Richie Havens and Spontaneous Creativity

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Remembering Richie Havens - Insights from an iconic performer and master of spontaneous creativity.

In the winter of 1979, the music duo of which I was a part (Myers & O’Flynn), opened for Richie Havens at the Paradise Theater in Aspen, Colorado. After the shows, Pat Flynn and I got a chance to talk with Havens, and I took away something from that conversation I’ve never forgotten: the power of spontaneous creativity.

I am reminded of that lesson because Richie Havens died Monday. He was 72. A notable singer-songwriter who began his career in the 60s, Havens was a powerful presence on stage with a distinctive voice – raspy and soulful – as well as an equally unique guitar style, using lots of open tunings and his thumb across the fretboard. You can see that style in this news piece about Havens’ death as he covers Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”:

 

Havens was probably best known for his performance at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, the very first act to take the stage in what is arguably the most famous event of its type. Of course, that subject came up when Pat and I sat with Havens in the dressing room on that cold winter’s night in Aspen.

Havens told us he wasn’t scheduled to play first, circumstances dictated it. The roads approaching the concert venue were so clogged with people and vehicles, none of the bands could get through to the stage. As I recall from the conversation, Havens said the festival promoters approached him to helicopter in because his act was just three people: himself, a guitarist and a drummer who ended up playing a pair of conga drums, so they could fit them all aboard.

So there Havens was, rushed on stage to do something for the crowd which swelled over the weekend to a half-million music fans. As it turned out, Havens performed his regular set, then several encores in order to give other musicians time to make their way through the massive throng of people. In fact, perhaps the most memorable song of his long set is the final one, a completely improvised version of “Motherless Child” which was featured in the documentary Woodstock and came to be known as “Freedom” because of the refrain Havens added to it. Why that song? Havens said he’d run out of other songs to play.

Haven’s performance speaks to the power of spontaneous creativity. Called upon to act, we can surprise ourselves. Obviously in Havens’ case, he had years of live performances to prep him for his brilliant moment in the sun at Woodstock, experience that gave him the confidence and inspiration to pull off a pressure filled gig in front of 500,000 people. But all the experience in the world could not adequately prepare Havens – or anybody for that matter – for such a shocking set of circumstances. Havens needed a jolt of spontaneous creativity.

What was going through Havens’ mind as he hit that stage? How did he overcome his nerves? How did he manage to make a connection with that massive crowd?

That’s precisely what I asked Havens in that dressing room. His answer is what always stuck with me. Here is his response paraphrased to the best of my recollection:

“As far as you could see, there were people, all the way to the horizon. At first when I started playing, I was lost in my own head, trying to get my bearings. But then I had a thought. Don’t think about them as hundreds of thousands of people. Think about them as one person. And so that’s what I did. I looked down at the crowd toward the front of the stage and imagined they were the head of this large body. Then the people behind them, the shoulders. The people behind them, the chest. All the way down to the feet. It wasn’t five hundred thousand people I was singing to, it was one person laid out in the grass, grooving to my music. And that’s how I connected with them.”

And connect with them Havens did. Check out his performance of “Freedom,” bearing in mind he improvised the entire song:


Notice how Havens adds a verse, repeating a simple line over and over: “Clap your hands, clap your hands.” And watch what happens with the crowd: Individually at first, then all together they rise to their feet and start clapping… as if one body.

Each of us gets on ‘stage’ hundreds of times in our lives. Presentations at work. Speeches at public functions. Jokes we tell at parties. Pitches we make. And each time we get on stage, there is one immutable fact: We have no idea how it will turn out.

That is where relying on our creativity is most important. This implies a kind of trust in our creative instincts and that implies having worked with our creativity enough to learn to trust it.

But in truth if we trust in our creativity, we can surprise ourselves with moments of deep insight to help us perform to our best ability.

Like kicking off the world’s most famous rock concert, and visualizing 500,000 people as one person.

You can go here to read the Wikipedia page about Richie Havens.

Godspeed, Troubadour!
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Featured image credit: Heinrich Klaffs/ CC-BY-SA from Wikimedia Commons 
Richie Havens Live, Musikhalle Hamburg, May 1972

Tags: arts, creativity, creativity in music, music, pat flynn, performance, richie havens, scott myers, woodstock

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