Richie Havens Interview
Richie Havens kicked off the festivities at the original Woodstock Festival.
He walked on stage and sang “Freedom”. If you saw the Woodstock
film, then you know just how memorable and moving the experience was.
Richie has a new CD out on Rhino Records titled "Cuts to the Chase" and
an upcoming film role in the movie -"Failure to Disperse" about
the L.A. riots of 1992. Richie is also the Founder and Chairman of The Natural
Guard, an organization dealing with environmental issues.
We talked with Richie Havens about a career that's spanned over three
Q. - Richie, when did you realize that you could make a living singing
and playing guitar?
A. -I think very early on, maybe two and a half years into just playing
around the coffee houses and passing the basket. I was making a living.
I only had to pay $52 a month rent for a five room apartment. That wasn't
a great deal. However, in those days, $52 was a great deal, if you still
didn't have a job to do it with. But, working is passing the basket. Between
buying strings and getting free sandwiches in a lot of these places we played
in, we managed to all live not uncomfortably, just comfortably.
Q. - You just have to wonder if you could do the same thing today.
A. -I don't know, unless you used the same format, and openness to the
audience we had. Our audience, in a way, came from all over the world, most
of the time, for seven years. It was tourists and Americans.
Q. - What time period would that have been?
A. - 1961 right on through.
Q. - You told one newspaper you're not in show business, you're in the
A. - That's right.
Q. - What did you mean by that?
A. - In show business for the most part, what a person has to offer is
let's say surface oriented. It isn't very depthful. I think in communication
what is offered, is as depthful as possible.
Q. - Give me an example of someone in show business.
A. - Liza Minnelli. She's a song interpreter, but she's dong it for an
audience that is there to hear the songs and to see Liza Minnelli do that.
Liza Minnelli has to please that audience the way she believes she has to.
And, the way she has to, comes from that genre of show business, the stage.
There's a difference between understanding who the stage belongs to. That
makes a difference. Now, I'd also believe that most of the people who came
up when I did, were also in the communication business, but didn't know
Q. - Like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez?
A. - Yeah. That's right.
Q. - You were a part of the '93 Presidential Inaugural Entertainment.
Was that the first time you entertained at the White House?
A. - Actually, we weren't at the White House, but, we were at one of the
Balls. It was called the Earth Ball. It was Vice-President Gore's Ball really.
I think Clinton was part of it, too. It was geared towards our sense and
all of the people involved in the new administration with the environmental
Q. - Speaking of the environment, how do you combat
the message of a Rush Limbaugh who calls the people concerned with the
A. - The wonderful thing about people who listen to Rush Limbaugh is they
actually have the time to do it. (Laughs). The people who live in America
really don't have the time to do it.
Q. - You performed at the Isle of Wright Festival in '69. Didn't Jimi
Hendrix also perform there?
Q. - Did you ever talk to Hendrix?
A. - Well, I actually sent him to Greenwich Village to become Jimi
Hendrix, in a way. He wasn't Jimi Hendrix when I met him. He was a guitarist
for a band. I met him right after I made my first album. The whole incident
was about him getting his own band and not having to get a job through the
union to play for somebody else. That's what the gist of the conversation
was about. I thought he could do his own thing, and sent him to the Cafe
Wha! Three months later I was asked by a friend to go hear this great player
down at the Cafe Wha! which turned out to be Jimmy James (a stage name for
Jimi Hendrix) and the Blue Flames. So we were friends from the beginning.
Q. – What was his mood like when you last
A. – He was very depressed, overly depressed. That was weeks before
he died, maybe less than.
Q. – He died in 1970.
A. – There were two Isle of Wrights. There was one right after Woodstock
which was the first one I went to.
Q. - And you performed at the second festival as well?
Q. - What was Hendrix so down about?
A. - It was about his business, about how someone was chasing him around,
suing his record co. claiming to have another contract on him, a prior contract,
which was untrue. But Reprise (Records - Hendrix's label) just paid
him off. So, the guy just felt he could do it around the world, and actually
didn't succeed in the rest of it. But, he really messed up his (Jimi's)
business. And, at the same time, he just wanted to play music and not have
to bite the guitar and do all of that stuff. His management didn't think
he should do that, so he was depressed about that.
