Monday, May 08, 2006

Kat's Korner: Richie Havens: The Economical Collection

Kat: Every now and then, an e-mail will remind me of the Bully Boy economy and suggest that I review something less expensive than a new release. I did that with a Nina Simone double disc CD and quite a few of you were able to locate it.

This is the sort of review that was.

It started when Maggie borrowed a CD, without asking -- also known as theft, and lost it. Not really lost it, she insisted, because, "Lost means lost." Yes, it does. "Lost means lost," sky means sky, sun means sun and "borrow" has its own definition too -- one Maggie can look up when I gift her with a dictionary. In the meantime, my Richie Havens Cuts to the Chase CD is not "lost."

See, Maggie explained, "lost" means it could be anywhere. She knows it fell out of the big black almost-carry-on luggage "purse" she carries. Somewhere on Pico. So it's not lost. She was hurring because she was late and it must have fallen out. But she was going to replace it.

I've heard that song before, I've seen the dance as well. As a member of the reality-based community, I don't put much weight into such statements. It's the morning of April 28th, I'm doing my make up and, in my head, checking to make sure I've packed everything for the trip to DC when Maggie's knock-knock-knocking on my front door. Then I'm looking in the mirror, applying mascara, when I see Maggie waving something.

"I replaced it," she says sticking a CD into my purse.

Well what do you know. She even offers me a ride to the airport.

So I'm on the plane and digging around my purse for some gun when my fingers hit the CD. I pull it out to look at it. It's not Richie Havens' Cuts to the Chase CD. It's The Best of Richie Havens: The Millennium Collection.

I don't know how familiar anyone is with "20th Century Masters/The Millennium Collection"?
This is basically a repackaging series. Often the hits of a lot of artists whose labels no longer really exist (gobbled up in the name of synergy). The whole thing looks done on the cheap to me. This isn't a "best of" in the true sense and I'm the last to defend "best of"s and "greatest hits" collections.

The only artist who may benefit from The Millennium Collection is Cher -- who I believe has three collections now (one with Sonny and two solo). That's because there's no consistent musical thread to her work. That's not intended as an insult. But, like Madonna, she's all over the place. In the sixties, there's the earnest folkie of her folk-rockie period railing against the world and, usually, teen pregnanices. There's the early seventies pop storyteller with one "story song" after another about someone dying or someone being ignored. There's the late seventies period that is disco. The undocumented, one album, period where she's trying to be a combination of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde (Black Rose). Then in the mid-eighties, she finally moves closer to the sort of rock-anthem songs that she's always maintained she wants to do. By the tail end of the nineties, she's back in the disco.

And I won't even attempt to summarize the Sonny & Cher recordings. But the point is, you can slice up Cher's work. You can pair late seventies disco with the Believe period, for instance. But most artists aren't Cher or Madonna. They usually have a thread of some form they're developing in their work. Such as Richie Havens whose percussive, open tuning guitar work had a huge impact (that's frequently forgotten). When on Cuts to the Chase, he covers Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance," it's not just another cover. He's bringing to bear three decades of experience (stage, recording and personal) into the song. That's true of all his later recordings, whether they are covers or songs he's written.

So the slice and dice of The Millennium Collection wasn't anything I was waiting to hear. In NYC, Mike and Wally wondered if I'd brought any music? I had but wasn't in the mood to unpack, so I reached in my purse and pulled out the Richie Havens.

They took it out of the plastic and started playing it and I went off to get some sleep. Saturday morning, it's still playing -- and not just because Mike fell asleep on the couch.

Those of us familiar with Havens' work weren't impressed. But those who were hearing him for the first time were blown away. Mike kept trying to persuade me of how great the CD was. Finally, he says, "Everybody, quiet!" and plays "Follow."

"Follow" is one of Havens' masterpieces. (The song's used beautifully in the film Coming Home.) Jerry Merrick wrote it, Havens gave it life. It's a song that will move you and in the early morning hours, with the rally and march bearing down on all of us, it had a hypnotic power that I'd honestly forgotten.

