The not-a-biography of Richie Havens

The man who sang "Freedom" at Woodstock tells his life story, but forgets to include his life.

By Lorenzo W. Milam
September 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Richie Havens grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father was Native American, his mother from the Caribbean. He hung out in Greenwich Village in the '50s and '60s, made a few records, then appeared at Woodstock, where he sang "Freedom." Over the years, on the basis of this and the classic Woodstock documentary, Havens has managed to stay in the public eye. "They Can't Hide Us Anymore" is apparently another in a long list of credits designed to boost his image.

His philosophy, which he goes into at some length, is what you might call "standard deviation." Smoking grass is OK, using heroin is not. The American police are generally a bad lot, and the police where he grew up in the slums of Brooklyn were awful, but the soldiers at Woodstock who brought in (and took out) the performers in their helicopters were wonderful.


Southern Blacks have been mistreated over the years, War is Bad, and the War in Vietnam was Very Very Bad. Whales and porpoises are good, the environment needs to be protected and autistic kids know more than you think they do. And Havens has to be grateful for all the nice things that have happened to him - like making a living off music, making the records he wants to and meeting John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, among others.

"They Can't Hide Us Anymore" contains an extensive list of Havens' 23 records, his backup men and his 14 soundtracks, but it doesn't tell us beans about his soul. It gives us his Recommended Reading List, which includes Kahlil Gibran, Abbie Hoffman and Dwight D. Eisenhower's final take on the military-industrial complex --- but there isn't a single insight into his own personal complex so we can figure out what makes him tick.

His path has been exciting. After all, he came out of one of the most desperate slums in America, and was smack dab in the middle of the music and social revolution of the '60s. His story certainly could have been as powerful as that of Malcolm X, or James Baldwin or Richard Wright.


Instead, what we get is, "My father was a hard worker who made Formica tables. He was a pretty good musician too, a piano player with a feel for jazz." That's it for dear old dad. Havens tells us his mother worked "until I was 19." We should know a bit more about her, too, right? And we find out about his wife and his daughters in the "Acknowledgments" section, but that's it. Does he do anything when he's with his family outside of reminiscing about all the famous people he's known, and all the deals he's signed?

There are 14 pages given over to a discography, but there's only half a page for his two brothers who are disabled. He spends 25 pages to give us the words to his songs, but says practically nothing about these two who grew up poor, like him, but now live out their lives in wheelchairs.

Oops. They do get one thing from their famous brother. They get patronized. "We need to open our minds," he intones, "and not be so quick to shut off opportunities for the so-called handicapped to socialize with the rest of us, without fear." Now what the hell does that mean?


Maybe Havens just isn't a word person. He certainly is a mess when it comes to the lyric muse, if we are to judge by his songs:

What good are all those documents? those well-kept worthless scrolls;

When the hand you bit turns and slaps your face, the hands you tried to mold,

And they leave you out in the cold, with your pockets full of gold,

Yet you cannot pay the toll, of the brave and the bold who are shoutin'

Hey come on, you've got something better to do.

It puts us in mind of Lolita's favorite song, as reported by Humbert Humbert:

And the carmen, and the starmen, and the barmen, and the starmen, and the barmen, and the carmen ...

Maybe we should blame it all on his amanuensis, one Steve Davidowitz. They tell us that when he isn't writing puff pieces for fading stars, he works for the "Daily Racing Form." His previous bestseller was something called "Betting Thoroughbreds." Here he's obviously betting on a horse that won by a nose 30 years ago, and is looking to win a couple more races before they send him out to pasture.


But what is missing here is something rather important for a biography -- in fact, for any book. It's something called "heart."

Havens and Davidowitz have done a triple bypass here. There's extensive discussion of recording contracts and the big hits and the million-record sales and the folk scene in Greenwich Village and some thoughts about drugs and corporate finance and the plight of blacks in a white-run world. But there's not a word about what goes on in the soul of a man who, after all, left a world of abysmal poverty behind -- was able to haul himself up by himself, out of the morass, make an apparent success of his life.

From time to time, he tries to give us some insight into his thoughts. For instance, he says that he once wrote a book that was never published, on "unconsidered little things." Like? "The very minute Western civilization created Santa Claus it also created no Santa Claus. No Santa Claus can be experienced hurtfully by some people while no one is paying attention ... Class distinctions take root through such unconsidered little things." Eh?


We suspect that Havens is not a bad sort. His politics seem to be caring and, after all, one who sings about our "selling guns to the Arabs and dynamite to the Jews" has something going on besides famous friends and golden record sales.

The title of the book is "They Can't Hide Us Anymore," but our read on this is that, for unknown reasons, the real Richie Havens has been carefully buried back there somewhere behind the grandstand.

Lorenzo W. Milam

Lorenzo W. Milam writes for RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities. He is the author of "CripZen," "Sex and Broadcasting," "The Radio Papers" and "A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset)" among others.

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