Richie Havens On Opening Woodstock

20 years after, Richie Havens ruminates on the unscripted lineup change at Woodstock – a day he remembers with joy for 'the spirit of people just being people'

richie havens woodstock 1969
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Richie Havens performs during the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York.
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I thought, "Oh, God, they're going to kill me. I'm not going out there first. What, are you crazy?" It was about 2:30 or 3:00 on Friday afternoon, and the concert was already almost three hours late. I was supposed to be fifth on the bill, but the other entertainers were still at the hotel, seven miles away. I thought, "Jeez, they're gonna throw beer cans at me because the concert's late." So I did a little fast talking, a little rap, and then I did a nearly three-hour set, until some of the others finally showed up.

My bass player, Eric Oxendine, had gotten caught in the traffic on the New York State Thruway. He abandoned his car thirty miles away and walked, and he arrived just as we got offstage. When we left the festival, there wasn't another car on the thruway except ours. For seventy-five miles cars were parked five deep. That was the most surrealistic thing I've ever seen in my life.

Richie Havens in 1968: 'The Direction For My Music Is Heaven'

My fondest memory was realizing that I was seeing something I never thought I'd ever see in my lifetime – an assemblage of such numbers of people who had the same spirit and consciousness. And believe me, you wouldn't want to be in a place with that many people if they weren't like-minded! It was the first expression of the first global-minded generation born on the planet. Live Aid was a baby Woodstock, a child of Woodstock, which I call Globalstock.

The history of the be-in is interesting. Originally it wasn't just about music. It was "Let's got out to the park and throw Frisbees and be with each other." It went from that to the Monterey Pop Festival, which was a nonprofit concert in 1967, and from that came the hint "Let's try to do one of these things, but let's try to make some money." That's where their heads were at, but that didn't happen. It turned into the world's largest be-in, which I call the Cosmic Accident. It was totally unexpected.

The organizers thought that if it were like Monterey Pop, which drew fifty to sixty thousand people, they'd make off like bandits. However, there were about 400,000 people the first afternoon, and it was free before it started. The only people who made off like bandits was Warner Bros., who go the movie rights. So the merits of Woodstock being love, peace and harmony still stand on pillars of "Let's make money." That's what it was in the beginning. The consciousness was realized afterward.

The movie chronicled that consciousness. It didn't make a big deal out of the music. You saw some of the musicians playing a song or two, but it was less than half the musicians who performed. So it wasn't a true depiction of what happened onstage, but you did see members of the older generation, like the police chief, saying, "Leave the kids alone, the kids are great, they're not bothering anybody." That was much more influential than the music on the people who went to see it.

Woodstock wasn't just sex, drugs and rock & roll. Thank God for the movie, because the people who saw it got a tough of the Woodstock spirit, the spirit of people just being people.

This story is from the August 24th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 559: August 24, 1989
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