Richie Havens, still using his thumb at 69
By Enrique Lopetegui
After speaking with Richie Havens on the phone, I feel I understand
more about his fiery opening performance and magical exit at
Woodstock '69 he lives in a trance.
He speaks slowly, thinking and relishing each word, but often
interrupting sentences and starting over, not necessarily finishing
nor following his original thought and topic.
His songs are simple and direct, and, over the past five decades,
have strengthened his status as an American folk and rock icon.
Nobody Left to Crown is the 22nd album (not counting compilations and
live recordings) by a man who started as a teenage doo-wop singer,
turned beatnik, and hasn't stopped since his legendary three-hour
performance at the greatest rock-'n'-roll festival in history.
For his San Antonio show, he'll be accompanied only by "Guild," his guitar.
"It'll be just the two of us," he says calmly, knowing well that's
all he needs.
Even though you're a songwriter, you're known mostly for Woodstock
and your memorable versions of songs by others. Yet, some people
think singing a cover is a lesser art.
Long ago, when I stopped doing doo-wop in the early '60s, I stopped
doing show business and began a career in the communication business.
What I say, really, is "do what you say and do what you love." I sit
down to write only when it hits me. I decided I was never going to
write a song again, if necessary, and I was only going to sing songs
that were true to me. I knew that if I would get turned on by any
song, then most people would as well.
One of your latest great covers is Pete Townshend's "Won't Get
Fooled Again," which you transformed and made your own while keeping
its original essence. I played it at the office and no one noticed it
was that song. Always a sign of a good cover.
I see what you mean … (laughs) I have a lot of songs in my resumé,
songs that I always loved, whether they were written by me or others.
But I never say, "OK, for this album I'll do such-and-such song." No.
It just happens, and it is what it is. This song fits perfectly for
this album and this era.
"Say It Isn't So" is a wonderful anti-war anthem. When did you write
it? Did you dust it off from the past?
No, it was recorded for the album.
It makes me think of November 2008, if you know what I mean…
No, I wrote it before that … (laughs) But isn't that so? That's what
happens to me. Songs either from the past, or specifically written
for an album, continue being relevant as times goes by.
Since we mentioned November 2008, aren't you a little disappointed
that things aren't moving a little faster in Washington?
No, no, I'm not. Because the way they left it for [Obama] was as bad
as it could be. I feel that he has the feeling and the vision to work
with this, and … [he pauses and starts laughing] Man, there are so
many things I want to say, and songs come through my mind. I gotta
tell my mind: "You gotta stop, let me get this one out first!" [he
laughs and resumes talking on an entirely different subject] I stay
loose because it's the only way the truth is going to come for me,
you know? But now I have this whole teenage generation. They have
hearts. What I mean is the heart of these songs are happening now.
And [teenagers] need to participate on these songs, they should be
able to see what I see, to push it forward.
In "If I," one of your originals in the new album, you sang "If I
could show the pictures/ of the faces I believe/ they'd all be
children smiling/ with nothing up their sleeves." What is it about
children that inspires you so much?
I called them the Huggie generation… (laughs) I have five
grandchildren, and I look at them and go, look at these five kids,
16-18 years old, and the first thing they say [imitating a child's
voice,] "Can I have a hug?" You know? Male or female, it doesn't
matter. They're here. They're already here. And I love it.
One more question: Are you still touching the frets with your left thumb?
Oh, yeah… (laughs) It's the only way I know how!