Wally called the following week to complain that the only CD of Havens he could find (at what we used to call "a record store," he knew not to try one of the Big Box Stores) was this one. They could order others, but this was the only one they carried.

Here's my problem with collections. Too often they act as the end-point of entry. Someone buys the CD and, suddenly, that's all they need. They may even think that they have a strong overview of the artist. That's rarely the case as they tend to focus only on the biggest charters on the pop songs. An important song, one that made the artist exciting, may not make the collection.

It may be the song that caused people to look at the artist in a new way. And maybe because it was a new direction or it had some "foul" language in it, it didn't shoot up the charts. A friend's working on a student dance routine and she told me I'd be so happy because she was using Alanis Morissette's "best song." She's going to have kids dancing on stage, in front of their parents, to "You Ought To Know"? No. "Uninvited"? No. "Hand In My Pocket."

Or take Janet Jackson. The Control album made people look at her differently. "Let's Wait Awhile," the only number one, wasn't the reason she got reconsidered. It was "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" with the follow up "Nasty" that made Jackson worth watching. But I picture a future Millennium Collection focusing on the "soft" side ("Let's Wait Awhile," "That's The Way Love Goes," et al.). Those aren't the best songs. They're the ones that can get airplay easiest.

The Best of Richie Havens: The Millennium Collection isn't the best of Havens' work. "San Francisco Bay Blues," for instance, divorced from the other tracks on Mixed Bags, sounds like nothing but the Rogers & Hart rip-off it always was. (Songwriter Jesse Fuller listened to the music of "Where or When" one time too many.)

It's also true that the collection isn't the worst of Havens' work either. Along with "Follow," you get selections from the three albums that made his name in the sixties. (There's nothing here from his historic Woodstock performance.) If you realize Havens is playing the guitar, you get an appreciation for that. Thankfully, the collection contains three photographs (out of five counting cover and back cover) showing Havens with guitar because the booklet dismisses his guitar playing in a single sentence of a four paragraph "essay."

You also get the voice that was never too smooth. Havens didn't do dance routines onstage. He wasn't an "entertainer" in that sense. He told a story and move you -- the voice was just the right equipment to cut through so much cheese that occupied the airwaves then (most of which is, thankfully, now forgotten). It's a voice (then and only more so now) that has a weight to it, a thickness. He can take it to the upper register and then some, but at its core, the voice is gravity.

Since this is the only CD of Havens that's readily available in music stores, it's a great starting point. I can recommend it for that, and the price, provided it's understood as a starting point.
There are some strong tracks besides "Follow." His covers of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Lady Madonna" will please many. (But pay attention to the guitar work, especially on "Lady Madonna," to really appreciate them.) "Handsome Johnny" (which Havens co-wrote with Louis Gossett, Jr.) is just as pertinent today as it was during Vietnam.

Forget the entire body of Havens' work, if you just know the three albums that the twelve tracks are pulled from, you'll be thinking, "Well, I would've picked ___" (His cover of Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" comes to mind immediately.) This isn't an album for people like that or people like me. This isn't a celebration of Havens' craft (not even from the first three albums).

What is it? A great starter set for new audiences. If you've never heard of Havens or only know his name and not his music, this is a CD you can pick up (apparently the only one in many stores). It will tell you why, at a reasonable price, Havens remains a talent worth listening to.

You need to remember that this isn't his "best" in any sense of the word. It is enough to excite first time listeners. Seeing that, I realized how much I (and maybe you) had grown accustomed to his guitar style (which was groundbreaking). So for "the new millennium" crowd, The Best of Richie Havens: The Millennium Collection is probably a wise and economical purchase. You'll hear some of his finer moments (including his cover of Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" and Merrick's "From The Prison"). If the choice is between this or being unstocked (thereby forgotten), I'd choose this. I'll even recommend it to Havens' fans who have his recordings on vinyl. But, cautionary note, this is a starter set. It's not the end-point, nor is it a representation of his finest work (not even from the three albums they cover).