Author Bruce Pollock shares an excerpt from his new book The Bleecker Street Tapes
The folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village during the 1960s has been the source of movie magic and classic literature.
It was a wellspring of creativity that instilled a political idealism into youth culture through music, fashion and the written word. Bruce Pollock is a veteran music journalist and longtime Village resident who was out and about regularly during this halcyon period in lower Manhattan.
His new book The Bleecker Street Tapes: Echoes of Greenwich Village is out now on Trouser Press Books, and offers a collection of profiles and essays chronicling the Village folk movement from the ’60s through the ’80s. Among the artists featured within its pages include Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul & Mary, Melanie, Roger McGuinn, Buffy Saint-Marie, John Sebastian, Peter Tork, Janis Ian, The Roches, Suzanne Vega and Leonard Cohen among others.
One of Pollock’s favorite chapters in the book concerns the great Richie Havens, and Rock & Roll Globe is honored to share this excerpt today on the site.
“Even more than the regulars, like Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen and Phil Ochs, the denizens of the Gaslight will always hold a special place in their hearts for Richie Havens,” Pollock explains. “He was literally someone we followed from the streets and basket houses of the Village to the bigger stages of Carnegie Recital Hall and Woodstock. We applauded his self-taught, self-made approach and ascent as he tackled and redefined songs by Dylan, The Beatles, and Jerry Merrick. Through the tortuous journey to The Johnny Carson Show and national awareness, he always kept his exemplary cosmic cool. Play on, Richie!”
The Bleecker Street Tapes is available at The Book House and other independent book shops across the country.
Read on below.
RICHIE HAVENS: THE VOICE OF A GENERATION
By Bruce Pollock
IT’S A VOICE you remember, possessing in its cavernous reaches the smoky essence of an age. For a generation that grew up in the ’60s on MacDougal Street at four in the morning, came of age on W. 3rd, peaked on Bleecker, and pined for slum goddesses in the three Squares of Greenwich Village: Sheridan, Washington, and Tompkins, the voice of Richie Havens is right alongside the image of Bob Dylan squinting into the far distance as he walked arm in arm with Suzy Rotolo down a snowy Jones Street in the winter of ’61 on the cover of Freewheeling, collar up against the wind. Booming out of those frozen pipes and bellowing across Houston St. and down on into Chinatown, across Alphabet City to the river, this all-encompassing, ancient, bottomless, almost religious voice reverberates against the vacant and corroded buildings of the heart and the memory, evoking forever that eyes-on-the-prize-on-the-horizon feeling of nearly every scuffling straggler to set up a hat in front of an acoustic guitar in the service of a utopian folk vision that surpasseth understanding.
If Richie Havens is a household name now, in households with a radio or a television, where he can be heard several times an hour singing the praises of such quintessential entities as Amtrak, McDonald’s and Folger’s coffee, it’s because that voice stayed with us, trailed us through the years, from the dawning of Woodstock through the draining decades of our discontent. It’s because too many of us remembered that voice to let it subside into memory’s hollows. Too many hopeful neophytes, who rode their guitar cases like freights, remembered his incredible open-hearted soul and open-tunings, thumb wrapped around barre chords and broken strings, and sweating blood and tears, beating out Beatles’ songs, and Dylan songs, and “Drown in My Own Tears.” “Follow,” “The Clan,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” the left foot romping-stomping the rhythm, the right hand waving free.
“I was fortunate enough to come to the Village at a time when music was into the communication business rather than the music business,” Richie Havens reflects in a midtown office six flights above the funky city traffic and 20 years past the Gaslight and the Night Owl. But the rap is still the same, as well as the man: humble, spacey, magical, perpetually in awe. “And I was fortunate enough to go onstage and sing when anybody could jump up out of the audience and sing. I borrowed a guitar from a friend of mine in Brooklyn, which I tuned to a chord that I heard years ago in church. When they had gospel groups, they always had one guitar player and he would play a chord and everybody would tune to it and then they’d start singing. It was just a major chord, basically, but later I realized that it was an E chord structure. I didn’t even know I was doing it, but I was telling everybody, ‘Oh, this is an E chord tuning within the key of D,’ for years. I learned that when I had to play with somebody who definitely needed the right key. But the point is, I played for many, many years not knowing what I was doing, because I was just singing a song and accompanying it.”
