I’m not exactly sure how our paths crossed. But one day it seemed as if he was circling the edges of the group just close enough that I became aware of him.
We were a raggedy bunch and that’s where he stood out. His clothes were crisp, always shined loafers, never wore sneakers, and the part in his hair was as sharp as the crease in his pants. We were the others with hair that was weeks past growing out and t-shirts that were about as baggy as our cut-off jeans.
He brought his guitar down to the group and began playing a few chords and picking away at the strings with a more thoughtful talent and subtlety that I hadn’t heard yet on the radio. I was still stuck somewhere between Shindig and The Moody Blues and individual notes were as rare as Friday night dates.
We became friendly and I would often head up to his apartment where his room was a wonderland of six and twelve string guitars, banjos and stereo equipment. Or at least I thought so since living my life on a fold out couch in our living room didn’t afford me many luxuries except for an old Heathkit stereo my father built with one working speaker.
Aside from his picking, he looped around some music on his reel-to-reel from names and not bands – Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez. Bob Dylan and the occasional satire and piano of Tom Lehrer. We listened to WBAI and their own eccentric lineup like Bob Fass, Larry Josephson, and Larry the Bagelman. (A few years later, while pledging a fraternity, I was ordered to bring a bag of bagels to the studio by a WBAI loving brother…another story for another time.)
Then he introduced me to Richie Havens and the oddball open E-chord tuned guitar.
Listening and understanding just about every stringed instrument, he had figured out how to play it by ear – that’s how he picked up most of his music. Then he played some Havens both on his own and on the stereo.
I followed Havens for a while. He was a regular at the Cafe Wha? down on McDougal street where Ed Sanders and The Fugs used to play and was one of the first Greenwich Village streets I began circling lost among button stores, middle eastern restaurants, head shops, and cafes with The Hip Bagel sign swinging in the breeze around the corner from the Cafe Figaro. Some of his songs still stick in my head, his voice a clear rasp over the single guitar that he seemed to play like a drum. He sang with his eyes closed inside the song and always carried this beatific smile framed by a thin rough beard.
Havens passed away this week. Just one more transition for me from young to old.
He took a few of my stories with him…