According to the eulogies I have been reading, Richie Havens is best known for his performance of Freedom at the Woodstock festival in 1969. Rightly so, however history tends to hold artists of the Woodstock generation captive to that era. As if Woodstock ended and everyone lived happily ever after.
I first saw Richie Havens on TV when I was in high school. It was Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert on PBS. The show boasted a phenomenal cast including Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, The Band, Eric Clapton and Bob himself. I tuned in to see Neil Young and Pearl Jam, but I was completely mesmorized by Richie Havens.
I had never heard of this black shaman with the bald scalp, long pointy beard and saintly beads. He strolled onto the stage gently, sat in his chair and proceeded to quietly blaze through the most gripping rendition of Dylan’s Just Like A Woman that I have ever heard. He brought the lyrics out of the sixties and into the present where a 16 year old kid, who knew nothing of women or the world could understand and relate to them. As I watch this video now I realize what an influence Havens has had on my guitar playing. His right hand technique on acoustic guitar is unmatched. His use of open tunings to add color to the songs is astoundingly beautiful.
In the summer of 1994 I attended a summer program at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music. It was a music summer camp in the Fenway section of Boston. Among the guest performers that summer was none other than Richie Havens! Not many of the teenage summer break rockers had any interest in Havens and I only remember about 30 students attending the show. I walked over to the Berklee auditorium with my friend BJ Capelli and a new friend we had met at Berklee named Franz Nicolay (Franz would go on to be keyboardist for The Hold Steady and a great solo artist as well.) We sat in our chairs and Richie Havens walked onstage in his gentle shamanic fashion, clad in a white robe. He played a wonderful set that included Just Like A Woman and Freedom. I can remember getting chills during Just Like A Woman. He played it as passionately for these 30 kids as he did at Madison Square Garden for the Dyan tribute.
After the show BJ, Franz and I waited around the theater lobby for a meet and greet. Richie Havens entered the lobby still in the white robe with a woman beside him holding a tray of fruit from which he plucked strawberries and grapes one by one. Franz was an absolute Dylan nut at the time. In the one picture I have of him from that summer he is proudly displaying a Bob Dylan biography. So, without hesitation Franz immediately asked Havens about Dylan. Franz said that he would like to meet Dylan someday but was hesitant because he heard that Dylan was not a very friendly person. He asked him if this was true, and I will never forget Richie’s answer. He tilted his head back and smiled. Then he answered simply, “Dylan is a pussycat!” His voice going high on the first syllable of “pussycat.” He instructed Franz to go right up and talk to him should he ever come across the iconic song and dance man. I don’t remember speaking during the conversation. I was in awe of Havens and happy to quietly observe…Happy to be in his presence.