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Interview: Richie Havens

Sometimes when you get to know somebody only through what you see of them on a movie screen or hearing them sing the impression you form of them turns out to be completely erroneous. However there are those rare people who, when you do actually get the opportunity to meet or talk to them, turn out to be just what you thought they were. Richie Haven is such a man. On the morning of Tuesday August 26th I was fortunate enough to spend just over a half hour on the phone with him and it turns out he's the gentle, intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, and humorous person that I had thought he was from seeing his pictures and listening to his music.

The hardest part about interviewing Mr. Havens was remembering I was interviewing him and to not get so wrapped up in enjoying our conversation that I forgot to take notes and write down his answers so all of you would be able to read what he had to say. I hope that a little of his gentle spirit is able to shine through "the flat, unraised words" that I've transcribed from our conversation, as once again I find this medium far too inadequate to do my subject justice.

After the initial greetings were over and I verified that we were going to have slightly more then the twenty minutes that you're normally allotted for these types of interviews, my query of whether I was going to be first of millions for today was answered with a gentle laugh and an assurance that I was actually second of only a few, we began. It seemed to make sense that we talk a little about his recent release -Nobody Left To Crown so that's where we started - but be warned - both of us (maybe it's something to do with being a Richard) turn out to share the same predilection for deviating from the subject under discussion and getting fascinated by something else. Anyway without further ado -Ladies and gentlemen - Mr. Richie Havens.
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When you were putting together Nothing Left To Crown did you have a particular intent in mind about what you wanted to accomplish with the album.

I was trying to actually align it with everything that's going on today in the world, the total surroundings if you would. In some ways it's a reflection of all the questions that were being asked a long time ago that we still haven't been answered. There's also a certain amount of wanting to let others know, those who are just becoming aware and not knowing what the world involves that there are questions that need to be asked. In some ways it was a catch all type of situation, with bits and pieces of of the whole picture in an attempt to show how it all works.

In some ways it's also about trying to avoid the making the same mistakes over again, learning from them - retreating from that aspect of ours selves and finding new ways of being and doing.

At this point I apologized to Richie for any pauses on my part - and told him it was just me trying to keep up in my note taking. I recounted that the very first interview I had done was with Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers and had used a tape recorder. I had fallen in love with his accent and just enjoyed listening to him answer my questions only to discover that I had forty-five minutes of white noise - so I no longer used tape recorders.

(laughter) I was waiting for that (laughs again) But you know, getting caught up in beauty, in the awe in the world, is a good thing.

Not when you're trying to do an interview with somebody

(laughs) No I suppose not.

Speaking of which - I wanted to ask you about two of the songs from Nobody Left To Crown, ones that happen to be favourites of mine, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who and "Lives In The Balance" by Jackson Browne. What was there about each of those songs that attracted you and how do you see them as being pertinent to today's world

Those two songs, in fact any song that I do, have first of all moved me in some way. It's like I hear a song and the light comes on because that person has articulated something in such a way that there's no way it could be any clearer. It's been like that right from when I first started out though.

Do you know Freddy Neil? He wrote "Everybody's Talking About". Well I used to travel up from Brooklyn to the clubs in Greenwich Village, and you have to remember I was singing doo wop songs with my friends in Brooklyn, and I heard Freddy singing about "Knocking The Walls Down" and I thought to myself - can he sing that in public? Isn't he going to be arrested or beaten up or something and hauled off stage? The songs were all about the need for change.

To this day I still have feel an awe for the songwriters who can write those tunes that show how it's possible to make a choice in how to live your life - they built a platform that can be built upon. So it was those songs, the songs that moved me that I first sung. (laughs) It was funny how that came about, because, you know, I would be sitting in the audience singing along with Fred and a couple of the other folk playing in those days, and Freddy said to me why don't you get up and sing - you've been singing them - harmonizing - in fact, you know them just as well as I do. The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughs) (If you go to Richie's web site there's a specific page where he explains his playing style) I went from singing Doo Wop and having four guys to harmonize with to having six strings to harmonize with.

It all comes back to the awe again really - my awe for the guys who can create those songs that illuminate things in such a way that it shines a new light on a subject so that you might say I never thought of that. So when I'd hear them, they would inspire me to sing them - it's like the songs came to me.

I've always admired the way you interpret other people's music, and I was wondering if you had a particular process that you go through when you prepare an interpretation?

Well, no, I don't have a particular process, what I try to do is let the ring of the writer shine through when I sing someone else's material. It's like I'm the vehicle for their message and allowing it to flow through me. Of course I use my own tuning like we talked about, but I really don't make any conscious decisions about them aside from that - I just sing them because they were powerful enough to make me want to sing them and I hope that comes through - how important I felt the song was.

You know I never think I'm changing anyone else's song, and I'm always surprised when someone says to me - wow you really perform that differently from so and so - because that's never my intent.

This is sort of a silly question to ask someone whose performed and sang as many songs as you, but is there any one in particular, or even one performance of a song in particular that stands out in your mind

(laughs)Well it's not as odd as you think, because I've been thinking a little along those lines. I've been thinking a lot about that first trio that I performed with, you know the guys who were at Woodstock with me. I've been thinking of maybe doing some work with them and trying to show the connection between the music of the fifties and the sixties. For me that's an important connection because of where I came from in the fifties, in Brooklyn doing four-part harmonies with my buddies on street corners, to where I went, which was singing in folk clubs in Greenwich Village.