Havens’ highly unorthodox approach, like his approach to life, was a mixture of spontaneity and defiance, trial and error, experimentation and jubilation, spiced with just a touch of down to earth reality. “I have big hands, and every time I tried to touch a neck my finger would touch two strings,” he explains. “And even if I cut my nails off, it didn’t matter. So the only neck I could really do that with was on a nylon string guitar, which was too fat for me and too short. I tried it once and said, ‘No, no, it’s too limited,’ and gave it right up. But I found enough chords and made enough mistakes to find some beautiful sounds in this open tuning to be able to create the accompaniment.”
VIDEO: Richie Havens performs at Woodstock concert site 8/14/09
To even define what he did behind his hypnotic and soulful interpretations as accompaniment is like describing Michael Jackson’s epic choreography as so much hoofing between verses. The rhythmic intensity that inhabited whatever room Havens was playing in, from basements like the Gaslight, to the great outdoors, was seismic, like Big-foot, Bunyan, the mythic greats.
“The reason for that,” Havens jovially explains, “was when I found out that I was going to play this guitar and sing and put myself on the line, and I gave up drawing portraits for $300 a night, and made nothing in my basket, I realized, this is serious. So I really should be singing what I feel, and if I’m doing this, it’s really for fun. And it’s taking up most of my time now. So this must be it. This is the fun. This is it. This is where I want to be. And I started to sing songs where the tempo was the same as the last song possibly, but the ability to fill in the sentences behind the way the lines were written, to create some kind of rhythmic fill, started to happen automatically. It wasn’t anything I really thought about. But it was something that sort of developed over the course of a verse, and then it slowly developed over the course of a line, and then over the course of certain words…then what I was really doing was being a drummer and a guitar player at the same time, never realizing it. It was just filling in those places with the rhythms it took to sing that song the way I felt it.”
As much as Havens was, and still is, the essence of pie-in-the-sky optimism, he prefers to play the guitar seated, with both feet firmly planted on the ground. “I have this left foot, which is my built-in metronome” he says. “It goes ‘heel and toe’ for everything, and it’s probably run 80,000 miles more than my other leg, and it’s attached to my right hand, which is the rhythmic hand. So I’ve got this cross thing going on–metronome to hand–and it’s very automatic with the way the structure of the song is written, the way the structure of the melody is written.”
Like many innocent originals before him, Havens’ wonderful live performing style suffered a grim comeuppance in the reality of the recording studio. “I ran into a lot of problems, and I was the one who realized what the problem was more than the engineers or the producers. It was that I was playing everything. And if I played with a drummer, he was playing on top of me in certain places, so the guitar was unnecessary there. And I was playing in places where the other guitarist might have played a lick, and the rhythm I was playing for me to sing was not necessary, ’cause of what he was doing. So I ended up going, ‘chunk, chunk-a-chunk, chunk-a,’ like everybody else, to make that first record. It had to be simplified totally. So that was a compromise, and not until I started making my own albums on Stormy Forest did I go in with the idea of building it around my guitar playing. Oddly enough, the producers on the first three albums never saw my guitar as an important part of what I was doing. They only heard me singing.”
A natural enough oversight, considering The Voice. “I never practice before I sing on the stage,” he says. “I very seldom get through half a song in the dressing room before I go on, ’cause all I want to do is know my hand is working. And if my hand is working on the guitar, I just go and sing; ’cause I’m not a singer in that sense of show business. I’m really in communications, so I don’t consider it something I’m going to lose, ever. It’s a speaking rather than a singing voice. I just sing.”
To any of us who experienced his performances, this is miraculous modesty. Until Bruce Springsteen came along, in fact, Havens was the definition of live performance energy, commitment, truth…justice…and the American Way. “We have a lot in common,” Havens allows, “because Springsteen is himself and that’s all he can do. And he does not have any bones about all he can do, so he’s spontaneous about it, and he’s willing and he’s human onstage. He’s not just a singer. He talks and he is with people and that’s part of it. Like him, I’m very natural about what I’m feeling at the time.
