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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 decades now.

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 communications business.
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 it.

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 concern.

Q. - Speaking of the environment, how do you combat the message of a Rush Limbaugh who calls the people concerned with the environment, "environmental wackos"?
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?
A.-That's right.

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 saw him?
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?
A.-Yeah.

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 people.

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 down.

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.

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Q.-Litigation.
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 that time.

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 energy.

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 are.
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