Aching Muscles & Richie Havens

Originally posted November 17, 2008

It was about ten days ago that I noticed the gutters. I was up in the loft, discussing something with the Texas Gal as she worked on a quilt, and I happened to look out the window nearest the stairs.

I noticed that the gutter around our small back porch was filled with brown oak leaves. Looking ahead to March – I’m rarely blessed with this kind of foresight, so I was pleased – I saw snow melt running down the roof and being caught up in a clogged gutter and then maybe seeping up between the shingles and into the walls of the loft. Given the large number of oak trees – and a few evergreens – around the house, I had no doubt that the other four length of gutter were clogged as well.

I pointed it out to the Texas Gal, and she and our landlord exchanged a few emails about the gutters and our lack of a ladder. If he could provide one, she said, we could clean the gutters. The next day, while I was occupied with something else, our landlord stopped by and left a ladder in the driveway. So Saturday afternoon, with the temperature about 30 Fahrenheit (-1 C), we bundled up and I headed up the ladder. The Texas Gal stayed below and held the ladder and tossed paper towels and other necessities up to me.

I’m not sure how long it had been since the gutters were cleaned, but it had been a while. The loose leaves lay atop an inch of black gunk. It wasn’t difficult to remove, but it wasn’t pleasant, either. There was, for some reason, a little less gunk in the gutter on the north side of the house, but it had frozen. I thought that might make it more difficult to remove, but actually it made it easier. I chipped away at it with a screwdriver, and it came up in small slabs.

Overall, it took about an hour, maybe, to clean the four gutters on the house and the two on the porch. By the time we were done, we were both a little chilled and my arms ached. But it was the good kind of ache that comes from having done something that needed to be done.

Richie Havens – The Great Blind Degree
When digging into the early catalog of Richie Havens, it seems as if the album I’m sharing today, The Great Blind Degree, gets lost. It was Havens’ second release on the Stormy Forest label and came out in 1971, following 1970’s Stonehenge.

(Havens had released three records on Verve beginning in 1967, and there was a one-off release in 1968 on the Douglas label called Electric Havens, which I think was some of Havens’ early folk recordings overdubbed with electric instruments; Verve released a fourth album of Havens’ work – outtakes? I don’t know – in 1971, after Havens was recording for Stormy Forest.)

Also in 1971, Havens released Alarm Clock, the album that contained his only Top 40 hit, a driving version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun” that went to No. 16 in the spring. I’m not sure at all what time of year The Great Blind Degree was released; All-Music Guide has it listed before Alarm Clock in its Havens discography, but that’s not persuasive. I’m inclined to think that Alarm Clock (which reached No. 29 on the album chart in May) came first and then The Great Blind Degree was released and for some reason got no attention.

And that’s too bad. While I don’t think the album is as good as Stonehenge or Alarm Clock, it’s not that far behind. It’s more of a concept album than either of those, and that might have lessened its profile. Or maybe it wasn’t promoted well enough. I don’t know. I do know that I was aware of Stonehenge when it came out (the title and the cover photo caught my attention even though I wasn’t in the market for Havens’ music at the moment), and I knew about Alarm Clock because of the single, which persuaded me to take a closer listen to Havens. But The Great Blind Degree escaped my attention, and that seems to have been the case with a lot of listeners back then. (There’s no indication of a CD release, so that remains the case.)

As I noted, it’s more of a concept album than Haven’s earlier albums, focusing during Side One on surviving the tempestuous times and during Side Two on raising the next generation. Of the two sides, the first seems more successful from the vantage point of 2008, if only because the centerpiece of Side Two, Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children,” is something we’ve heard so many times that we really no longer hear it.

But that’s not Havens’ failing, that’s ours. And the song nestles nicely in its place, following Havens’ reworking of Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” which Havens recasts as “Fathers & Sons.” In that setting, Nash’s song can be heard almost as something new again, making the middle of Side Two eloquent.

Still, I think Havens does his best work on the album on the opening track, “What About Me,” which was the title tune of a 1970 album by Quicksilver Messenger Service:

You poisoned my sweet water.
You cut down my green trees.
The food you fed my children
Was the cause of their disease.
My world is slowly fallin’ down
And the air’s not good to breathe.
And those of us who care enough,
We have to do something . . .

Oh-oh, what you gonna do about me?
Oh-oh, what you gonna do about me?

I like the Quicksilver version – it was the second Quicksilver recording I ever heard, after “Fresh Air” – but I might like Haven’s version a bit better than the original. And if the rest of The Great Blind Degree doesn’t quite come up to the level of the opening track, well, it’s still a pretty good album.

Of course, as regular readers know, I’ve not heard a lot of stuff by Havens I don’t like, so one can let that be a guide.

Havens produced the record and plays rhythm and twelve-string guitar. Electric and lead acoustic guitar are provided by Paul Williams (the singer-songwriter? I doubt it, but I’m not sure). Emile Latimer is credited for conga drums and percussion, Eric Oxendine played bass, and Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil provided the sounds from the Moog Synthesizer.

Tracks:
What About Me
Fire & Rain/Tommy
In These Flames
Think About The Children
Fathers & Sons
Teach Your Children
What Have We Done

Richie Havens – The Great Blind Degree [1971]

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