Richie Havens: still a road warrior after all these years

By Brad Heffern

Voices recently spoke with Richie Havens in anticipation of his April 25 show at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Havens, most famous for his performance at the original Woodstock, has kept at it, singing and performing for the last 30 years. When we sat down to talk, the loquacious Havens spoke about his new album, Wishing Well; his recent collaboration with Groove Armada; and what touring is like after 40 years.

Voices: Why did you take off so much time in between albums?

Havens: Basically because I’m on the road every weekend all year round. They book me so far ahead that I never really think about the time. I also don’t force writing or anything. When it comes, it comes. I was lucky that it did. I had been telling everyone the…album is called Wishing Well, and that was four-and-a-half years ago (laughs). So, for a long time, they were saying, “Where is it?” And I was saying, “It’s coming, it’s coming.”

You often tend to put cover songs on your albums. What draws you to doing them?

The song itself. I loved “Love is Alive” [a Gary Wright cover] for the entire time it was out, but I could never figure out a way to do it. Because basically, in the time that it came out, it was really a keyboard record, one of the best ever made. And the song always stuck in my brain.

In the song “Handsome Johnny” [which originally contained verses for all American wars until Vietnam], you tend to add verses for new wars. Do you plan to add a verse for the current war in Iraq?

Yes, I have done that live before. You know, a lot of people have asked me the same question. Some people say, “You have to put that last verse on!” But God knows that if I keep doing this, I can’t hope that a new verse will be the last one, considering how crazy we are about the rest of the world. “Handsome Johnny” is an anti-war song, and it’s against all war. Eventually, I think that verse will pop in my head anyway, and I will definitely have to do it. It’s one of those songs that comes up when it feels that way. I always know the first and last songs I will do when I come on stage, and everything else in between just happens, to me as well as the audience. So the audiences basically pick what I sing by their senses and their attitude of how they react. That’s always been how I’ve been able to formulate my sharing with those who I’m with. So part of the sharing is what they themselves suggest to me.

How did your collaboration with Groove Armada come about?

They sent me an e-mail last year, asking me if I would write some lyrics to their music. I didn’t even know who they were at the time, but I said sure. I’m always open to collaborate with people. I was told that they are electronica, but when I heard the music I knew that it was not just electronica, it was mostly a seven or eight piece band with a Mac on the side. And they are very wonderful musicians, incredible musicians. So, I got the CD and I basically was really inspired by the type of music they were playing, and to be able to write two songs for them. And [the songs] went straight onto the album and that was that! Next thing I know, they were asking me to write two more for the next album (laughs), which I did also. And the interesting thing was, last year I got to go to England. I was playing some shows there, and the time coincided with the end of the Groove Armada tour in London. So I got to sing it with them for the first time then. I’ve done the songs with them a few more times since then. At the Glastonbury festival, I had the privilege of doing my show, and then going to the other stage to perform with them. So, it’s been a really wonderful thing for both of us, because everybody seems to like it, especially their fans. It’s very interesting doing that type of music, because I started out singing without a guitar-of course then it was doo-wop music-but it’s very nice being able to go on stage and just sing without having to worry about playing guitar. Just to be able to do the lyrics.

In the past you’ve been very involved in environmental issues. Do you have anything currently going on?

I’m proud to say that the things we started way back then are still happening. The Natural Guard is still happening. We used to get kids from the school system-about 30,000 a year until the money went out of education. We learned that children don’t really have any idea what an environment is. We used to say, “What’s an environment?” And they would all raise their hands very enthusiastically and they would all say the rainforest in Brazil (laughs). We would say, “Wait a minute, don’t you live in an environment?” And they would say, “No, we live in a city.” Wait a minute, you know, doesn’t a city have parks and green spaces and birds and chipmunks and rabbits? And they would go, “Oh yeah.” So I realized that there must be a way to bring that closer together. So when the Natural Guard was formed, the idea of it was for kids to be able to use their own community as the endangered environment. And to come up with what they thought needed change and how they could change it in their own community. We started out with 17 or 18 kids at the first chapter we started at New Haven. Then we were immediately surrounded by chapters all around us in Connecticut. And kids from all walks of life. We managed to bring the kids from all the chapters together at least twice a year. People would say that we couldn’t do that because the kids were very different, some from the inner city and some from the outer city. But kids are kids. We never had a problem with any of the kids that we brought together. They were so enthusiastic about being able to meet more kids that were doing something, and to learn from them. Those things sort of prove that not only can kids change their environment, but [they can] change the people in it. Out of the original 18 kids we had, 14 or 15 are in college now, and becoming what they really want to become. It’s an incredible opportunity to change things that has to be done locally.

Were there any particular inspirations for the new album?

Not really. But when I’m out there I always hear things by chance or by providence (laughs), and it always affects me. There are a lot of young writers that are brilliant. Everywhere I go, there is someone locally opening for me. And you think that a new song cannot be written, that it’s all been done. And that’s just completely untrue. It’s a never-ending supply of music of hope and change. I’m a song singer. I keep songs alive that I think the next generation might need to hear, because they sure aren’t going to hear them on the radio (laughs).

After touring for basically 40 years, is it still the same?

It’s still like the first day. I’m fortunate enough to go back to places where I’ve been and see that the audience that saw me the first time have gone on, and now it’s others in their place, hopefully with some who saw me that first time. It’s interesting because every year, an entire section of the young age group gets to see Woodstock for the first time. And I go, “God, they just saw it for the first time!” But it’s been that way all along. People building up to become an audience wherever I go. They ask me to come, and I go. That’s what I do. And I’ve only cancelled a couple of gigs in all 40 years, because it’s what I do. So, in a sense, I’m in living history, trying to chronicle the changes we go through. And that’s where I want to be.