It was while sitting in a second run theatre in the east end of Toronto, Ontario that I first saw Richie Havens perform. In 1977 I was sixteen and the Woodstock Music Festival had taken place eight years earlier, but the movie of the event extended its life for people like me who had no interest in the pop culture of the mid seventies. In the days before punk hit Canada the music and the politics of the late sixties seemed far more alive then anything our own time had to offer.
Which explains why on that Friday night there were about forty of us sitting spread out through the Roxy Cinema, squinting through the haze produced by the smoke from about that many nickel bags of Mexican pot, at a so-so print of Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace And Music. Hearing the soundtrack on my brother's cheap stereo at home hadn't prepared me for seeing the force of nature that was Richie Havens playing guitar and singing on the screen. With the camera shooting him in a tight close up, Richie filled the screen, and you could see individual rivulets of sweat running down his face as he curled his body around the guitar he was strumming and poured out his soul into a microphone.
Although there were many other firsts in terms of seeing people perform that night, Richie Havens' performance was the one that left the most indelible impression on me that night. The intensity that he played with and the incredible passion that was being transmitted by this one man to the thousands of people in the audience on screen, and to us in the old and tacky theatre helped make him far more memorable then some of his more famous contemporaries.
It's 2008 now and I own a DVD copy of the director's cut of Woodstock as a memento of my own youth, and as a historical record of the event itself. While some of the musicians have become history, and some of the music sounds dated, Richie Havens has not been swallowed up by time, and as can be told by listening to his latest release on the Verve Forecast label, Nobody Left To Crown his music is as powerful and relevant as it ever was.
There aren't too many people left from the Woodstock era with the moral authority to be singing about the state of the world anymore. They've either left the world, or been co-opted by the very establishment they were supposedly so intent upon changing. Musically many of them have become vapid and are content to play out their remaining years as near caricatures of their former selves. So the performer who has adhered to his ideals for the last forty years and continues to express them through his music like Richie Havens does is a rarity.
Six of the thirteen songs on Nobody Left To Crown are new originals that Mr. Havens has written for this disc, while the seven covers are ones that speak to either issues of the day or express an idea that he cares passionately about. That last bit might be a tad redundant as I can't think of Richie Havens singing a song if he wasn't able to make an emotional commitment of some kind to it. Interestingly enough one of the covers dates back to the Woodstock era, Pete Townshead's "Won't Get Fooled Again", and Havens' interpretation of it keeps it as pertinent today as it was then.
That's the thing about Nobody Left To Crown that's important to know, Richie Havens maybe a figure some of you think of as belonging to a time in the past, but that is unfair to the man and his music. None of these songs are exercises in nostalgia, nor is the disc some sort of sixties revival thing. This recording has been made for today's world, and the messages it has to impart are relevant to what is going on around us. Listen to the second song on the disc, "Say It Isn't So" and you'll hear what I mean.
"Say it isn't so/ That the world must choose again/ Who is foe and who is friend". It could be a commentary on any of the numerous wars that are ongoing in the world today, or it could also be about how our society seems to demand an us and a them in almost every circumstance. We are always searching out somebody to blame for the things that are wrong in our lives. It could be the poor people for being a drag on the economy because we have to pay taxes to make sure they get their welfare, the immigrants who steal all the good jobs, or the minority that got the job and not you. It's our choice whether we live a life of perpetual wars or "realize we are all the same" in the important ways, in the ways that truly matter.
Whether it's his cover of Jackson Brown's "Lives In The Balance" questioning America's friends of convenience in the world, and how can a country say it stands for freedom when it has friends that kill their own people. Or the title track, Richie's own "Nobody Left To Crown", where he questions the way America elects it's leaders, he's showing us what lies beneath the surface sheen of the twenty-four hours of non-stop distraction we call a culture that diverts attention away from the real problems in the world. The more time people spend talking about their favourite celebrity, or reading about their most recent affairs, the less they spend concerned with the state of the world around them. Who cares if the infant mortality rate in America is as high as it is in some developing nations when you can look at candid pictures of some star's boob job?
He doesn't say any of these things directly, he's too good a song writer for that. Instead he points us in certain directions in the hopes that we will think for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. One of the ways he has of making us listen is his voice. While it might have lost a little power over the years, it's expressive qualities and the sense of urgency he can impart with it is still more then sufficient to grab our attention and hold it.
The same goes for the music, as Havens still plays his guitar with the staccato strumming style that made him famous and that has pushed many a song into orbit. However. this isn't just a solo recording as he's accompanied at various times by everything from a cello to the twenty-six string mohan veena played by Harry Manx. While an exotic instrument like either of the two just mentioned can be overused to the point where they become the focal point of a song, in the case of Nobody Left To Crown the instruments are used perfectly to accent which ever song they are being used in. Either the sitar sounding mohan veena will shiver in the background of one song or the cello will gently interject a counter point to the rhythm of another. All in all these are beautifully crafted arrangements, whether they are Richie Havens' originals or covers of another person's work.
There's something of the prophet about Richie Havens, not that he makes any predictions with his songs, but rather the fact that something about him suggests that not only can he see things in a way that not many of us can, he can also tell us about them. For more then forty years Richie Havens has been singing impassioned pleas that we examine the lives we are leading and make some decisions about them. Nothing Left To Crown shows that as a performer and a composer he continues to be a musical force to be reckoned with.
(Originally posted August 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.