“You know, the stage is a very peculiar place, because a lot of people think it belongs to them when they get on it. Wrong. It belongs to the audience only, ’cause if they don’t pay, it’s dark. So I made it a point in my mind that I am privileged to get up on the stage. I am being given the privilege so I must respect this boundary. It belongs to them, not me. It never did belong to me. I felt very privileged to get up onstage at a hootennany and pass a basket, because I thought, if somebody puts money in this basket, maybe they’re nuts, because I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trying to do something I feel. But I never felt that it was an equal exchange in any kind of way. I don’t think you can get paid in equal exchange for going onstage, ’cause there’s no way of equating that exchange.”
Until some true divine subversives in the advertising community started handing Havens gobs of money in return for allowing that voice to sing to us each day of the American verities, Havens’ most enduring national moment had occurred on the stage of Woodstock, a lonesome folk hero, communicating with the teeming vistas, several hours before the rains.
“I was absolutely crazy when walked up on that stage,” he recalls. “I was supposed to be fifth on the bill and here I am going up first. The concert was three hours late and I’m thinking they’re going to throw beer cans at me. I was onstage for three hours. A lot of people don’t know that, because there’s only two songs in the movie. But I did about nine or ten encores, because I thought I was finished, went off, and they didn’t have anyone to go on behind me, so I had to go back out again. At the same time, the sound was the best I ever played under, and I heard my voice go right out over the hillside to New York City. It was the most amazing thing. It was the perfect marriage of sound and air and environment. So I felt, once I was singing, that it was as small as the Cafe Wha.”
Though many dreams of those multitudes then assembled have fallen by the muddy wayside, Havens has kept his own marvelous awe intact. I remind him of a day, hardly more than a minute ago in terms of the history of the world, but probably more than 25 years ago, when he rewarded those of us who’d been praising his name in sonorous homage up and down the windy weeknight streets of the Village (Richie! Richie! Richie!) by coming out for three encores during his Carnegie Recital Hall performance–at the intermission!–before Jerry Merrick, author of Haven’s tumbling epic “Follow,” captured the stage for a three-song set.
“The weirdest thing about that night,” Havens jumps in, “was that it was the first time my mother and father ever saw me play on stage. It was so weird because I hadn’t seen them in seven years. But it was time to invite them to what I was doing, to show them I wasn’t as bad off as they thought I might have been. But it was a real odd experience, because I had already sung in the Village for many years, to tourists who couldn’t even speak English, and had them applaud. And it wasn’t even so much that I was there for the applause, as much as I thought I was there for the words I was singing in the songs. The applause had nothing to do with it, in that sense.
VIDEO: Richie Havens performs at Mountain Jam V
“You wouldn’t believe this,” he seamlessly segues, “but last night I opened up a package, and in it was a large photograph of Jerry Merrick’s album cover, the painting of Jerry Merrick’s face that was on the cover, with the hat and the snow in the background, and a letter from Jerry saying, ‘I know it’s been a long time…’ It’s been 20 years since I heard from Jerry Merrick and he’s writing me a five page letter: ‘Here’s the picture I promised you.’ And I painted it! I painted it and I forgot that I had painted it. And I’m looking at it and I’m saying, ‘This is a great painting,’ and I look down and I see my name on it. This is how crazy it is. So now he’s got four kids, and one of them is 24; I have one 24. You know, we grew up together. And we don’t need to talk to each other for 20 years to know we are still the same people.”
Rare among public personalities, Havens is not only still the same person as he was back then, but the person behind the persona is even more so. “I usually play every weekend now, a different state each night,” he says, dispelling any notions of forced retirement. “I’m doing a concert one night, maybe a college one night, so I’m never really doing the same thing too many times in a row. I’ve been going to Europe every year for the past 20 years. And I see the same people, so it’s like I live there; everywhere I’ve been I’ve lived in a sense, because I still have people there I talk to. It’s not something like I call them or they call me; it’s that when I’m there it picks up right from where it left off two years ago, or four years ago….”
Havens was only partially right about that Carnegie Recital Hall night; we were applauding for the words and the songs, of course, the self-made, self-taught nature of his triumph, and applauding a little for ourselves, as well, our prescient instincts redeemed. But mainly we were applauding for the man himself, who coaxed us all to wonder and to dream…and to follow.