Most people knew Richie Havens as the guy in the Woodstock movie that plays a modified version of the old blues "Motherless Children" as "Freedom" to an audience young enough to think sitting in a huge field for three days is a good idea.
While the "Woodstock" sales pitch lingered for years after the date, the various performers went on to live out different fortunes. Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young became superstars. Tim Hardin, who tragically didn't appear in the film, struggled with personal demons and writer's block. Jimi Hendrix died soon after. The Who sold their songs to anyone who would buy them.
And Richie Havens played dinner theaters where he could count on $45 a head from a well-heeled crowd who remembered their time in the mud of Woodstock, whether or not they were actually there. Havens wrote a few songs of his own, but mostly depended on an ear that knew the kind of song he could sing. Pop music moved away from folksingers and Richie flirted with adult-contemporary but the true fire was in those first batch of records.
The local PBS station in the tri-state area of NYC welcomed Richie every time they dug out their copy of Woodstock for their pledge drives. I suppose the Masterpiece Theatre crowd were too busy clipping coupons.
Here are ten tracks that wouldn't do you wrong.
10) San Francisco Bay Blues:
Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" became a soft-rock classic with this jazzy-take where you can practically smell the ocean. Howard Collins' electric guitar works in sync with Havens' smooth delivery for a song that's mellow without need for apology.
9) No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed:
Mixed Bag gets its votes and is surely his best-known album, but the follow-up [i]Something Else Again[/i] has several tunes worth putting on repeat. Havens didn't write many. So when he does, it's time to listen. This track was "reworked" by progressive rock 'n' rollers Yes for their second album Time And A Word.
8) Handsome Johnny:
Havens wrote this anti-war song with Lou Gossett, Jr., who was still a relatively unknown actor in 1967. Everyone has to start somewhere. That's why I ask for the autograph of every waiter, hostess and Best Buy employee I meet. You should, too!
7) I Pity The Poor Immigrant:
Everyone covered Bob Dylan in the 1960s. People still cover him today, if they're smart or out of material. Dylan released this song on the skeletal John Wesley Harding album and while Havens didn't quite transform his chosen cut quite like Hendrix who did a complete facelift on "All Along The Watchtower," I'd say Richie at least gave this tune a nose job!
6) Strawberry Fields Forever:
I struggled with this one. I could have given it over to his cover of Fred Neil's "Dolphins" or to the obscure Leonard Cohen song "Priests," or to Havens' own "The Parable of Ramon" which I prefer, but I wanted the name recognition factor. Fact is, seeing the Beatles song where it is causes you to have involuntary reaction that those others just don't bring about. Havens wasn't shy on covering the boys in the Beatles, either. His cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" was his only charting hit, but I didn't want to be that obvious.
5) Inside of Him:
Reasons I'm a terrible critic? I don't listen to words. I hear them, but I don't think about them the way people who likes words do. Reason I'm not a terrible critic? I listen to music and think about how it sounds. No idea what this song is about, literally, but it's "about" Jeremy Steig's flute capturing that somber mood that makes you wish you could sit and stare at the countryside all afternoon and not have another thing to do. I don't want to be successful. I want to be tan!
4) Morning, Morning:
When this Tuli Kupferberg song was performed with The Fugs it was a blurry and ghostly prayer, heightened by a production so basic and weird that I'm still not sure who those voices are. Havens turns the song into reality, in full-color.
The song is six-minutes long and it could go forever. Again, I can only imagine a sunny day either spent in the mountains or at the beach. I don't even know if I could listen to this song in the winter. That Jerry Merrick wrote this song at the beginning of his career is both blessing and curse, though if he still collects royalties on it, it's a blessing.
Sometimes your best ideas are the ones you come up with under duress. Hundreds of thousands of young people waiting for music? These days audiences boo comedians, radio DJs, opening acts or anyone who isn't the headliner or someone they came to see. So imagine walking out there with your folkie guitar and running out of songs and then being told to keep going. I'm sure Richie was damn glad he chose this and not "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." And I'm sure he's even happier that he opened at Woodstock and not Altamont.
1) What More Can I Say, John?:
The album Richard P. Havens, 1983 was the obligatory double album that all serious artists attempted in order to establish their seriousness. The live tracks, especially of songs from previous albums, are filler. Good filler, but hardly an artistic statement. But the originals made a case for Havens as a legitimate songwriter. Sure, the Vietnam War stuff dates it, but if you just let the melody take you there: you won't give a damn who John is.