Monday, April 22, 2013

RIP Richie Havens

Woodstock is iconic enough that you didn't have to be there...hell, you barely have to have been recognize and appreciate its most signature moments. Or, for that matter, to simply appreciate that August 1969 weekend of music as the one big, sprawling, glorious mess it was.

Moments like Joe Cocker practically leaving his lungs on the stage while wringing every ounce of soul any one man could ever get out of "With a Little Help From My Friends."

Or the only days-old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young introducing their magic to the world in the wee wee hours of the night.

Or a pregnant Joan Baez singing a defiant "Joe Hill" for her husband, who at that moment was in prison for draft evasion. (Yes, it was a different time, wasn't it?)

Or, yes, Jimi Hendrix, at the height of his powers and with barely a year left before he'd be dead, almost bringing the sun out all by himself with his Monday morning rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."

These are all seminal rock-n-roll moments, and Woodstock, while of course suffering from decades of mythology and overhype, has regardless earned its place on the very, very short list of the most important events in rock-n-roll history.

Plenty of bands and artists that I have come to love played up there at Yasgur's Farm that weekend, like The Who and The Band and Jimi and Janis and Sly and the Family Stone, playing epochal sets that have rightly stood the very demanding tests of time. I know practically every frame of Michael Wadleigh's brilliant and provocative documentary, which came out a year later. I wasn't at Woodstock...I was 10 months old, after all...but what that August 1969 weekend left behind meant plenty to me, and helped to shape my love of music in a weird way all its own.

Funny, though. Whenever I think of Woodstock, I don't think of any of those moments mentioned above, great though they all are.

Instead I think of this.

Ah, Richie Havens. Straight out of Greenwich Village, robes flowing and a voice filled with gravel, all thumbs and gums as he strums his guitar faster, faster, faster, eyes shut tight, practically pleading his one word incantation over and over as he not only opened but awakened the whole festival. "Freedom!! Freedom! Freedom!"

What makes it all the more amazing, of course, is he never planned on doing it and basically made the whole thing up as he went along. Richie had opened everything up impressively and his set was done. The problem was there was no one to go on next. Bands scheduled to play early-on were stuck in traffic, many on the jammed and soon-to-be-closed New York State Thruway. The already cash-strapped promoters were starting to panic as fans kept coming and coming and the gates (as they were) were literally flung open for free and most of the talent was yet to arrive. They needed something, someone to fill the empty spaces.

That someone was Richie Havens, who delivered his now-legendary improvised and impassioned plea, over and over. While the festival waited for acts to arrive who would make history, history was in fact made with raw eloquence by a man who simply did what he knew how to do. He just played. They needed him to play, and play he did. Richie played and played, his fingers devouring his guitar strings, his voice growing rougher and more ragged with each word he sang. They needed him to play, and Richie Havens played.

He plays today still.

Rest in peace, Richie.

No comments:

Post a Comment