Richie Havens Soars To New Heights

Opinion September 27, 2013 6 Comments

Richie Havens

by Paul S. Rappoport

When you walk onto the grounds of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, NY, you enter a sanctuary, a cultural history, and an arts and music haven. The expansive grounds, the manicured gardens, the ponds and fountains– all evoked for me visions of the Curtis and Morris Arboretums. Serene yet exciting, you can’t believe you’re at “Woodstock.”

There I was on what was once Max Yasgur’s farm, the site of the most famous musical festival ever — 1969′s Woodstock.

The site has a lot more in common with the Morris Arboretum than that of a cultural revolution. There’s no sign off mud slides. No 500,000 hippies or bad acid trips. Just 1,500 Richie Havens fans wishing this legendary folk-rocker a heartfelt goodbye.

Havens died this past April at the age of 72. He was being remembered at the center in a “final return to Woodstock,” which would conclude with a fly-by scattering of his ashes scheduled for 5 p.m. that evening.

Mr. Havens toured for four decades with regular stops in Philadelphia. He played the Philly Folk Festival in 1981, most recently appeared at the World Café Live in 2009 and at WXPN’s Beggars Banquet in 2010. His soulful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” is unparalleled in its emotional texture.

The tickets for the Richie Havens Memorial were free, but the music not so much. Like Woodstock ’69, this event was both blessed with talent and touched by disappointment. Mr. Havens would have been gratified by the many fans gathered to remember him, but the indoor memorial service was limited to only 600 people, leaving more than half of the aging hippies and their families in a lurch. But just as the heroes of Woodstock were the fans themselves, here too, with a pulsating drum circle on the grounds’ grassy knoll, musicians and fans came together to party in memory of the man who gave us “Freedom,” the Havens improvised classic from his opening act at Woodstock ‘69.

At the indoor ceremonies, luminaries were present to speak and play: Jose Feliciano, John Sebastian, John Hammond, Danny Glover, Louis Gossett Jr. and more. I did not mind not having a ticket. I actually thought it would be hipper to sit on the crest of the hill, looking down into the valley where the original stage was located while listening through the outdoor sound system. How cool would that be? Being here and there both at the same time.

Fans began to collect on the hill, reclining in beach chairs, lying on blankets, standing, dancing, gyrating. A drum circle had formed. Juma Sultan, surrounded by fellow musicians, had passed out instruments to the crowd— bongos, congas, tambourines, maracas, drum sticks — bidding us all to keep Richie in our hearts and our drum beats close to time. The music served as a Greek siren to the crowds meandering the grounds. They came from all directions.

Daniel Ben Zebulon kept the throngs entranced with his congas. Oseiku DanEl Diaz, whose career includes having played with the likes of Carlos Santana and others, was in the line. Sultan, Jimi Hendrix’s percussionist, and Zebulon, Richie Haven’s percussionist — here at Bethel to remember Richie — also performed with their rock star celebrities at the Woodstock Festival 44 years ago.

I wandered the grounds and overheard snippets of conversations from those who were here then.

“That’s where the fence was supposed to be.”

“The rain never stopped.”

“I camped over there.”

“I was so stoned.”

Then the drums went silent. The indoor service has begun and the sound was piped outside for all to hear. The story is told of how Sweetwater, the opening band, got stuck in traffic and Richie was flown in by helicopter at the last minute to open the Woodstock show. He did 15 minutes, then another 15 minutes, and so many “15minutes” that it’s been said he opened the concert for 3 hours and played everything he ever knew.

Within minutes electrical problems developed and the crowd on the hill found itself sitting in silence. How could this be? The original Woodstock Festival was fraught with so many problems, including canceled permits, that it almost never happened.

Here we were again. Technicians come out and fiddle with the amps to no avail. They never got it to work.

“Is this Woodstock or what?” I thought.

I wandered around more, found the monument constructed in memory of the bands, and conversed with a somewhat inebriated celebrant who professed that he was conceived at Woodstock and was chagrined at the “commercialism” of the Bethel Woods Center. His parents he saids, if they were alive, would not be happy.

