The alarm clock on the wall

23 Apr

In between writing reviews and editing a couple of books today I wanted to elaborate on a private posting I made over on Facebook. As the day has gone on some of the thoughts have refused to dissipate to the point where I must acknowledge them.

Yesterday we lost the iconic folk guitarist/singer/songwriter Richie Havens at the age of 72. Chatting with a friend last night, he commented his surprise at my interest in American folk – we’ve know each other for over a decade and still there are aspects to our friendship to be discovered. It may surprise those of you who know me from my dealings with horror, that I may choose to comment on the passing of a folk singer. But I’m a nostalgist, and the late 1960s was a crucial period for my own personal spiritual and creative development – albeit some 30 years after the fact.

I’m probably already in an emotionally heightened state. There’s a lot been happening in recent weeks and months which have at times left me very fragile, and in other ways have strengthened me like never before. Richie’s passing stirred up a lot of feeling and memories, all of them good.

A Friend Forever - some of my Richie CD collection

A Friend Forever – some of my Richie CD collection

There are things I want to talk about and share, and I can’t. The one person knew and I think actually got how important Richie’s work was to me, is now no longer part of my life, and not through my choice. Its truly awful when you can’t just pick up the phone anymore and chat about something as simple as the passing of a legendary figure and the emotional resonances of his music.

I first became aware of Richie while watching the BBC 2 Sounds of the Sixties series in 1992. In a glimpse from an archive recording, he sat on a high stool, lit by a harsh moving light from below, while his dark shadow danced on the wall behind him. It was haunting and powerful.

My next encounter must have been the following summer or at latest the one after. I believe I was at the end of my 3rd year at Campbell College, summer of 1994, when I first saw the documentary about the Woodstock festival of peace and love from 1969. It was a watershed moment for me, the visually stimulating multi-camera techniques, the ethos of peace (which fitted nicely with my growing pacifistic views in a still troubled Northern Ireland), the nudity (an eye opener to how the body can be beautiful without necessarily being sexual – although it undoubtedly was that too), and the music – oh the music! It built on the knowledge I’d gained from Sounds of the Sixties and the occasional record that survived in Dad’s collection. By the end I’d have gained an interest or awareness in Arlo Guthrie, Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens.

Richie’s guitar playing was dynamic and exciting, frenetic, and yet beautiful. He played his chords using a special open tuning (I would learn later), based around using his gigantic thumb across the fret board (I was trying to learn guitar myself, and having problems with my fat uncoordinated fingers I’ve often fancied trying this). His rousing rendition of Freedom incorporated an old spiritual number Motherless Child – which I already knew from the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, and loved – had me hooked.

I had taped that film, and over the subsequent years would watch it repeatedly. Finally getting the DVD when I was at uni was even better. Around the same time I picked up a copy of Havens’ Mixed Bag album from 1967 on CD. Its a very sombre Richie on the cover – staring back in his big nerd glasses. A very different image from the Richie I’d seen. But his rhythmic steam roller guitar playing was still very evident, and was worth picking up just for High Flyin’ Bird and Handsome Johnny.

I feel very fortunate that I eventually got the chance to see Richie play live, and not just once. He was a powerhouse in his accoustic sets, with a melodic singing voice that oozed emotion. When he talked in stark contrast to the live persona, he was very softly spoken, just like Jimi Hendrix comes across in interviews. Seeing him play Freedom in a post-Troubles Belfast felt right, the hope he sought was something most of my generation could identify with. Some of the best gig nights I ever spent were in Richie’s presence. He was and remains a hero of mine, and did not disappoint.

Listening to Richie today (I can skip most of his 80s/early 90s work, too synthesised, but Wishing Well, Grace of the Sun and Nobody Left To Crown were fine albums to end a career on), so much of his music fills me with a melancholy hope and contentment. He sings of the passing of time, of loves and friends lost. He sings of dreams, and loves and friends to come. And like all our friendships, he is irreplaceable. His music has been a soundtrack to the last 20 years of my life, and will continue to be so. His songs hit me with certain moods, and trigger specific happy memories. Lost friendships should be like that.

Richie’s passing reminds me of the eventual passing of all friendships – the way they sometimes drift away, and of the unstoppable natural flow of life. I’m prompted to think about the importance of memory. Richie was a warm human being, oozing charm and with a sparkle in his eye. Talking to him was a bit like talking to your grandfather (assuming yours was nice). He had a way of making everyone feel welcome and important. When he signed autographs, he did so with the written promise which he shared with all his friends, that we would be a “friend forever”, whether we ever saw or spoke to him again. That promise rings true today.

So here’s a note and a toast to friends. To those friends I still see and speak to regularly; to those who I can pick up with after years in the wilderness in some far off city, getting on like it was only yesterday when we were at school; and to those friends I will never see again – whether our lives just got too difficult to be friends, or we fell out over something, we simply drifted apart, or the reaper robbed us of more time.

If we ever had cause to call ourselves friends, you are important to me. You are a part of who I am today, and I hope that you feel the same. Our lives crossed and for a period we touched each other. Whether we are in actual contact still is irrelevant, that memory will remain, that emotional truth. And that memory will keep the friendship alive until there is nothing left but dust.

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One Response to “The alarm clock on the wall”

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  1. 1st Annual Review – 2013 | The Sherlock Holmes English-speaking Vernacular - January 2, 2014

    […] times in Belfast during the naughties. His passing moved me to the core and began something of a process of re-evaluation in my personal life, which is still going […]

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