trace of a trail./ So if you’re searchin’ for/ some peace of mind/ I’m not trying to be no prophet./ I’m not trying to change your mind./ But I think that this/ searching is such a waste of time,/ such a waste of time./ There are those who have religion./ Teach them how to live each day./ Guess they believe in paradise./ All you’ve got to do is pray./ But me, myself, I’m easy./ I don’t really have to know,/ just as long as I’m still breathing,/ and I’ve got somewhere to go./ Searchin’ for/ some peace of mind/ Out in a world that’s cold and unkind./ Oh, babe, someone will show us a sign,/ throw us a line./ Paradise is a hard place,/ Paradise is a hard place,/ Paradise is a hard place,/ hard place to find.”

[Cheers and Applause]

Paulson: Wonderful.

Havens: Thank you.

Paulson: “Paradise” from the brand-new Richie Havens CD, Wishing Well. And we’ve got Richie on CD. We’ve got Richie in book form: They Can’t Hide Us Anymore. And the good news is, we have Richie Havens in person. Welcome. It’s good to have you here.

Havens: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Paulson: We’re also joined by Walter Parks. Glad to have you here. If you’ve got a book or a CD, we can plug those a little later. This had to be a little bit different: recording Wishing Well from recording Mixed Bag. A good number of years between the two.

Havens: Oh, yes. Actually, it feels like my Mixed Bag III. You know, it’s like, I did Mixed Bag II about ten, 11 years after one, and now it’s the other cycle. So, I think we’re at the top of the cycle again. And when the sound starts to sound like that, we’re back to the beginning.

Paulson: How do you decide it’s time to go back in the studio and put a new one out?

Havens: You know, I really don’t. I know that there’s a time — I actually was on the road promising people this particular one for the last three-and-a-half years. But I get to do it because I actually take the time out of going on the road. I’m on the road every weekend all year round, so I’m booked so far ahead, you don’t get the chance to think you’re gonna do it at this time or that time, so I sort of end up doing it in between going out on the road.

Paulson: Your whole career has been about music and about activism and about caring about society, and the book tells some great stories. One of the surprises to me was that your origins in music largely stem from doo-wop or with some young people in the neighborhood. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Havens: Yes. To us, it was rock and roll. You know, we were rock-and-rollers by nature. I still am, actually. But it was, it was a social phenomenon that I think was never really written about in its correct portrayal of what happened at that time. I think rock and roll was what I call the first generational primal scream, in that I mean we were singing about songs and writing songs about the lives we were living at the time. I think it was quite different, in the sense that an entire generation got the chance to do that, I think, really for the first time in the history of the country. And this is what I think was the beginning of the change in the country towards the becoming of America.

Paulson: And you have a relatively unique way of playing?

Havens: Yeah. It’s called doo-wop style. [Laughing] What it is, is, you know, you hear these groups on stage — actually, it came from the gospel groups, where they’d get on stage, and they’d go, [Sings] “Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm,” and they’d tune up before they started singing. Well, I tuned the guitar in one of those chords, and it was pretty funny. In the old days, I used to sit this way, and — with the first five songs, I learned that way. Like that, you know? There was a little bit of laughter out there, you know? But I was serious. [Laughs] So it sort of eventually — it became serious because I was consistent. I kept coming back so — the guitar eventually sat up in my lap because my wrist allowed it to. And it looked like I really was playing the guitar, so I got away with a lot of things.

Paulson: The moment most of us became aware of Richie Havens, it was Max Yasgur’s farm —

Havens: Oh, yes.

Paulson: — and, and what probably seemed like a good gig to you, but you probably had no idea we’d still be talking about it almost 40 years later.

Havens: Well, you know, I had an idea that we would, the minute I flew over the field and saw all of those people. And for that reason, I thought — well, that’s the title of the book, actually: They Can’t Hide Us Anymore. You know, that’s what went through my mind. And I thought, “Now we are above-ground. We’re no longer relegated to underground by the press or the government or all of those other people.” We were now above-ground, and we, we were there to celebrate with each other. It really had less to do with the people who were playing the music. I would really say that probably 10% of the people onstage for the whole three days were really known by the audience, and all the rest were discovered there, and — as not only the audience discovering people, but we as musicians discovering other musicians that we had never heard. It was Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s first gig onstage. It was totally magic because of that, because it was totally a happening. No one went onstage when they were supposed to. The lineup was completely kibosh, you know.

