Richie Havens has been part of the background music to my life for a long, long time. And since I have a job that facilitates such things, I’ve had the opportunity to share long conversations with him a few times over the years. The latest came on Monday — I got an e-mail from Amy at Madison House, the Colorado-based publicity juggernaut saying “Richie is available for the next 2 hours for interviews or we can set it up for later this week. Let me know your thoughts…” I should point out, he was due to fly out to the West Coast for series of shows including one within walking distance of my house.
I called her. She called Richie. Easy as that… Not more than a few minutes later I got a call from New Jersey.
“Bob?” He addressed me as if we were old friends, and you know what? it feels that way, even if we’re not. He’s just as relaxed in conversation as he is on stage.
I’m finishing up my new CD, and I’m very happy with it.
Where have you taken things musically?
Well I’ve written more songs.
I know that’s not always the case…
It’s kind of like a stopped writing songs when I started singing doo wop way back there. It was because I found Greenwich Village and in Greenwich Village I found songs that just changed my life. That was where my education started, in the coffee houses. I should explain… Do you know who Freddy Neil is?
Freddy Neil was one of my biggest mentors. He’s guy who walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve been singing my songs from the audience for six months now, along with me — in harmony no less. Why don’t you just get a damn guitar? Here take this guitar. Go home and learn the songs and sing them yourself on the stage.’ I took the guitar and figured out how to tune it to an open chord and three days later I was singing half a dozen songs on stage. For the next seven years I was up there. For years I figured I couldn’t write the kind of songs I heard.
You didn’t think you could match the skill of guys like Fred Neil and Bob Dylan?
Right. Exactly. What I did was tell myself, if it comes, it comes. And the songs I was singing were timeless. I can still sing them today.
I heard you on the radio recently singing an old Dylan song, “Tombstone Blues.”
That’s from the movie.
Right. I’m Not There. I understand you’re in it too.
I have a part. I play a grandfather. I’m not an actor; I don’t call myself an actor. What happens is, I become part of this family. My son, in the film, finds this little kid on the road with his guitar. He brings him home to feed him, feeling sorry for him. The scene is at the table and my son’s wife is bringing food over. Their kids are at the table across from me and the young kid is sitting there blabbing about how the road is his thing and the only thing he needs is a car so he could get to places on the road. It’s ironic and kind of surreal, but in the movie this African American kid’s name is Woody, but he’s Bob Dylan. That’s part of his life.
I know a little bit about the movie, that it’s a fractured portrait with different actors playing Dylan or maybe aspects of him, at different times in his life. And I’ve heard a bit of the soundtrack album, which is pretty amazing in itself. I’m not clear on how they use the music in the film. Are you actually playing in the film?
In the next scene we’re sitting on the front porch, me, my son and the kid. The kid pulls out his guitar and we actually jam on the tune there on the porch. We sing “Tombstone Blues,” play it together. We throw verses back and forth. It has an uptempo feeling. It kind of has it’s own engine, but not like the original, more with a core pace to it.
Returning to the songs you’re writing yourself…
Well, they come.
The songs you’ve been singing over the years often touch on the events of the day. Is that what you’re writing about now, current events?
I do it from a personal viewpoint. In a song the singer can say, ‘I’ or ‘we,’ that sort of thing. That’s the way they come out, as narratives. The title will come and I know what the title means so the next thing I know music comes with it and the first line comes.
Will we hear some of these new songs when you play here?
For sure. My way of doing the road is to sing all the new stuff along with selections from other writers. There are songs by friends of mine who didn’t become famous, singers who were really purely writers. That allows me to step into their song and become the singer who’s singing that, but in my own way.
Can you give me an example of a recent one you’ve written?
The last one, the latest, is called “The Key.” It goes something like this: (He sings a cappella) Somewhere there’s a key. And it is laid behind a golden tree… (he falters) I can’t do anything without a guitar in my hands. (He laughs then resumes singing.) To open even me before the dark shadows fall. Somewhere there is a door and it’s locked forevermore, to all the tiny things we swore allegiance to, just between me and you… Like that… What makes the song for me is not only the lyric, it’s the sense of the music. It’s just as important. Can you hold on for a sec?
(He disappears and I’m thinking someone might be at the door or something else has distracted him. When he returns I understand…)
Now I have my guitar and I can show you what I mean about the music sharing an equal part. (He sings “The Key” again, filling in the gaps with rolling rhythms.) They follow me around, these songs, which is great.
I have to ask you about this singer I’m supposed to interview later this morning. Her name is Sonya Kitchell.
Oh yes. I met her a few years ago now. She was probably 14 or 15.
She’s coming here with Herbie…
You’re kidding. Now that’s what I was waiting for her to do. There are these women who have their own thing. They sit up on stage and play their own way. Like Dana Kurtz. Do you know her?
Can’t say that I do…
I didn’t know that much about Sonya. I came across one of her songs, “Train,” and just loved it. It’s just an amazing song.
When I first met her she was a jazz singer. She plays jazz on the guitar and sings somewhere in that genre. So it’s amazing that she’s going there. Dana is the same way. I call her the Billie Holiday of today. There are a few of them out there. And I’m fortunate enough to get to hear them when they open for me. Sonya actually opened for me.
I’m pretty sue when people go see Herbie Hancock they’re going to walk away talking about her.
It’s definitely going to blow their minds.
(More to come later…)