Richie Havens: Face to Face with His Face

Folk singer Richie Havens i

Folk singer Richie Havens believes "we have a double in every country." Madison House Publicity hide caption

itoggle caption Madison House Publicity
Folk singer Richie Havens

Folk singer Richie Havens believes "we have a double in every country."

Madison House Publicity

The toughest thing to convey in radio is a picture. Susan Stamberg does it better than anyone: She throws out a few phrases like brush strokes and gives the mind's eye enough to work with and follow a conversation about something we cannot actually see (I am speaking, of course, of the radio-paleolithic era, when there was no Web site to direct people to).

I find stories about visual subjects forbidding, but a few years ago, I did a story about appearances, expressions and paintings that someone dubbed "A Conversation of Faces," a story that I'm proud of to this day. It grew out of a longstanding desire to find variations of the straight-ahead book interview, something my co-host in those days, Noah Adams, and I talked about several times. Perhaps we could take just one scene in a book and make a radio piece out of that.

The book that prompted this story was They Can't Hide Us Anymore, by the folk singer Richie Havens. I had always loved Havens' music, and the book contained several good anecdotes but — as memoirs go — the Pulitzer judges could safely skip this one without fear of committing any literary injustice. There was one story in the book that fascinated me and that I could only bring to life on the radio if Carol Klinger, the indefatigable All Things Considered booker, could locate a man whom Havens had met once in Tel Aviv, more than 20 years earlier, and neither seen nor heard from ever again. She did. The result is a meditation on expression, communication and friendship that Havens spontaneously wraps up with a song.

Richie Havens Meets His Israeli Double

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Robert Siegel: Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You see someone who is a complete stranger but who looks amazingly familiar. And then you realize the reason that person looks so familiar is because he or she looks just like you. Well, this is a story about just such an encounter, one that led two strangers to stop and talk, to come to know each other, to become close friends very briefly, and to make deep and lasting impressions on each other long after their paths diverged. It’s a story that Richie Havens, the folk singer, relates in a new book that’s called, They Can’t Hide Us Anymore. Havens grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. In the crude schematic of American racial discourse, you would simply call him “black.” But that simplifies a very diverse background.

Richie Havens: My mother’s family came from the British West Indies. And my father’s family came from, well, my father’s father came from the Montana/South Dakota area. They were Blackfoot Indian. And him and his brother came with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, got off in New York City, and left the show there and ended up on Shinnecock Reservation in Long Island. And he got married there, and moved to Brooklyn, and that’s how my father was born in Brooklyn. And how I ended up being born in Brooklyn as well.

Siegel: He was born in 1941. Richie Havens describes the Brooklyn of his childhood as an urban idyll, a place not yet undone by economic decay and social breakdown.

Havens: I actually grew up with people from all over the world. There wasn’t enough of a difference to feel different from anybody else. Their grandmother hollered at me like my grandmother hollered at all the kids when anybody did anything wrong. And their parents did the same thing. But, you know, all the fathers worked and worked hard, and some of the mothers even worked, you know, just to survive and to be a family, and that was the commonness of it.

Siegel: Richie Havens is a self-taught man. He’s a high school dropout who took his curiosity to the public library and his natural gifts to the streets of Greenwich Village. In the 1960s, he sketched portraits for a living. And he sang. At clubs, on records, eventually at Woodstock. Havens could infuse another songwriter’s music and lyrics with his own being and make every song sound like it was his.

Siegel: Richie Havens embodies the 1960s. He sings songs about peace, he reads the texts of major world religions, he delves into the more exotic wisdom of Polynesia and aboriginal Australia. His face is bearded, his fingers seem almost weighted down with rings that click as he becomes animated in conversation. In 1977, Richie Havens recorded a song about peace between Egypt and Israel. He went to Tel Aviv to perform it in concert. At that time, Aharon Grundman, or as he was known 22 years ago, Roni Grundman, was working in Tel Aviv. He was 24. His parents were successful, creative and secular Israelis. His father was an architect and museum designer who’d spent his teenage years in Auschwitz. His mother was an artist who was deaf. Roni was raised to appreciate the arts.

Grundman: I started very early to play the violin, and then at age 12, started playing the cello. And I was concert maestro of the Israeli Youth Orchestra when I was 17. And then I joined the army in 1972. I joined the intelligence forces, and I was a part of that during the Yom Kippur war. After I was released from the army, I went to England, came back to Israel, met my wife, and I actually decided to become religious. And today I am a Hassidic Jew.

Siegel: One day, in 1977, Havens and Grundman were in the same place at the same time. We had them both recall that moment that they saw each other. Havens was giving away tickets, first come first serve, to his peace concert. He was at a Tel Aviv café.

Havens: I went and I sat at this table. There was only one other person sitting behind me, with his back to me. He was actually studying.

