I’m thinking about Norman Greenbaum and his remarkable everlasting one hit wonder, his pop sing along tune Spirit in the Sky (1969).
As we are all hearing about the passing (April 22, 2013) of the incredible musician and fine human being, Richie Havens, and therefore remembering the Woodstock Festival (1969) to which his name is indelibly and karmically linked for all time, I can’t help think about Alvin Lee of Ten Years After who also just passed on March 6, 2013. Lee’s career like Havens, was catapulted forever into the stratosphere by his band’s appearance at Woodstock. The same career explosion happened to Jimi Hendrix and The Who from Woodstock. So many of the Woodstock rockers have passed that I started fantasizing about Spirit in the Sky and how many Woodstock alumni could be jamming together on the other side having a 1969 style reunion. Bob Hite of Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Rick Danko, Levon Helm—all playing together I pray.
In 2009 I wrapped up a project called the Woodstock Experience, an incredible limited edition beautiful book from Genesis Publications (UK) and along with a few other fantastic people, Woodstock producer Michael Lang, Cutter LaKind and Robby Elson, we’d conducted dozens of Woodstock interviews. I’d worked on staff at Woodstock and I was determined to interview as many staff members and surviving musicians and as many audience members as I could. Between 2006 and 2009 we were shocked constantly as one talented musician after another passed on and their stories went away with them – up in smoke and gone forever. But because of the incredible Woodstock documentary, their performances at least from that show are still with us.
So Back to Richie Havens. His story is well known. He opened the show, unintentionally and certainly not booked to open, for hours singing and making up songs, including the now iconic Freedom song– on the spot, while Woodstock techs scrambled to get the sound system working and ready to electrify. Richie was good natured and toothless at the time, one of the things people remember, and just riffing and of course, this is now all the stuff of a rock legend. Woodstock put him on the map and he knew it. He even told the AP in a 2009 interview:
“Everything in my life, and so many others’, is attached to that train.”
Photo courtesy of: Dan Garson’s Woodstock Experience
After Woodstock, Richie got not only teeth but commercial success and constant bookings and a few hits here and there. He sang jingles and made money but was always humble and always deeply respected as a kind of treasure. I spoke to an old friend today, a musician who lives in Hawaii, who remembered meeting him outside one of the folk clubs of the early 60s in Greenwich Village and what a gentle man (two words!) he was then and remained so.
I went to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in New York with Michael Lang, my dear friend and Woodstock producer, and we ran into Richie in the backstage area. He was as warm and dear right there as he always was on stage, a gracious generous soul – for all to see and experience.
Richie Havens had humanity and beauty that shined through his voice, and a sincerity and authenticity that was as unique as his many memorable songs. Rest in Peace Richie Havens, you’ve given all of us so much peace with your voice.
Richie, we love you.