Paulson: Someday, there has to be the Richie Havens story. It’s got to be a movie, because no one could resist writing and casting the scene in which you’re performing that day. The day starts normally enough. It’s 5:30 in the morning; you’re leaving New York. You’re driving to the concert.

Havens: Yeah.

Paulson: You get there at 7:30. You check in at the hotel, and you’re supposed to go on, like, fifth, right?

Havens: That’s right.

Paulson: Take us through the rest of your day.

Havens: Well, we got there pretty early, and without any problems, actually, and we thought we were gonna have at least some — ‘cause they expected 75,000 people, you know? That was big, you know? That was gonna be big enough. And we arrived, and basically, we sat around the hotel — all the bands just sat around — you know, different rooms, visiting each other for hours, and thinking, “Something’s wrong here.” It’s now 3:30 in the afternoon, and no one’s left the hotel. And, of course, they didn’t want to tell us they couldn’t get anybody to the field. All of the roads were blocked. So, they found a farmer down the road with a bubble helicopter — one of those glass bubbles — who landed right outside my window at the Holiday Inn, and then I hear, [Knocking] “Richie, would you go over? You have the least instruments.” So, “No problem,” you know? I’m flying over there, and then I realized when I got there, I was the only person there that could’ve gone on, so, I ran for an hour as they chased me around, trying to get me to go on first. It was just — three- and four-hour-late concert. “They were gonna kill me for the promoters,” I thought, you know. So, I hid for about an hour and a half. They finally convinced me to, you know — “It’s okay; just to go on.” And of course, people wanted to —

Paulson: So, not only were you the first performer on the Woodstock stage, you were the only performer at Woodstock.

Havens: I was the only performer there. It’s true. Actually, there was one other performer, who was hiding under the stage. That was Tim Hardin. He hid under the stage. He was pretty far under there too, and he was sitting, playing by himself. But that was it, and he definitely wasn’t going on first, for sure. And that’s how it all began.

Paulson: And then you play for three-and-a-half hours. You’re a relatively new performer. There’s got to be a limit to your material. You’re out of songs, and they’re pushing you back on stage one more time.

Havens: I went off seven times. And they’d say, “Go back. Do two more, three more, four more.” Finally, I just said, “I don’t have any more songs to sing. I’m finished. That was the last one I know.” And they said, “One more.” And I go back, and the long intro you hear on “Freedom” is actually me stalling, trying to figure out, “What am I gonna sing? I don’t have any more songs.” Well, “Freedom” came out because I looked out and saw — and felt — that I was actually seeing the freedom that we as a generation had been seeking since the 1950s. And, finally, I said, “This is what we were talking about.” We were talking about being free enough to get together and not have anybody think we’re together for some particular reason, you know, which could be construed to be negative in that sense. But I felt that we were accomplishing it right then, so the word freedom came out. And then “Motherless Child” came out, which I hadn’t sung in about nine or ten years. And I used to sing it traditionally, in a more traditional — and right in the middle of that, another part of a hymn that I hadn’t sung since I was 16 — “With the Family,” I used to sing that song — came out, and I have to tell you the honest truth: I actually didn’t know I had done that until I saw the movie a year and a half later. For real. I mean, I just walked off the stage. That was something that happened. It just completely disappeared. And a year-and-a-half later, when they asked me to come look at the film, I didn’t even remember kind of doing it. It was naturally something that happened right on the spot, you know, so — and then again, it didn’t belong to me after that. It belonged to everybody who was there. They made it happen.

Paulson: Could we possibly hear some of “Freedom”?

