I am in no way qualified to write anything really insightful or meaningful about Richie Havens – either in terms of the man or the music. Having said that, he has had a profound influence at various times in my life and it was with desperate sadness that I heard the news of his passing on Monday evening. So on that basis I hope you’ll indulge me a few words in that respect…
As those of you familiar with the Gig Almanac will know, my early musical life got off to something of an inauspicious start, albeit the world of hair rock remains to this day an only-just-guilty pleasure. Things began to change, however, when in late 1992 the BBC broadcast ‘Bobfest’ ((c) Neil Young) – a tribute concert in Madison Square Garden celebrating Bob Dylan’s then 30 year career in music. I had until that point rebelled very much against my father’s love of Bob Dylan – finding it easy to dislike the awful reedy voice played on poorly recorded cassettes in the car on long holiday journeys. This particular night though I was exposed to the genius of Dylan’s songs through some wonderful performances from the collective great and good who had assembled in his honour.
The roll call in hindsight was stunning – highlights including Lou Reed following Stevie Wonder, before Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Harrison and Roger McGuinn. My attention was grabbed initially by Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready (I was and remain a huge Pearl Jam fan) with an awesome mandolin-driven ‘Masters of War’ and then Neil Young, who I was aware of through links with Vedder & co.
In the middle of the concert, however, someone called Richie Havens took the stage – apparently a “mainstay of the folk scene” of whom I had never heard before. A big man, bald-headed with huge beard, with acoustic guitar, takes a seat centre stage – exuding a sense of strength and power combined with a gentle warmth in his smile. What followed – a rendition of ‘Just Like A Woman’ – remains one of my favourite live performances ever. I remember being simply taken aback by the sound coming from just one man and a guitar. Havens’ voice is perfect for the song and the guitar work was simply stunning – I could not quite comprehend the combination of speed and control that built up over the performance. I had never witnessed something so simple, so straightforward, yet so affecting and powerful. Through this song, and Masters of War, and Young’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’, and Wonder’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, something clicked and my view of Bob Dylan would change forever.
The double CD of the night’s concert is the first I ever actively sought out on day of release, a few months later, and the Havens track is a favourite to this day. Following the formal introduction via his friends and peers that night, I have over the years fallen in love with Dylan and his work – which has become a very important part of my life. I became aware as well of many of the efforts made to cover Dylan’s songs and am convinced that, despite the likes of both Baez and the Byrds, no-one does it as well as Richie Havens. Judge for yourself:
(excuse the odd host and oriental adverts, but the only version I can find)
Look also for Havens’ cover of ‘Tombstone Blues’ on the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic ‘I’m Not There’ (an overall amazing album of Dylan covers as it goes…).
Beyond that elemental point in proceedings, I had also discovered the work of Richie Havens – in many ways as powerful as that of Dylan. My next exposure to Havens would be the film footage from Woodstock – some 33 years before that night in New York, including the following (improvised) performance – one of the most raw, extraordinary things I have ever seen and probably ever will…
…and on that note, enough. Simply rest in peace, one of the most wonderfully talented, beautiful, gentle and genuine musicians ever.
It breaks my heart that I never saw you perform live.