I was sad when I heard that Richie Havens died this past Monday (April 22). It's not like I was a big fan; after all, I only own three things – a double LP, Richie Havens on Stage, one downloaded song, and a DVD, The Guitar Style of Richie Havens, which is essentially an interview about his career conducted by Artie Tatum (Homespun Video).
But here's the thing: Richie Havens helped me get my first guitar.
Padre always had broad musical taste: cowboy songs, country, jazz, some classical. He sang and played the guitar. We owned Joan Baez records, along with the Smithsonian Woody Guthrie LPs, and Phil Ochs. So, it made perfect sense that he would take me to see the documentary Woodstock in 1970 or '71.
I was around 15 at the time. I'm not sure I knew the story of how Richie Havens opened that three day weekend after significant delays and set-backs.
All I knew was that Richie Havens was the bomb, as the kids used to say. That rhythm, that soul-full voice, that passion! Recordings don't really do the man justice — you've got to watch how he moves, how his feet dance during the music.
One thing that really impressed me was how he would retune his guitar during a song. Padre had taken me to a few coffee house concerts by then, and I'd never seen a guitarist do that before.
As I say, I was 15, with the same self-centered sense of entitlement that any other teenager would have. It was summer, and I had the house to myself most weekdays. I knew where Padre kept his guitar. And it made perfect sense that I could retune his guitar and pretend to be Richie Havens.
What I didn't know was that the guitar belonged to his father before him. Grandfather Will reportedly performed with that guitar, and led music in church with it. By rights, it would be passed on to the elder son (Brother Dave). I didn't know the guitar was already around 35 years old by that time.
Padre noticed, of course. He didn't punish me. He said he didn't mind if I played the guitar, but he didn't want it to be out of tune when I was done.
Of course, I didn't know what the hell I was doing.
So it came to pass that Padre drove to Driver Music and bought a Silvertone Guitar (a.k.a, the finger-killer) and a couple of teach yourself guitar books. He came to my room one evening — no special occasion that I can recall — handed me the guitar and books, and said “Knock yourself out.”
He did take pity on my fingers some months later, and lowered the bottom bridge. I played that guitar all through high school. I carried it out around in a cheap gig bag. I learned all the folk songs in those two books, then taught myself some finger-picking styles with the help of the first Leonard Cohen songbook.
I never forgot the impression Richie Havens made on me. In addition to the alternate tunings, I was also impressed by how he used rhythm. I've often tried to recapture that, in my own way. I was also impressed by how he joined "Tupelo Honey" with "Just Like a Woman" (see video above). Not an obvious pairing, but a story seems to be taking place under the surface, between the strums, behind the stretched notes.
I now own five guitars, including that one that originally belonged to Grandpa Will. I try to find new meanings in how I bend my voice, in the rhythms I play on the guitar. I even play one medley that tells its own story:
Thanks, Richie Havens, for that first guitar. Thanks for the passion that helped me persevere though the strings dug ruts in the fingers of my left hand and raised a boil on my right thumb. Thanks for the new rhythms you taught us. Thanks for your music, your ever-lasting music.