Havens: Sure. [Playing melancholy intro and singing] “Freedom, freedom./ Freedom, freedom./ Freedom./ Freedom./ Freedom./ Freedom./ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child./ Sometimes I feel like a, a motherless child./ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,/ a long way from my home./ Ooh, Lord, yeah./ Singing freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom./ Freedom, freedom./ Freedom, freedom./ Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./ Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./ Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./ A long way from my home./ Hang on, freedom, freedom./ Freedom./ Freedom.”


Paulson: The moment you described in your book and when you talk about “Freedom” in Woodstock, you describe it as sort of a globalization of the youth culture. For the first time ever, people around the world were listening to the same music and responding the same way.

Havens: Yes. It was, actually. I think to me it was the change of the planet. It really was. It was something large enough for people in other countries to see us making a move in the United States, because truly, before Woodstock, I used to get a lot of questions about how the lesser-thought-of people in, in the United States, like the people on the bottom rung — how are they doing? You know, questions, you know, like the Native Americans, the Afro-Americans, and many people were — around the world were going, “How are they doing?” You know? So, it was consciousness to them that something was also amiss here that we had to take care of. And when that happened, they felt we did. They felt we actually rose above that underground status.

Paulson: You know, you’ve always mixed your music with what you believe in. I was struck that after you got a little popularity, you get invited on the “Tonight Show,” which is as good a commercial opportunity as you can get. This is when you go triple platinum. And you could’ve selected any song, and you in fact sang a song that raised questions about the war in Vietnam. You were in the face of America on that show. How did you decide to play “Handsome Johnny”?

Havens: You know, at first, you know, they bring you in early, and they do the camera shots to see how they’re gonna set up, and they ask you to do the song. Well, that song was a song that I was singing a bit, quite a bit around that time because I believed in what it was saying, for the most part. For me, it was an anti-war song of all wars. It wasn’t directly just Vietnam. That’s one of the wars I was talking about. So, to me, it was a much more open song than I began to feel after I had rehearsed it for the camera. I then realized that most of the people who come here get tickets, and they come from the Midwest, which, in those days, was thought to be the conservative part of the country, not so much anti-Vietnam. And I thought, after I had practiced the song, “Maybe these people are not going to like this song.” You know, they might actually boo me off the stage. What happened was that when I sang it, I probably looked as surprised on the TV as everyone else, but they started clapping, and they stood up, and they wouldn’t stop clapping. And, so, I think that was the beginning of Johnny’s pencil going like this, ‘cause he was waiting for them to stop, and they didn’t. So, then he said, “We’re gonna go to commercial. When we come back, would you do another song?” Which wasn’t scheduled. And I said, “Sure,” you know? So, we came back; they were still clapping. So, he then said, “Richie,” he said, “sing another song.” Then I’d sing another song, and then he’d go — they started again. He goes, “Would you come back tomorrow night?” You know, which was really something I didn’t expect at all. And I, “Sure, I’d love to.” And basically, when I went back, he said, “You know, I only asked Barbra Streisand to come back the next night, and she couldn’t make it, so you’ve got one up on her.” But that was really something. You know, for me to first of all, be on the Johnny Carson show was somewhat of a stretch for me to even think that this was happening. But to have that happening the first time that I went on was really interesting to me, because I really — I totally misjudged the audience. Totally. I have done that a couple of times, you know? But you know, I told them that “Handsome” — I mean — sorry — “Here Comes the Sun” wouldn’t be a great record ‘cause it’s live, you know. So, I made my two mistakes, and then I got out of the way and let everything just happen the way it’s supposed to, actually.

Paulson: Which is sound advice for anyone.

Havens: Yes, it is.

Paulson: You mentioned “Here Comes the Sun.” One of the unique things about your career is that you keep meeting legendary composers after you’ve recorded or sung their songs: Bob Dylan; there’s a meeting you had with John Lennon and Paul McCartney where you had a chance to talk about “Eleanor Rigby”?

