Richie Havens, RIP

I interviewed Richie Havens in 2002 for a now-defunct Florida alt. weekly called City Link. Here’s the article.

Richie Havens by Larry Getlen

It’s difficult to decide what makes singer/songwriter/guitarist Richie Havens more intriguing – where he’s played, how often he plays, or how he plays.

We’ll start with the how.

Unlike almost any other guitarist in the world of any consequence, the most important finger to Havens’ playing is the thumb of his left hand. This is especially unusual since for most guitarists, that is the one finger that has absolutely nothing to do with making music. For most guitarists, the left thumb is solely used for the grasping of the guitar’s neck.

Havens, on the other hand, uses his thumb reaching over the guitar neck, instead of his index finger coming under it, for barre chords, the chords played when a guitarist holds most of the strings down on one fret.

Havens tunes his guitar in such a way that the open chord format – that is, when you strum all the strings without holding them down – constitutes a basic chord form. This is not usually the case. As such, the majority of his playing is done either in open format, or with his thumb holding down most or all of the strings on one fret. From there, he’ll create occasional variations by holding down one or two strings with other fingers, but compared to the thumb, their role is minor.

The way in which Havens developed this style is perhaps the most intriguing factor of all. Havens developed his style when he knew nothing about guitar, for the purpose of playing his favorite songs as quickly as possible. As a result, without any training, Havens played seven songs on stage a mere two days after picking up the instrument for the first time.

“I had to sing the songs I had been hearing, and I’d been badgering myself in my mind to do it,” recalls Havens about his early years in New York’s Greenwich Village. “After seeing two years worth of incredible people play songs straight from their pens and hearts and minds, I was moved by songs that changed my life. Traditional songs, folk music. I heard a guy get on stage and say, ‘this song was written in 1860 and tells the story of…,’ and he sings the song, and I go, ‘holy smokes, that happened in Brooklyn last week.’ The world ain’t as complicated as they make us think. So those songs changed me.”

Inspired by the Village’s emerging folk scene, Havens, who made his living from 1961-1963 painting portraits on the street, and whose previous musical experience including singing in street corner doo-wop groups, picked up a guitar. “Knowing harmony,” explains Havens, “I borrowed a guitar and tuned it to a chord. I sat it flat on my lap like a dulcimer, and with my thumb I got the three chords I needed to sing the songs that had changed my life. That’s how I started. I went on stage two days later with the guitar, did seven songs, and never got off the stage.”

Havens simple method of guitar playing is now up on his web site (richiehavens.com), so he gets lots of letters from fans inspired by the freedom they get from finally being able to express themselves musically. “I have kids sending me CD’s of them playing their favorite songs,” says Havens. “That’s why I put how I play on the web site, because there are voices out there that cannot be heard because they cannot play for themselves. Now these kids are calling me from all over the world, saying, ‘wow, I just learned these songs today, awesome, man.’ And that’s the key – to get the voices ringing.”

Of course, now that he’s been playing for almost 40 years, the style has evolved, if not in the difficulty of playing, then in terms of rhythmic complexity. “Once I’ve learned a song, that’s how I think I’m playing it, but you never do a song the same way twice,” says Havens. “Tonight it’s a little slower, last night it’s faster. The meaning of that is, that is the day. If it’s faster, this is the energy the audience is giving me to do this. If it’s down, it’s a down day for everybody. So emotionally it changes from night to night. What I’ve come to realize is, I’m basically a frustrated drummer. And by using rhythm, I’m able to orchestrate the chords I’m playing, and at the same time, give me enough rhythm to be able to sing the song.”

While some might wonder if Havens overly-simple method takes the craft and artistry out of the instrument, Havens says that other musicians have, over the years, been quite responsive. “Most musicians just freak out,” says Havens. “I had Eric Clapton chasing me around the streets when he was with Cream. He used to come to the city and scream, ‘how do you do that?’ We played that game for like half a year.”

Havens, a native of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, was raised by a father who played piano by ear, and began singing with gospel and doo-wop groups at 14. He was part of the same early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene that produced Bob Dylan, and released his first album in 1967. A powerhouse three-hour set opening the Woodstock festival in 1969 brought him tremendous acclaim, and he had his first Top 30 album the following year.

One trademark of Haven’s career is that he is one of the foremost interpreters of Beatles and Dylan songs, scoring rave reviews (and hit singles) with covers of such songs as “Here Comes The Sun,” “Just Like A Woman,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Lady Madonna,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

Havens credits the uniqueness of the artists, and the emotional resonance they had for him, for his ability to interpret them so tenderly. “For Dylan, it was sheer poetry. I call him the inclusionary writer. He can write one song, and in it set up the whole surroundings we are living in. He’s got so many songs where he says, this is where we are. He put us all in a lot of songs together. So that was Dylan’s magic to me.

“The Beatles magic was that they hooked on to something absolutely American, and they improved upon it. If you listen to 1950’s music, doo-wop, there’s nothing on the record. They put a sophistication to it. It was absolutely new and different, and here’s the reason. If you listen to the Beatles records, you’ll find that, Rubber Soul being the first, these guys took the hook, and made it the first thing you hear. They started songs with the end of the song. They sang all choruses before any verses. They did it backwards.”

Havens speaks of music with a resplendent joy that’s clear in every syllable, even sometimes breaking into laughter in mid-sentence. He has a light personality, even when discussing serious subjects. The joy expressed in his conversation makes sense for a man who rejects the traditional notion of being “on tour” – Havens is on tour every weekend of every year, and has been since he started in the late sixties.

Ask if it ever gets tiring, Havens responds immediately. “Not once. I’ve been very fortunate to understand the territory in which I’m really happy,” Havens says with a laugh. “I started at a time when you could say what you felt completely, and I’ve never had to say anything different since. And I think that’s the connection I have with every audience I’ve ever had, every weekend for 30 years.”

Havens, who formed an organization called The Natural Guard in 1990 to teach children about the environment, is asked if this sense of being able to say what he feels has changed at all since 9/11, and he responds that his audiences are as open to messages of freedom and peace as ever.

“I had three gigs the weekend after 9/11,” recalls Havens, “which I knew weren’t gonna happen because of [it]. About three days later, the lady calls me from the first gig, and I said, ‘so I guess nothing’s happening.’ She goes, ‘are you kidding? We’re oversold for the next three gigs.’ And from then on, it’s been oversold. It’s because people are not stupid or crazy, and they don’t just buy everything they’re told. All the people who came to the concerts from then until now have the same feelings about our rights as I do, which is, they don’t have the right to even talk about circumventing the constitution at any level, because we haven’t declared war. One of the things I said the first night was, ‘if you guys want to have the best week of your life, turn your TVs off,’ and the entire audience cheered. Every audience since has done the same thing. These are human beings who think. That’s where we are. We’re much more American now than we’ve ever been, and not for patriotic reasons, but because we gather together to make it so.”

Havens’ next album, “Wishing Well,” comes out in March, but Havens is always focused exclusively on the here and now. “I’m living now,” says Havens. “My future is the next minute, and it may not be the minute after, who knows. That’s the way I live, that’s the way I am. I’m a right now person, because I’m living right now, and I dare say we’re all finding that out now.”

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