You know we all like to sing the songs that appeal to us, and writing songs that work for our voices, yet it's the songs that have changed me, the ones that have made think about their messages are the ones that have had the most impact, and are the most important. You know I never thought about changing the world with the music, except maybe on some deep and personal, almost subliminal level, for individuals. If someone would say to me after hearing me perform a song, that they'd never thought of something that way before - then I would feel like I'd accomplished something. It was always especially nice when they would come up to me afterwards and say they'd never understood something until they had heard me sing it. That always surprised me, cause like I said I never saw myself as doing anything different than the person who I'd heard do the song in the first place.

I'd love to go back and do a compilation album of the songs that changed me, as they are the ones that are most important to me.

Speaking of things important to you, I wanted to ask you about a project you started up a few years ago, The Natural Guard, and wondered if you could tell me a little bit more about it

Well the Natural Guard was almost like a test of the things I went through as a young person. I was always thinking about things, and asking questions about things that nobody else I knew was interested in, and there was nobody there to answer those questions for me. So I was just curious about whether or not there were others, kids now a days who were experiencing that same sort of thing. Kids ask a lot of questions and there aren't always the people around to answer them, and this was to be a way to help them find the answers.

It was also to show them that through involvement they can make change, so we'd put out the idea to them that their community is the most endangered environment and they were most endangered species and can be done about that. We didn't want to force anybody to do it, because for so many of them school is enough of a prison already, and we figured if they didn't want to be there they weren't going to be able to accomplish very much. So in the first program we had eighteen kids between the ages of seven and thirteen.

There were quite a few people who said they didn't think it would work, because the older kids would soon get bored of working with the younger kids, but it turned out that the older kids became the teachers for the young ones, and helped them out. We adults stood aside and let them make the decision as to what they wanted to do for their community - the first one was in New Haven Connecticut - all we there for was to provide them with the tools to accomplish the what they wanted.

It was quite amazing how well it worked out - you know kids are great - they went down to the mayor's office and said we want more trees for our neighbourhood, and they got them, because whose going to say no to kids right? But more than that is how they learned what they were capable of - that they were able to make a difference just by being who they were and caring. That first group did so well that they were recognized with a Points Of Light award by Hilary Clinton. It was wonderful - I was so happy that what I felt would work really did work.
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What's really wonderful is that I recently heard from one of the young women who was involved in that first project and she's gone on to become an environmental lawyer. That was really a great feeling to hear that.

Well I've probably taken up more of your time than I should already, but if it's okay I'd like to ask you about the movie I'm Not There which you had a small part in

That was a lot of fun... You know when I first heard about what he was trying to do, with the different personas, and different people playing different aspects of Bob, I wasn't sure how it would work, but it ended up being amazing. Knowing Bob, I don't know what else could have really captured him in the way this movie did.

When they introduced me to Marcus, and said this is Woody, I was sort of taken aback (laughs) What do you mean Woody? Woody Guthrie? Yet it all made sense too because of who Bob was and what he went through. There was so much pulling on him all the time that I'm sure it really did get to the point for him that he be wondering where he was and am I there, or I'm not there. Marcus was great, you know, they had him learn six Dylan songs for the movie, and he had to learn how to play guitar too, because he didn't know how before, but I had great time doing our song.

(Me: Yeah I really liked it, on the DVD in the special features they have the complete version of that, not just the edited version in the film.)

Really I didn't know that, I'll have to get the DVD so I can see that. I was sort of disappointed that it was cut in the movie, although I could understand why of course.

Wasn't Kate Blanchate something else though, she was so him it was amazing.

(Me: I know, I'm old enough to remember Bob from that time, and I've seen pictures of him from then, and it was amazing. What really got me was her use of her hands - that was so exactly like him - especially the scenes at the piano)

Putting a woman in that place, to give a female version of self, was brilliant. We were able to see things that might not have come out any other way, just because it was a woman in that place. There's something about women and the way they can change something about themselves without making a big deal about it that allows us to see things that weren't there in them before. That's what Kate did with Bob, brought something to him that none of us had ever seen before. It was exceptional.

Working on that movie was wonderful and I really think it did justice to Bob (Me: I thought it did a better job of telling the story of that period of his life than the documentary Bringing It All Back Home) Yes, I think so too, and I'm really glad that I was involved with it - You know there's a club I play in and it's near where Marcus lives, and he drops in and sits in with me on stage for a few songs, and I really enjoy that. He's got so much natural charisma that kid that you could put him on stage with Barack Obama and he'd put him in the shadows (laughs)

Well I guess I really should be letting you go, but I have to ask what you have in store for the future - you're off to England I know this week (Richie: Tomorrow) but are you going to be touring in support of the new album or do you other things you'll be doing?

Well to tell you the truth, I'm glad not to be touring in support of the new album. I'm actually already starting to work on the next one, I've got a couple of songs in mind for it that I'm working on. One thing always does lead to the next thing though. Albums are often just like pieces that are cut off from the fold, and you don't stop because an album is finished. Although starting a project again is a challenge because of that arbitrary nature of them. I'm just leaving myself open for things to come through. I'm also keeping up with the folk under four feet tall, children, and have become involved with literacy programs for children, so a lot of energy goes there.

Well thank you very much for this, and have a wonderful time in England

Well thank you and maybe we'll see you up in Canada sometime.

There it was, my few precious moments with Richie Havens. I don't know how successful I was in capturing just how gentle a spirit he truly is, while still being incredibly passionate about life and his art. I hope you are able to appreciate just what a rare treasure this man is from my words. If you can't the deficiency lies in my pen (or keyboard as the case maybe) and not in the subject matter. The world would be a lot better off if there were more people like Richie Havens in it

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