Remembering Richie Havens
I hitchhiked to the first Woodstock festival in 1969 with only a few dollars in my pocket. When I arrived at the site, I actually went to the ticket window and bought one ticket, to the Saturday night performance because the Grateful Dead were my favorite band at the time, and the Merry Pranksters were my biggest role models. The Prankster bus (Further) and most of the Pranksters were at the event, although the Chief, Ken Kesey, was hiding in Mexico at the time, avoiding arrest on a minor marijuana charge because he was afraid they were going to throw the book at him for being a counterculture leader. After all, Tim Leary had gotten ten years for two seeds in Texas.
The event was so much more massive than expected. They were trying to erect a fence around the site while I was buying that $7 ticket with most of the money I had on me. You could buy all three days for $18, but I didn’t have that much money on me. A few hours later, promoter Michael Lang took Prankster Ken Babbs’ advice and tore down the fence and declared Woodstock a free concert. I should have that ticket stashed somewhere in my vast archives but haven’t seen it in years.
They had the sound system ready to go long before any of the major acts showed up. A band called Sweetwater was supposed to open the show, an LA version of Jefferson Airplane that nobody ever heard of. But Sweetwater was stuck in traffic and could not reach the site. After that, helicopters were used to bring in the bands. Finally, after a long wait, Richie Havens was sent out to warm up the crowd with only an acoustic guitar, but that warmup lasted for hours as they told Richie just to keep vamping. Richie had been a doo wop and gospel singer from Brooklyn who’d moved to Greenwich Village and become a hippie. After 2 and half hours Richie had played out every song he knew, and still, no other act was ready to play. So Richie performed that most famous example of Improvisational Ritual Theater: he made up a song on the spot and called it “Freedom.” Because after all, freedom was what the counterculture was all about. And that became one of the most memorable moments of Woodstock.
As we contemplate the epidemic of violence in our culture, brought on by the perfect storm of pills for everyone, guns for everyone, and graphic violence pornography for everyone, one wonders if another generation will ever emerge honoring non-violence, like mine did in the 1960s.
Richie died last night of a heart attack in his home in Jersey City. His spirit is a good place to be.