Grundman: Actually, Rich was sitting with his back to me, also. I don’t even know what I was actually doing there. I was contemplating on life or something like that. And when the time came, the doors opened up, and all these people started coming to get tickets. And after all that commotion, I got up to leave, and the gentleman who was sitting behind me turned around and looked at me, and I looked at him, and he turned around, and we’re just looking at one another. It was funny, you know, there's this skit by Lucille Ball and Harpo where they're like the two sides of the mirror. I felt like I was looking at me, but it wasn’t me, you know? And we looked at each other for a while, and he said, “You know, you look just like me!” And I said, “No, you look just like me!” And he says, “Who are you?” And I said, “My name is Richie Havens,” and he goes, “I know you from somewhere, I know you.”

Siegel: Aharon had seen Woodstock the movie. Each man says he saw in the other man’s face what he sees in the mirror, even though by the simplest physical description, they were fundamentally different, one black, one white. Richie Havens says when he looks in the mirror, he sees mostly a beard.

Havens: I haven’t seen my face since I started growing my beard, which was when I was a teenager almost, I never shaved. So I don’t really know what I look like. And he had the same thing, he had the same beard, and the same nose, and the same eyebrows, and shape of face, you know.

Grundman: I don’t know that we necessarily physically look that much like one another, definitely not today. I have very long earlocks — peyos — and a long beard and I’m wearing a black hat and a black coat and everything else, you know, but there's just something I can’t even say, I don't know, maybe it’s the nose, the prominence of the nose, or the forehead, I don’t know. Looking at Richie felt like I felt about myself.

Havens: I believe we have a double in every country. There’s something about that that is probably a commonness that we don’t make note of. That maybe there’s only a cast for so many faces and we live everywhere.

Grundman: There was a certain feeling that I took out of my meeting with him, which was a heart walking on two legs. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. Just like catfish, you know that they have taste buds all over their body, and they go through life just tasting as they swim along. Richie is like somebody who is just emoting from every single pore of his body ... a big, huge heart.

Siegel: They talked that day about music and life. Aharon was cooling on classical music; he had written a song that he wanted Havens to sing. Aharon says Havens made him sing it himself, recorded it and played it back. Aharon says Havens showed him possibilities in himself that he hadn’t suspected. Richie recalls Aharon seeing his book of Talmudic wisdom in his hotel room, along with Buddhist writings and other books he typically took on the road. Aharon Grundman wanted this walking heart of a man, the former Greenwich Village sidewalk portrait artist, who savored the world with every pore, to meet a very remarkable Israeli painter: his mother.

Grundman: She was just a big personality. She was huge. And I knew that once he met her, you know, she would just blow his mind, which is exactly what happened.

Havens: It wasn’t until we got to her door that he told me she was deaf and couldn’t speak. He said, “You might not understand her at all, she’s deaf,” and I didn’t know what to really expect, but I thought it was kind of strange to wait until we got to the door to tell me.

Grundman: She was the kind of person that would walk into the room, besides the fact that she was extremely beautiful, she would walk into the room and just the power of her personality would just converge every single person in the room. She would step into the room and everybody would just become a spectator. The fact that she was deaf made it almost impossible for her to be understood.

Havens: We spoke for about three and a half, four hours, and I never did figure out how we actually did that. And I actually understood everything she was saying to me. And it was some deep conversation about the world and people and her concerns about certain things and mine.

Grundman: They were just emoting. They were just describing a world they would like their emotions to paint.

Havens: I looked at her paintings and it was obvious how internally observant she was. There were paintings of banners flying on several poles or a clothesline with certain kinds of towels and sheets hanging on it, but each one had a face, and you could tell what the emotions were, if it was anger or if it was love or if it was surprise. She had all of those things on there. And there were stories in it. If you looked at it long enough, if you took the time, you could actually understand what she was trying to say with this conversation of faces that was going on.

Siegel: The painter, who spoke with magnified facial expressions of the deaf, had depicted the essence of faces just as Richie Havens and Aharon Grundman had each seen some essential sameness in the face of the other. All these years later, Grundman says that Havens’ recall of those pictures is remarkably accurate and Havens says that encounter remains meaningful.

Havens: It enriched my life, you know? I have to say because I realized — that was part of my realizing that you don’t need to speak to communicate. You don’t need to have to have that ability to communicate. You can still do it. You can still get what you need to get across if the person who’s listening to you was willing to take the time.

Siegel: In the years since, Aharon Grundman has moved to Brooklyn, not far from where Richie Havens grew up. He runs an advertising agency and he studies Judaism. His mother died in 1994, and he and Richie Havens never crossed paths again. Havens described their encounter in his book called They Can’t Hide Us Anymore. It’s just a brief episode. And after Havens talked to our studio about faces and art and Aharon Grundman and Grundman’s mother, he sang a song that came to mind. It’s called, “You Are the One.”

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