November 12, 2006
Hippies—you can find them just about anywhere, even in central New York; they walk sandaled or barefooted, occasionally toting bongo drums, usually longhaired, always mellow-minded and, as a rule, never very far from a halo of sweet smelling smoke. Last night I happened to spot a few hippies rushing off somewhere. It’s not often that you see hippies rushing anywhere and I was curious to see where they were going. They led me to the Events Barn where Richie Havens, the first man to perform at Woodstock, was scheduled to play.
The hippies and I had to sit through an incredibly long and cheesy opening act, a Californian guitarist/vocalist named Tyrone who sang lovingly about love, lost love, unrequited love, platonic love, romantic love, laced love, frilled love, love that gives you wings, love that takes your wings away…you get the idea. Even the hippies seemed to find Tyrone’s performance a bit saccharine; keep in mind that these are the same people who used to have love-ins. The gushiness seemed to go on forever and watching Tyrone leave the stage was like watching molasses drip down flypaper.
“Figures, this guy is from California,” someone said. Being a Californian myself, I apologized on behalf of the Golden State and made a little joke about good things coming to hippies that wait. Sure enough, the wait was worth it.
Richie Havens is lean with sinewy arms and has a long beard that lends him an apostolic, if not prophetic aura. In fact, if you went back in time and asked El Greco to paint an African-American folk legend (after first explaining the nineteen-sixties, of course) you’d probably end up with something that looks a lot like Richie, whose fingers navigate the strings of his guitar like possessed eels weaving through coral, and whose metronomic foot flops beautifully against the ground, swinging and arcing, rhythmically epitomizing its owner. The only thing better than listening to Richie play was listening to him talk; he pointed out that there was never a time when so many different generations had tapped into the same music, and one look around the room proved he was right. The sixties still seem to be in the hearts and minds of people who were there, and for those of us youngsters who weren’t there, music like Richie Havens’ makes us feel as if we’ve missed something, as if we’ve been cheated.
Of course, my generation will probably do what every generation does: bemoan the end of the good old days and tell stories about the way things were. Our memories will swell into inflations of truth, we will, for no fault of our own, embellish the past, and the future will look grim in comparison—but Richie Havens had something to say about the way we look at the past. “People always talk about losing it,” he said, “but we never had it in the first place. This is the beginning…”