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Far From Flatbush

Far from 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.
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