For Richie Havens, the stage belongs to the audience
Richie Havens performs at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington on Nov. 23
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 18, 2002) – Richie Havens has been playing music professionally for about 40 years, but he still doesn’t consider music his job. “Playing music is not work,” he says. “My work is being there. The music is what we all share.”
In a recent phone interview from his home in New York City, Havens -- who first emerged on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s and who electrified audiences with his three-hour solo performance at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in 1969 – spoke about his connection to his audience and to the songs he sings.
Havens performs at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Saturday night at 8 in a concert staged by Helsinki Presents. Singer-songwriter Jess Klein warms up the audience for Havens, and will perform a post-concert show at Club Helsinki with her band.
Many folksingers had their moment in the spotlight in the Sixties, but only a handful were able to parlay it into a steady career lasting until today.
“The thing for me is that when I started on the road, I just never stopped,” said Havens, perhaps best known for his unique renditions of songs by Sixties icons like Bob Dylan and the Beatles. “My uphill climb is still an uphill climb. It’s a wonderfully low, sloping thing that starts here and slopes up very slowly.”
In part, Havens credits his inclusive, genre-bending style for his longevity.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to do something else that most of the guys I came up with couldn’t do,” he said. “I played jazz clubs, rock clubs, folk clubs, and country clubs, and I played folk festivals, rock festivals, jazz festivals, and even country festivals. That’s a very wide horizon.”
The seeds of that horizon were planted early on. Havens, 61, grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the eldest of nine children and the son of a piano-playing father who worked with a number of bands around the city. As a teen-ager, Havens sang with street-corner doo-wop groups and performed with the McCrea Gospel Singers.
With its allure of poetry, art and beatnik culture, the Village lured Havens and a like-minded friend across the East River in the late-1950s. “We got on the subway one day and we went over to Greenwich Village to see what it was all about,” said Havens. “We ended up in the Gaslight Café, down in the basement of some tenement building on MacDougal Street. We got to read some of our poetry, and people really liked it. So eventually I went over there almost every other weekend.”
Havens’s first steady gig was actually as a street-portrait artist. “There was a little shop on MacDougal Street where the guy who ran it rented you the space,” said Havens. “There were maybe five or six artists working in this open storefront. He took two-thirds of the money you made, and he gave you the materials to use and the space. I ended up taking home three-hundred bucks a night, so I was actually earning nine-hundred a night. I was doing real good. I didn’t know what the hell to do with the money, but I had a good time.”
Eventually Havens gravitated to the Village folk clubs, where his signature baritone and distinctive, percussive guitar style garnered him widespread recognition. He joined forces with legendary manager Albert Grossman, whose client list included Peter, Paul and Mary and a young Minnesotan named Bob Dylan. His first album, “Mixed Bag,” came out in 1967, and included his version of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” earning Havens his reputation as one of the few successful interpreters of Dylan’s idiosyncratic material.
Havens, who released his 25th album, “Wishing Well,” this past summer, said that the songs he sings are “finished songs -- because they don’t leave you hanging, they have an answer in the end. There are so many songs I’d love to record, but they are not finished. They suggest where we may be, but they don’t suggest how we change.”
Havens’s new album includes six original compositions as well as versions of Gary Wright’s “My Love Is Alive” and Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away,” both hardly recognizable after they have been given the Richie Havens treatment.
“Most of the songs I’ve covered I haven’t changed the chords,” said Havens. “But I play in an open tuning, with all six strings, and most people don’t play that way. So it’s partially the guitar sound is different. And it may be faster or slower than the original, because that’s how I feel it.”
What draws him to specific songs, said Havens, is their transformational quality. “I’ve always sung songs that changed my life when I heard them,” he said. “It’s always been about that to me. And I just never stopped. I still sing what moves me.”
The secret of connecting with listeners, said Havens, is that “the stage does not belong to any performer. It belongs to the audience. As long as you respect that, you can be on the stage a long time – even a lifetime.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 21, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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