Richie Havens: the Sixties

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The Sixties:
Greenwich Village and the Beatniks with Richie Havens
Words by Martin Halo

Brooklyn, NY — The blistering hum of propelling rotor blades completely bombards the senses. Hell has manifested itself on the surface of planet earth. The vegetation of thick humidity laden jungle that passes below, littered with death, acts as its crust, as bombs of fire incinerate the souls of men.

For the scores of American service men who arrive in Vietnam by the flying steel cages of troop transport the only payoff for their service is the horror of life in country and a flag draped box back home to their families. The only thing to ease their impending doom are dens of opiate sedation and sexual promiscuity before the orders come once again to take their arms for another seductive stare deep into the belly of the beast.

It is the summer of 1969. The New World has exploded from a powder keg chain reaction ignited by political deceit, sexual voyeurism, the drug culture, and the public slaying of Martin Luther King Jr. As the country descends deeper into a pit of almost irreconcilable despair and conflict, the War on the other side of the world rages with is the nation’s youth providing the most sensible voice.

With Washington’s hands covered in blood, and not enough speech spin writers to wipe them clean, their still remained an innocence present among the cultural American movements.

The blistering hum of the propelling rotor blades completely bombards the senses. Heaven has manifested itself on the surface of planet earth. The open fields of Yasgur’s Farm which pass below are littered with a half of million smiling faces. Music unites the souls of men. For the miles of hippies who arrive at Woodstock in their road worthy steel cages their payoff was the experience of legend as they defined the end of an innocent decade of forward thinking, unity, and movements for peace.

Unlike an Army of faceless marines steeping off the helicopters in East Asia, it was Richie Havens who stepped foot on farmland at Woodstock and walked into history. With Artie Kornfeld psychedelically paralyzed, and the financially stricken Michael Lang frantically pushing Havens on stage, it was his solo sweat drenched three hour performance which set the tone. Havens’ voice floated throughout the air, “Freedom,” he sang; “Freedom.” The shockwave reverberations carried around the globe to the troops with their heads pinned in rice paddy mud. Pressed down from the weight of flying metal, Havens’ was not just speaking for them, but at the very moment he was speaking for a generation.

War, torment, civil injustice, and revolution: The Sixties.

“When bubble gum took over the radio we dropped out and found ourselves at Miles Davis’ doorstep,” states Richie Havens. “The Sixties was a turnstile ushering a generation into a whole different world. I went because of Allen Ginsburg and all of those guys still hanging out at the Gaslight Café. If you ventured into the Village to hear poetry you also heard these singer/songwriters. Not all of the coffee houses had poetry because it was dying out, mainly because the newspapers were beating it up pretty harshly at the time. They would portray the scene as crazy people playing conga drums, smoking cigarettes with long holders, and wearing those black French hats,” as laughter follows.

“They had us pinned with little goatees and would satire us with drawings of what we were supposed to look like. But there was a difference to the movements in the late 50s. It wasn’t just Beatniks; a lot of the singers/songwriters came from the business. A guy by the name of Freddy Neil, who really inspired me, and Glen Campbell were the first and only two acoustic guitar players who appeared on every 1950s hit. When they got tired of doing that they sort of went their own separate ways,” Havens explains.

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Richie Havens:
“I believe the whole Beatnik thing from 1952 until 1961 was a very special time because we were getting a voice. We were all thinking something should have happened and then the Sixties came along. It needed a universal community which it turned into…”

“Glen went to the Midwest and Freddy came to New York. He was one of the first people I saw in Greenwich Village that sang songs which actually educated and changed my life.”

Fred Neil ended up being Richie Havens’ mentor and muse. After seeing Havens singing in harmony to his set at, the now famous, ‘Café Wha?’ Neil handed him a guitar and said, “Go learn some songs.” Three days later Havens was under the spotlight on MacDougal Street and remained there for seven years. As the decade flourished around him so did his musical ventures as Havens appeared at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and stood side by side as Bob Dylan rose to the forefront of the generational message. With the times in upheaval the question is posed if a culmination like Woodstock was something that the artistic community felt should have happened sooner; Havens replies.

“My answer to that is: Not only did we feel it about to happen but we all thought it should have happened a lot sooner than it did. I believe the whole Beatnik thing from 1952 until 1961 was a very special time because we were getting a voice. We were all thinking something should have happened and then the Sixties came along. It needed a universal community which it turned into,” he offers. “It was turning into a place where all the arts came to perform with the subject matter focused on our lives. Interesting for me I went to Greenwich Village because of poetry, I never thought that I would be onstage eventually singing.”

“It was Freddy Neil, who wrote Everybody is talking at me / Can’t hear a word they say,” as Havens gently sings. “If you listen to those words you are getting the atmosphere of what the Village was all about.”

“Now just imagine that being written in the late 50s. It is wild to think about. Radio wouldn’t play it. If FM radio didn’t happen none of us, including Bob Dylan would still be here.”

I couldn’t help but think of how Haven’s ideology reminds me of another New York cultural legend. I feel like I am having deja vu with Patti Smith, literally as if she is speaking directly through this deep vocal tone.

“I don’t think they thought of themselves as musicians at all. None of them wanted to record albums. The music business was just not the place to be. That was part of the inspiration of the music that came out of New York City. They didn’t do it to get on radio; they did it because they felt it. Patti Smith was an artist who was born out of this. She was influenced in a poetic way and she managed to put it against music. She is another artist who actually got to sing her own poetry. That was the same for Bob Dylan.”

“I think the times now are just as volatile as the 1960s. We had to create the heart and mind connection back then but it is just DNA with the generations now. They don’t even have to think about it, everything around the youth of the nation today suggests the turmoil rising.”

Richie Havens is preparing to release his studio follow up to 2004’s Grace of The Sun. The session tapes are in the mastering process and are expected to be released in at a yet to be announced date in 2008. | Freedom