Q. - Let's talk about your performance at Woodstock '69...
A. - The original Festival was not called Woodstock. It was called an
Aquarian Exposition of Arts, Crafts and Music. Woodstock was the name given
to the event, because the movie was called Woodstock. It didn't happen
in Woodstock. It happened in Bethel. Bethel means, interestingly enough,
House of God. And that's where it really happened. We must make that distinction
for the kids once and for all. (Laughs). Everybody who showed up there came
from all over this country. They were American people of all ages. It wasn't
just kids. It wasn't just drugs. It was Vietnam. It was Civil Rights. It
was Women's Rights. It was Gray Power. It was a lot of things.
Q. - And it was more underground than commercial wasn't it?
A. - Oh absolutely, that's why the numbers were cut down in half on the
first day by the press, and still is cut in half as far as I'm concerned.
It was eight hundred and fifty thousand people. They always say half a million
Q. - Where'd you come up with your figure?
A. - That was the original ending figure over five days. The real number.
You see, when there were five hundred thousand people up there the first
day, the press said two hundred and fifty. And that's what the press still
does to things that American people come together about. They cut the numbers
Q. - And that's done why - to lessen the influence?
A. - Of course. That controls the magnitude of what is actually happening,
which is American people gathering together to share information, music,
arts and crafts.
Q. - How long did your set last at Woodstock, I mean Bethel?
A. - Two hours and forty something minutes. I was first. There was nobody
else to go on.
Q. - But we only saw you for a few minutes on the Silver Screen.
A. - Yeah, two songs. (Laughs).
Q. - I suppose if we had to watch everybody's performance, we'd be watching
a movie that lasted three days.
A. - That's right. That's the point I'm making. What you see in the film
is what the film was made into. What was happening there was much deeper.
It was the fulfillment of the l960's for us.
Q. - Are you in possession of your entire performance at Bethel?
A. - Now, this is interesting. Right at this very moment, I am basically
in court. I am supposed to have every bit of film that wasn't used the day
the movie came out. I haven't gotten it yet from Warner Bros. (Laughs).
So, you know where I'm at, at this point with them.
A. - Yeah. It just began, and it's something that should've been.
Q. - After your set, did you stick around?
A. - For one night. Then I went to Michigan the next day.
Q. - What a come down that must've been.
A, - No. The fact of the matter was, I knew just flying into that space
that we had finally accomplished what we really needed which is numbers
that couldn't be swept under the rug.
Q. - Was it your manager Albert Grossman who got you that gig?
A. - It was actually William Morris (Agency). But, he was my manager at
Q. - Did he think it was gonna be such a big deal?
A. – By that time I had been to Europe twice, and Albert and I didn’t
talk about that kind of stuff. (Laughs). For a long time, I knew Albert
Grossman, since 1963, when he first signed me to do records. At that point,
I was so naïve, I thought I signed a management contract. I was wondering
why he didn’t get me a job after that. (Laughs). But, it was basically
an independent recording contract which didn’t happen till 1967. So,
Albert and I knew each other as friends most of that time, I mean all of
that time actually, as well as an independent producer. Finally, when we
did make a deal with Verve/Folkways Records, then that's when we really
cemented everything else, as far as management.
Q. - Who managed you between '63 and '67?
A, - I did it myself. I was in Greenwich Village. There were six coffee
houses we could play in all night long, and pass the basket. We did 12 to
15 sets a night. Everybody.
Q. - How long did each set last?
A. - Twenty minutes.
Q. - That's a long night.
A. - Well, in the summertime, we started in the daytime. Hootnanny started
at 12 and went all night till five or six.
Q. - When did you sleep?
A. - Who slept? (Laughs).
Q. - That was a real proving ground.
A. - It was. It was a great one. We got to hear a lot of people play music,
even those who passed through.
Q. - You told one publication that what you're really attached to is the
energy you get from, the audience when you're performing. Even when
the audience is sitting down.
A. - Oh, absolutely. What I mean is, many people gathered in a room,
most of which don't even know each other, all communicating on a silent
level with the same song and one person, whoever is on stage, and then reacting
to that together. That's something we never give ourselves credit for being
able to do; just be human beings. That's the kind of energy. Collective
Q. - What kind of a role are you playing in "Failure to Disperse"?
A. - I'm playing a person who is in a cell with several other people. It's
during the L.A. Riots and we're all in there for different reasons, some innocently,
some vicariously, having nothing to do with the riots and a couple that
have something to do with the riots by just being in the wrong place at the
wrong time. Some people have been in that cell before, and some have not.
It is the drama of people coming to grips with their actual situation in life
and how in the end it's a very common situation no matter who we think we
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