Richie Havens: They Can’t Hide Us Anymore

Richie Havens: They Can’t Hide Us Anymoreby Richie Havens

Sometimes Dino Valente would say and do things that would leave you thinking for a very long time.

During the early days, Dino also teamed up with Fred Neil for some of the best music ever played at the Cafe Wha? Where Dino was electrifying, Fred had a rich baritone voice that could reach into your soul.

All somebody had to say was “Neil and Valenti are playing tonight” and the in-crowd would drop everything to be there, especially to see them close out the show with their folk rock version of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.”

Picture this. As Fred and Dino were closing in on the final verse, they would keep the song going like gospel singers, marching off stage down the aisles, thrusting their guitars in the air, heading right out the back door. The packed house always screamed for more… And they got it.

A minute or so after they disappeared out the back door of the Wha? – as the cheering began to die down – the voices of these two great singers could be faintly heard (as they rushed around the building) to come back inside through the front entrance, singing, “Tell me what’d I say,” “Yeah, tell me what’d I Say.” Singing all the way, they would dance their way down the center aisle back up onstage, where they would play on for another fifteen minutes.

They were just a couple of contemporary folkies, completely involved in the music of their youth and writing the music of our future. To this day I can still see and hear Neil and Valenti coming down that center aisle, raising the roof of the Wha?, “tearing down the walls” that were keeping me from expressing what I needed to do.

Dino may have been wise beyond his years, a phenomenal musical talent, and the person who most influenced me to play the guitar in the rhythic way I do, but Fred Neil’s influence on my music and so many others was enormous and it’s worth going into more detail.

The first time I saw Fred he was in a duet with Vince Martin. An accomplished studio musician at the time, Fred had allready played on many hit records during the 1950s. And Vince had a number one hit with the Tarriers in the mid-fifties called “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” a tune with a carribean flavor.

They sang Neil’s “Tear Down The Walls” like the rebels they were and they made an album together on which this was the featured song. “Tear Down The Walls” was more that a good tune. It was the first protest song I ever heard in the Village, the first to point me in a clear direction. The lyrics challenged everyone to reach beyond the barriers of their perceived limitations and the prejudice of others. I could not get enough of these two guys. They were my musical gurus in my early days in the Village.

Watching and listening to Fred play, I knew there was a whole big musical world out there I had never seen before. He was a superior guitarist who knew dozens of ways to play any major or minor chord, as well as all the sevenths and fifths. Fred also put plenty of suspended chords into his music, which he borrowed from traditional bluegrass and jazz. It’s easy to explain a suspended chord, but not easy to play. They’re made by picking and strumming parts of two different chords at the same time. When I first saw Fred do that and heard his rich harmonic sounds, it blew my mind.

All of us who grew up on doo-wop music and straight rock’n’roll know that most songs can be built on simple three- and four-chord progressions. Most folk music was also played that way. (“Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and “500 Miles” are prime examples.) But just as the Beatles would demonstrate a few years later, there was no rule that said rock’n’roll or folk music couldn’t use the sophisticated chord structures of bluegrass or jazz.

Fred Neil understood that better than most of us. He knew we were weaving a tapestry of many musical traditions, turning them inside out and upside down. While most of us were picking things up as we went along, Fred was pulling things together and inventing new directions. His songs had a wonderful simplicity and balance to the ear, but they were built on a complex range of subtle chord combinations.

While all of Fred’s recorded works were out of print for decades, two albums were combined into a poorly distributed compilation late in 1998. Some of the tracks listed below sound as fresh today as they did when he made them more than thirty years ago. Fred was – and is – one of the finest singer-songwriters this country has ever produced.

  • “Little Bit Of Rain,” one of the best ballads to come out of the 1960s, even though it has been sparingly played or heard since Fred wrote it
  • “Other Side Of This Life,” recorded by many groups, including the Lovin’ Spoonful; Dion; Jefferson Airplane; the Youngbloods; and Peter, Paul and Mary.
  • “The Dolphins,” a lament for a real dolphin that’s on my own ‘Live at the Cellar Door” album. It’s a love song, but it was born out of Fred’s wandering spirit and deep devotion to the endangered sea mammal. In fact, Fred spent several years working with dolphins in Florida after he dropped out of music.
  • “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the movie theme for Midnight Cowboy that Harry Nilsson made into a top-ten hit.
  • “Blues On The Ceiling” and “The Bag I’m In,” two great tunes that probably have not been heard on the radio in thirty-five years.
  • “Candy Man,” a great rocking tune that became one of Roy Orbison’s most popular concert songs.

None of these songs were strictly folk songs – or rock songs. They were just great to sing, great to play, and great to listen to. They still are. The truth is that Fred was a major influence on everybody in the Village music scene and probably would have been among the most recognized singer-songwriters in the world, if two things hadn’t happened to him.

He got screwed terribly by a lot of people in the music industry. And like so many artists under siege from the insincerity of the business, Fred took a wrong turn to hard drugs out of deep despair and nearly lost his life.

Today Fred is completely at peace with himself, having spent years working through things, far away from the music scene in Coconut Grove, Florida and New York City. In the last few years, he has even spent some time hanging out with Jerry Jeff Walker in the Northwest, playing now and then strictly for friends. All of us who knew him back in the old days are proud that he’s made it through some very tough times. While few people in today’s music world have any clue what they missed, the music he made is still there. Even more importantly, Fred and I are friends for life and beyond.

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