At our 8th grade team meeting this morning, I mentioned that Richie Havens had died and half of my colleagues looked bewildered. One of my grey-haired colleagues said, “I guess you realize you are really old when you have to explain to others who Richie Havens was.” Later I mentioned to a colleague that I remembered he didn’t have any teeth. The internet led me to an article where a Robyn Pennachia claimed her mother told her that Richie Havens took his teeth out to sing, because he thought he sounded better. In actual fact, Richie Havens hated dentists and did not acquire dentures until later in life.
He was the opening act in Woodstock in 1969 and because of traffic issues a lot of the other musicians were late. He was begged by the stage manager to keep getting on stage (six times, in fact) and sing more to keep the audience engaged. Altogether Havens did a 3 hour set, finally running out of material and improvising the famous “Freedom” which also riffed on “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.” This became the centerpiece of the movie and the turning point of his career. In his review of the anniversary version of the documentary Woodstock, Ebert says, “He starts singing, and we don’t see his face again, but his thumb on the guitar strings, punishing them. And then (in an unbroken shot) down to his foot in a sandal, pounding with the beat, and then the fingers, and then the foot, and only then the face, and this is a totally transformed Richie Havens, and we are so close to him, we see he doesn’t have any upper teeth. Not that it matters; but we don’t usually get that close to anybody in a movie.”
What was remarkable to me about that particular performance was that Richie Havens could not stop playing once the song was “over.” We see him go off stage still strumming his guitar, still playing his music long after it was formally “finished.” It was like he had run a huge stirring marathon and needed to come down slowly and catch his emotional breath. The video above ends too soon. In the movie, the camera follows Richie Havens walking between and behind the speakers and other stage paraphernalia, strumming, gradually slowing down, gradually returning to earth.
There was always a lot to “chew” over in his lyrics, politically and culturally. His musical energy, gravelly voice, and rounded, slightly indistinct pronunciation were a soundtrack to my youthful activism and ideal expectations. Though I have three of his albums, well-worn and scratched, I just downloaded his Mixed Bag and have been listening to this familiar music for the last half an hour— revisiting, remembering, reconciling.
RIP Richie Havens (1941-2013).