Havens: Yes, actually, and it was, again, one of those things that are part of your consciousness and our consciousness. They walked in the door with a friend of mine who was actually driving them. And they walked in, sat right down at the table in front of me. I was just sitting there like this, and they came in, sat right down, because the person driving them knew me. He goes, “Hey, Richie,” you know, and they sit down. And then they started to tell me about how they liked “Eleanor Rigby.” And it was very revealing for me because you know how we are in America: We fantasize a lot of things, like Paul is dead, you know, and all those things, you know. We get caught up in that stuff. Well, a young lady jumped up from the table and walked over to the table and asked Paul, she said, “I heard you wrote ‘Lady Madonna’ about America. Is that true?” And he said, “Oh, no.” He said, “I was reading one of those National Geographic magazines, and I saw an African woman with a baby, and it said, ‘Mountain Madonna,’ so I just changed the name.” And, at that point, it was a big wake-up for me, because it said to me, “Ordinary people. They’re not these people — mythical people — that we’re trying to make them. They’re just ordinary guys trying to play.” It was a big opening for me in that sense, to take another look at where we really were, how we thought about our music. And at that particular point, you know, I was like, “This is a brand-new situation, you know. Now when I hear what they’re doing, it’s as sincere as me receiving it as them doing it,” which is why I’ve ended up doing quite a few Beatles songs, quite a few.

Paulson: Of course, not long ago, we lost George Harrison.

Havens: Yeah.

Paulson: Did he ever talk to you about your version of “Here Comes the Sun”?

Havens: Oh, yes. He really liked it. He wanted to play with me a couple of times, and we never really got the opportunity to do it, but he wanted to play it sometimes, because I did it faster, you know, and he wanted to do it, but we never got the chance to do it.

Paulson: We would love to hear “Here Comes the Sun.”

Havens: [Plays and sings] “Little darlin’,/ seems like a long, long, lonely winter./ Little darlin’,/ seems like so many years since it’s been there./ Here comes the sun./ Here comes the sun./ And I say, it’s all right./ It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right./ It’s all right./ Little darlin’,/ seems like the ice is slowly melting./ Little darlin’,/ seems like so many years since it’s been clear./ Here comes the sun./ Here comes the sun. And I say it’s all right./ It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right./ It’s all right./ Little darlin’,/ seems like the smiles are returnin’ to the faces./ Little darlin’,/ seems like so many years since it’s been there./ Here comes the sun./ Here comes the sun./ And I say, it’s all right./ It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right./ And in the end,/ the love you save/ will be equal to the love you gave.”


Paulson: Wonderful. Thank you.

Havens: Thank you.

Paulson: That is a song that, thanks to your version and the Beatles’ version, that every generation knows.

Havens: I think so.

Paulson: It’s a great song, performed remarkably well. And, and the music of the Beatles reminds us that some music transcends generations. You have some interesting theories about what a generation gap is and what it isn’t. It’s not 25-year cycles, according to you.

Havens: Well, they used to have 20, 25. As far as I’m concerned, probably past 19 — I would say 1953, it was maybe anywhere from five years in between the next generation. Now I think it’s probably down to two or three, because you have to think that we get born into much, much more technologically available consciousness. And because of that, we’re being born into the information that we — other generations — have been seeking for years. Now we’re being born into it, and it’s at hand. If you would imagine that in 19 — if you’d asked me in 1959 if I thought 1960 would be what it was, I would’ve told you, “Not in my lifetime,” because that’s how much and how far away freedom looked to us as a generation, just as teenagers, not as any cultural situation, but just as a generation of human beings, as we saw ourselves, you know, in that sense. So therefore, we then came out for every other human being who didn’t have the right to speak for himself or, or the ability to speak for himself, and we spoke for everybody. World peace was what we were after, and I think we still are. And I dare say that young people are gonna have world peace, whether we like it or not, because they’re just not buying half the stuff we did, you know?

Paulson: I’ve enjoyed this conversation very much.

Havens: Thank you.

Paulson: I can’t let you go, though, without hearing one more song from Wishing Well.

Havens: Okay. [Plays and sings] “I saw St. Christopher walkin’ downtown on Main/ with black Madonna, fingers holdin’ the flame./ I saw an eagle rise right out of the blue./ I heard a car crash,/ it reminded me of you.”