The drum circle sprang to life, filling in for the lost ceremony. The spontaneous performance by the coalescing neophytes and pros re-awakened the crowd. Was it a “Be-In,” a “Love-In,” or a “Happening”? All I know is that it was rhythmic, authentic, in the “now”, and was pretty darn cool.

By 4:30, having missed the programmed “free concert” but entertained by the far freer experience outside, it was time to call it a day. I left early for the four-hour Sunday night drive back to Wyndmoor and missed the scattering of the ashes. But I heard when they were dropped by plane with rose petals while the Juma Sultan percussionists beat out their final “goodbye,” it was quite a moving experience. Ticket holders or not, we were there for the “final set” to remember the guy with the big hands, a big heart and that infectious loving smile.

Paul S. Rappoport is a writer/photographer who lives in Wyndmoor.

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  • a friend forever

    Geeez Paul, You were there, and weren’t. “Technicians come out and fiddle with
    the amps to no avail. They never got it to work.” Except they certainly
    did get it to work. I too was disappointed at not being able to hear the entire proceedings from the indoor shed. We did miss some of the remarks by Michael Lang and the end of Joel Rosenman’s reminisces. And we missed Walter Parks and
    Stephanie Winters. But if you’d waited and actually seen what happened you would have seen a couple of techs chase down a cable that a couple of patrons (:-?) had been messing with. The two patrons were gently confronted and they left. The cable was restored and the happenings from inside were in fact piped to us outside. Too bad you missed John Sebastian, John Hammond, Danny Glover, Louis Gossett, and
    especially Jose Feliciano’s closing songs. The whole thing was beautiful.
    Sorry you missed it.

    • Paul

      Dear Friend,

      Thank you for your comment. I stand corrected. Instead of saying “never” I should have said, “By the time I left they had not gotten it to work.” Since the drum circle filled in for so long it seemed like a lost cause. Nonetheless I’m glad management got it together in time for the finale and I am sorry I missed it…and happy you didn’t. :). Thanks. Paul

      • a friend forever

        Hi Paul, Perhaps at some point Bethel Woods and Richie’s family will release a video (or even just audio would be great!) of the event, including the indoor remarks and performances … .. and we all of us can re-live Richie’s final set, as we do his many recordings (and performances captured on video, via youtube). If you haven’t already, do go to youtube and find Jose Feliciano’s “in My Life” that closed the indoor performances. Sometimes life’s schedules are a challenge, glad you were out there with us on the field, and enjoyed the Drum Circle for as long as you were able. Best, Charley

        • Paul

          Charley,
          Just saw your note. A Video or audio of the event would be a delight. Caught Feliciano’s “In My LIfe” on Youtube. Thanks for that and for your nod to my schedule. (Also, some of YouTube drum circle videos at the close of the day are terrific.) Paul

          • a friend forever

            Paul,
            yes quite a few folks posted those great moments of the Drum Circle… We were all smiling big !! while we’re still on it, I loved Danny Glover’s story about his grandson meeting Richie and trying to ‘play’ his guitar. And of course Louis Gossett’s story about receiving the royalty check for “Handsome Johnny”. The memorial was a day the spirit and the music lived again.. (as many felt the day Richie past was the day the music died … at least to me it seemed that way for those many moments when I mourned his passing). btw, thankx for putting it well: “… I actually thought it would be hipper to sit on the crest of the hill…” I was one of many who tried to get tics that morning when they were available and were gone in something like 10 minutes. I went through the line just to see if they were going to flex things a bit.. .. (of course) not, and I was at first quite disappointed. Until I went back to the hill… Thanks for your correspondence here, and glad to have shared and re-shared the time with you. Best, Charley

          • a friend forever

            Hey Paul, You may have discovered that the folks who maintain Richie’s fb page just posted the memorial on youtube. In case you don’t have the link, find it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gj0cCdPSODg

            Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours :-) Charley