Woodstock’s opening act – and me

Started watching the movie Woodstock. Didn’t get past Richie Havens kicking off the show. Brought back memories. 

Not that I was there. But I’d hung out with Havens a long time ago in New York and Paris and Toronto. 

Fifty years ago today, when the three-day Woodstock festival began, I was living in Europe, with my first wife, Anita, and baby Kate, having moved to Switzerland to start a news-service job that didn’t exist.

It was a couple of months after I quit a magazine called Changes, which had promised to be the East Coast answer to Rolling Stone – and wasn’t. 

That’s where I met Havens, as I recall in this excerpt from my memoir:

My first close encounter with celebrity was when I was in New York working with Richie Havens on his story – if you can call it that – for Changes back in 1969.

My one assignment for the first issue was to meet with Havens and edit a short essay he wrote for us. I was jazzed about meeting the soulful singer. 

His first album, Mixed Bag, was a favorite. During my time on the West Coast, I wore out the tracks of San Francisco Bay Blues and his version of Just Like a Woman.

I met Havens in the magazine’s dingy back office. He asked me for guidance. I didn’t have any. But he was gracious and I was puffed up by meeting a celebrity who seemed to enjoy my company. I’d see him again – twice – in Paris and Toronto.

He handed me his story, which he titled Everything is Music. It began: How many times have you lay awake at night and listened to the city? A conglomeration of sounds that almost sub-passes your listening, when you are of course moving within it.

I, of course, had no idea what he was talking about. But I read on, all the way to: So like the sound of one hand clapping, so like the sounds of the entire universe (heard from the moon).

“Far out, man,” I said, about all the editorial judgment I could muster.

We sat and talked for a while, shared a joint, and talked some more. Other people came in, more drugs came out.

The next year, during my first visit to Paris with Anita, we noticed that Havens was playing at the Odeon theater and went there to get tickets. Instead, we ran into Havens, who was arriving to rehearse.

“Remember me?” I asked him. “New York. Changes magazine. Last year?”

“Yeah, man,” he said. “Why don’t you come on in with us.”

Anita and I watched Havens and his two band members rehearse, and then sat around and shot the breeze for a while, talking about home, and the differences between living in the United States and Europe.

Havens told an American in Paris story about his bass player, who was sitting with us.

“So this cat is down in the lobby of the hotel and he sees this pair of shoes in a glass case. He wants a pair of those shoes, so he writes down the name of the store and goes out into the street and jumps in a taxi and hands the driver a piece of paper with the name of the store on it. The driver makes a U-turn, stops across the street, says ‘ten francs,’ and that’s it. The store was right across the street.”

It was a good story and a warm moment with three Americans at a time when I was an innocent abroad. Havens got us a pair of tickets for the concert that day – in one of those ornate boxes looking down at the stage – and we said goodbye. 

Years later, in Toronto, this time with Linda, we went to see Havens at a small club downtown. I took Linda backstage between sets, showing off for my new girlfriend. Havens pretended to remember me, was very polite. But we really had nothing to say to each other.

Richie Havens died in 2013 at the age of 72.

My book, The Expat FilesMy Life in Journalism, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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