Two weeks after I started my first year at college, the Twin Towers were hit in the 9/11 attacks. As I was getting ready for the day, my dorm room door open as per usual (we were already a very tight-knit floor), one of my new friends, born and raised in Brooklyn, silently walked in my room and turned my TV to the news before walking out again. Our cell phone services went dead. My parents were abroad unable to reach me with news that another plane had gone down in ‘Central Pennsylvania’, where I was at school. Two weeks on my own and our world was changing before my eyes.
Mandatory and customary at my school, when we enrolled, we were asked to choose a ‘Freshman seminar’ we would like to take which focused on topics from baseball in America to the psychology of religion to sustainability. The seminar I chose was about music as a means of cultural definition and as a tool of societal expression and change. There were ten of us in the class and we all lived together on that dorm room floor. One of the biggest focuses, in between Kurt Wiell’s ‘Mac the Knife’ and my year-long thesis on Madonna and her sexuality, was music of the Civil Rights Movement. We weren’t there yet when 9/11 shook us all. But my professor, for all his challenging faults, knew we needed some comfort and something to help heal our shattered hearts while bringing us together as a group.
So a week later, we had a field trip. On a sunny afternoon, we all piled into a van and our teacher drove us to a small outdoor event hidden in the woods of a Pennsylvania town that I’ll never remember the name of. He said we could wander around and explore all the different merchants and booths and activities we wanted but to make sure to meet at the bandstand at 2pm. That’s why we were there. For whatever was happening at 2pm. And at 2pm, sitting at the very front of a gazebo, we watched a statue of a man dressed in an outfit of pants and a matching embroidered tunic, hands covered in rings, take a seat on a stool with his guitar and introduce himself as Richie Havens. His voice, a blend of rasp and a perfect bellow, immediately captivated us all. As he went between his songs, he would tell us stories about all his days before, about that time he opened Woodstock and improvised a song called ‘Freedom’ when none of the other acts had arrived yet, about sneaking his way into clubs in Greenwich Village to observe and learn from the musicians there. But when I really fell for this artist was when he said he wanted to say something about 9/11.
None of us were sure we were going to be able to hold it together. None of us knew if we were even allowed to be talking about it yet. But Mr. Havens gave us a message of peace, compassion, strength and resolve. He wanted to comfort us and to inspire us, in a time that we were all struggling with the darkness cast by such a tragedy. And his speech to us didn’t just allow me to exhale but also made me want to leave there as a better person. Recounting this story, I think this one moment in time changed me even more than I thought. I was suddenly the leader of my own destiny and one that I wanted to fill with understanding, respect and strength. Nothing he said was political. Nothing he said was controversial. He actually finished by saying ‘we are all going to be ok’. So as much as I fell in love with the musician, I fell into love with the human behind the music who embodied something so much greater than a good hook or a catchy lyric.
When I got home from seeing Richie Havens, I emailed my parents immediately to tell them about this incredible moment. The next week, I got a package in the mail from my dad that included Richie Havens Greatest Hits and a note that said, ‘Keep going and keep learning’. I wore that CD out. And I had the pleasure in the ten years that followed to go see Mr. Havens live three more times. He will go down as one of the greatest performers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, ending every gig with a jump and a kick (hard work for a very tall man of a certain age).
That’s the whole story. No moral, really. Just a tribute to someone who changed my life, who got the only fan letter I ever wrote and who made music as much for the art as for the potential to change the world for the better. For the moment of comfort he gave me after 9/11 to the accidental guidance he gave me to be a compassionate and accepting being, I can’t thank him enough. The world misses you already, Richie. We lost a real great one.
My favorite of all the songs Richie Havens sang…’Just Like a Woman’: