The Sporadic Beaver

The Distance We've Traveled

April 24, 2013

Tags: Richie Havens, Woodstock



Because I rarely know what I'm going to write till the morning I write it, these blog posts can be less than perfect. And sometimes, as was the case yesterday, I can write something without fully understanding what I've written.

The idea for a post about Richie Havens came to me in the shower yesterday morning. I knew that the story of seeing him perform at a corporate Christmas party was interesting, and that it said something, possibly profound, about money and Manhattan in the late 20th century. So I banged it out, gave it the generic title of "A Richie Havens Story," which seemed fine at the time, and posted it.

But it wasn’t until later that afternoon that a Facebook exchange brought the story into complete focus. “It must have been a surreal kind of shock to witness the hero of Woodstock playing to that crowd,” said Skip Slavik, a regular reader.

“Yes, exactly,” I replied. “It was like, ‘Man, things have sure come a long way from Woodstock.’”

The correct title for the piece popped into my head several hours after that, as I was walking on Broadway, on my way to the liquor store to buy some wine for dinner. I knew that “Far from Woodstock” was the correct title because it came with a melody. Except I didn’t know a song called “Far from Woodstock.” I then realized that the melody I was hearing in my head was “Miles from Nowhere,” an old Cat Stevens song that contains the lyric, “Lord my body has been a good friend/But I won’t need it when I reach the end.”

That’s when I fully understood what I’d written: Richie Havens was dead, and my story about seeing him perform at that party was a tale of men in suits who wanted to own a piece of musical history, if only for 20 minutes. But primarily it was about the distance we’ve all traveled, spiritually and otherwise, since Havens sang “Freedom” at Woodstock.

I went home. I changed the title and the last line. And I felt that, poetically, everything had fallen into place, if only for an evening.

Far from Woodstock

April 23, 2013

Tags: Richie Havens, Woodstock

Richie Havens, 1941-2013.
If you went to rock concerts in the 1970s and '80s, especially if you lived in New York, then Richie Havens was a musician you had to have seen at least once. I saw him more times than I can remember--at those two-dollar Schaefer concerts they used to have in Central Park, at City College, and at any number of free concerts all over the city.

But when Havens died yesterday, at 72, from a heart attack, at his home in Jersey City, it brought to mind the time that I saw him perform, in the early '90s, when a photographer invited me to a Christmas party at a photo agency where she worked, and the entertainment was none other than Richie Havens.

The image that stays with me is Havens, a freak with a long scraggly beard, wearing a dashiki, standing on a platform in the corner, and playing to a corporate crowd of about 50 people in dark business attire, suits who were looking on not with the pleasure that comes from listening to live music, but with what struck me as pride of ownership—the emotion you feel when you can do something because you have enough money to do it.

Obviously, this was a company that wanted to look “hip,” and hiring Havens was a way to do that within budget. But you could tell that Havens didn’t want to be there, playing to these people. You could sense an undertone of resentment as he performed without joy, looking like a freelance worker doing no more than what his contract specified: play for 20 minutes, and play “Freedom.”

It was a sacrilege, I thought, and to me that Christmas party became a symbol of the day I knew for sure that, to the exclusion of all else, Manhattan had become a place about money, far from Woodstock.