Welcome to PuR’s Love Crypt, spotlighting the underrated, secretly classic albums & songs that didn’t always get the attention they deserved upon release but are worthy of adoration & a listen. This week is all about the legendary Richie Havens whose music truly qualifies as medicine.
Preface: Richie Havens is arguably most famous for his opening slot at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969. Between 1966 and his passing in 2013 he released 20 studio albums and developed a reputation as a transcendent live performer and song interpreter with a particular focus on The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Despite his history and the plethora of Beatle covers he had on offer, I was indifferent to Richie through most of my life, dismissively regarding him as a relic of a previous generation and was thus not remotely interested in exploring his catalog (I was possibly an idiot).
Meanwhile, on the other side of my brain, after a lifetime of loving Genesis, in the early 00’s I started exploring the band’s former guitarist Steve Hackett’s solo albums from the late ’70s. I ended up being particularly taken with his 1978 LP Please Don’t Touch with it’s classical-pop-prog flavor. And the tracks I was most obsessed with featured lead vocals by…Richie Havens. I was slightly mystified at first and wondered how they knew each other but no matter, I thought both songs, “Icarus Ascending” and “How Can I” were gorgeous and dreamy and was blown away by Richie’s epic vocal performances. Still, even though I played them endlessly, I decided they were aberrations and subconsciously rewarded most of the credit to Hackett who wrote the songs. Thankfully my comeuppance was just around the corner.
In 2008, Richie did an in-store at Virgin Megastore in NYC ( where I worked) to promote what turned out to be his last album Nobody Left To Crown. Before his performance, he casually sat down in the office and serenaded us on guitar, told stories about Jimi Hendrix and exuded hope and warmth like a lighthouse in a storm. He was impossibly cool and an absolute gent. Then came his official performance. Richie was 67 years old at the time but his voice was as massive and powerful as a singer a quarter of his age, an absolute steamroller of a sound. The passion in his guitar playing was palpable and he ended his show with a David Lee Roth style scissor kick. Basically, he was f*cking amazing.
I told him afterwards how awesome I thought it had been and mentioned my pathetically meagre old bit of appreciation, namely my love for one of the two aforementioned Steve Hackett songs (“Icarus Ascending”) to which he replied that he also loved it and added that “we did another one too!”. There was a huge line of folks who wanted to meet him and he signed everyone’s cd’s and LP’s with their names and his trademark message “a friend forever”.
And with that, the deal was sealed on my forever fandom and I immediately began collecting all the Richie vinyl I could find. I soon found myself performing the eternal yet insufferable rite of passage oh so common in suburban teenage boys upon their discovery of Led Zeppelin and began regaling people with how awesome and underrated Richie Havens was all the time. I would express angry befuddlement over the fact that Gil-Scott Heron, Bobby Womack and Johnny Cash all got to enjoy late career resurgences and accolades, because although they deserved it, I thought Richie deserved the same attention (dammit). Insufferable maybe but hey, I was in love and I wanted to tell the world and for them to be in love too.
Things absolutely suck right now and we could all use a musical lighthouse to help rope in our anxiety and calm us down. And there’s something so uniquely empathetic in Richie’s voice, that he just feels like one of the ideal people to listen to right now. Now come check out how Richie turns an over the top pop-prog song into an affirmation of life and bend an ear to a couple of sublime tracks from his most ambitious, eccentric and epic album…
Icarus Ascending (1978)
“Icarus Ascending” is a little nuts. Does it sound like a ’70s era Genesis song ? In a word, mostly, but it’s hard to imagine Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins ( bless ’em) ever singing it with as much conviction as Richie does. On the one hand it is a straight up prog song with the requisite noodly instrumental patch, time signature changes and lyrics that are ideally sung from the top of a mountain with arms outstretched. On the other it’s an extraordinarily overblown straight up pop song. Ridiculously emotional, radio-friendly and featuring an absolutely wondrous vocal from Richie, “Icarus Ascending” is one eccentrically beautiful and life-affirming piece of noise.
I found out that Richie had opened some dates for Genesis in the ’70s which is how he and Hackett became friends and what led to their recording together. Hackett later described the experience like this; “I phoned him up about three months after we’d had dinner together. I said, “I’ve got a song here, Richie, that I thought you might sound nice singing.” He said to me, “I can hear it already, man. It sounds great!” The funny thing was I was meditating… and I was trying to imagine what words he might sing. I literally heard these words that popped into my mind. It was wonderful, there was something brotherly that went on. When we were working together, he was naturally larger than life, but very un-starry”.
After Richie’s passing in 2013, Hackett offered a moving tribute ; “He was the conviction, the power and the glory… the most positive musical creative force it’s ever been my privilege to work with”. And you can totally feel that joy in “Icarus Ascending”.
1968 saw the release of a double album titled Richard P. Havens 1983 which was split half and half between covers and originals and included a handful of live recordings. There are no less than 4 Beatle covers, plus a Dylan, a Cohen and a Donovan. Surprisingly though, the album’s coolest cover was not written by any of those behemoths but by Lotus Weinstock, former fiance of Lenny Bruce, comedian and mother of musician Lili Haydn. “Cautiously” screams ’60s from it’s every orifice from it’s ominous militaristic drums ( always a commentary unto themselves) to it’s Doors-ian organ. And though it pre-dates both, musically it sounds like a weird marriage of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. Richie’s vocal is regal and restrained till about halfway through when he cuts ties and just lets the wind take him. That coupled with the song’s meditative groove and doomed sentiment make for something utterly hypnotic.
For Haven’s Sake (1968)
Sad, desperate and determined, “For Haven’s Sake” is a slow burning 7 minute epic composed by Richie and a true highlight from the aforementioned Richard P. Havens 1983 album. The instrumentation thickens as the song evolves and culminates in a dizzying coda where the honeyed buzz of the Havens voice, stray hand claps and undulating acoustic guitar intertwine in heart-stoppingly amazing fashion .
Bonus Track !
The other song Richie recorded in 1978 with Steve Hackett has an actual video ! “How Can I” is a cool Beatle-esque ballad featuring the usual virtuosic picking from Hackett and requisite Richie vocal perfection.