Digressions on Liner Notes: Richie Havens’ Stonehenge

Digressions on Liner Notes: Richie Havens’ Stonehenge (1970)

 (Before I start, I should say that this is a new thing I’m doing. The final Tuesday of each month will from now on be devoted to my hopefully interesting and potentially annoying musings on those brief essays or pithy statements commonly known as liner notes, or album notes. Basically, I bought a bunch of old vinyl records for real cheap a few weeks ago; and upon realizing that I gained no little enjoyment from perusing those writings on the back of or inside the sleeves, I decided to put some of them to good use. I’m starting this series with a Richie Havens joint in order to pay a little homage to the great folk singer and songwriter, whom I was fortunately able to see perform once before his death last week at the age of 72.)

Of all the albums I bought during my caffeine-induced purchasing binge at the hipster bar down the street (which, in the end, only cost me fifty bucks plus five more for two cappuccinos)—or, at least, of all the albums I bought that also include liner notes, Richie Havens’ Stonehenge presents a richie hayeswritten piece that contains by far the fewest words. Musically speaking, it’s a typically soulful and particularly spiritual record—the first one released on Havens’ own record label, and also the first one to follow his iconic 1969 performance at Woodstock—and, minus some momentarily cheesy string arrangements, it’s still quite a pleasure to listen to. In the spirit of Mr. Havens, as well as many of his counterparts both of that distant generation and my own, I became and continued to be thoroughly stoned through two complete, back-to-back plays of the album on my roommate’s turntable, during which time I also meditated on the liner notes of Stonehenge, written by Havens himself and consisting of the following several sentences:

To all the temples built by man of stone and other transient material: I wish to live to see them all crumble into truth and piles of light!

            And to the temple where divinity resides, even with all your newcomers: How quiet!

            To divinity: (the socio—Physio—spiritus—harmonious—concludus) It is a pleasure to know you!

            And least and least, to the body, the substance, the hull, the distinguished main portion, the vessel of molecular pilots and passengers, and its power receiving, transmitting, perceiving, transcending equipment: The true temple, I’ve seen your face, the earth and its inhabitants, a magnanimous collection. Concentrate on your heart beats, regulate your breathing even so that flowers may live.”

And as I’m reading this while listening to the heavy rhythmic drone of his strumming and the heroic tone of his voice, I’m thinking that Richie Havens is writing basically the same thing speculative, sci-fi/fantasy and more broadly postmodern authors were writing in the 1960s and ‘70s, albeit with a somewhat greater attention to mysticism than to those more concrete cultural, political or economic elements you might find in someone like Pynchon. Havens is really riding the same wave that Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison were on—and he perceives the same seemingly ancient battles of binary oppositions, within the context of the machinations of contemporary society—but he’s doing it without all their underlying, cigarette-puffing cynicism. Which is cool. And not just when you’re high.

The thing that gives Havens’ words weight above and beyond the shallow hippie vibe of peace and happiness—words within both his notes above and, of course, in the lyrics to his songs—is his ability to deeply explore both the danger and the beauty inherent to the mysterious divide between the individual and a greater, collective human consciousness; between all the limitations and connotations associated with the physical body, and the calculated expansiveness of something very familiar but also very much outside our range of perception. Which is, I guess, something that some people might call God or a higher power, and which Havens earlier describes as the force that will someday compel the temples of man to “crumble into truth and piles of light.” And, in the lyrics of “Prayer,” a tune from the second side of Stonehenge, Havens calls out to that higher power, saying that there is a “He who understands.”

And it’s this sense of “understanding” regarding the balance of that opposition (and regardless of anyone’s theistic or atheistic tendencies)—along with the psychological boundaries it simultaneously highlights and seeks to deconstruct—where we find the most powerful and provocative connections to the visions of Zelazny, Ellison and Pynchon, as well as those of Richard Farina, who we knew drew inspiration from Pynchon as a close friend, and who also was a colleague of Havens’ within the world of folk music. Now I’ll quickly refer to the full lyrics of Havens’ “Prayer” (which are also quite brief):

To all those outside the inner side

Let not your heart be heavy

There are those who understand

It is not easy

It is not easy to tell a lie

To all those inside the outer side

Let not your head be heavy

There are those who understand

It is not easy

It is not easy to know what to do

And to all those who understand

Let not your words be heavy

There is he who understands

It is not easy

It is not easy to be a mother and a father”

 

Here we can turn to the concept and function of the duality that is inside and outside, assuming that it represents at least a fundamental aspect of the kind of postmodern, sociopolitical paranoia and subsequent reaches toward absurdity that had already been developing within fiction before and during that period (I’m thinking also of something like Portnoy’s Complaint).

And for comparison we can look at something Farina once OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwrote regarding perceptions of his only novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, which was published in 1966 (Farina would be dead two days after its release). In concluding the piece, he proclaims that “…resolving this conflict between Inside and Outside (micro and macrocosm) is, incidentally, precisely what motivates the book’s central character.” In the case of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, the central character of Been Down Do Long, and his associates, that conflict is more of that socioeconomic period—more distinctly American, I guess—than that which drives Havens’ melodic introspection, but there a wonderful tension vital to both that reminds us that, in the end, they’re both coming from the same place. They both sense an absence, a kind of physical and mental void—whether it be spiritually or commercially induced—that serves both as their guide towards greater understand and, in the end, also an impenetrable road block that they’re forever trying to cross. Consider one of Pynchon’s most beautiful passages, which ends the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and which introduces the journey into the heart of both international conspiracy and mundane West Coast life that is to be undertaken by the unwitting Oedipa Maas:

What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”

A classic depiction of the battle between inside and outside, the body and the void, that Havens is talking about five years later, and which only two pages later is followed by another Pynchonian image—this time in the spirit of the “transmitting” and “transcending” of the body of man, and directly referring to Havens’ darkly connoted “temples built by man of stone and other transient material”:

[Oedipa] drove into San Narciso on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth: and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern California, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate, There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.”

And rather than continuing to quote at length, I’ll just say that we also find this kind of deep imagery—albeit in the guise of those ancient, mystical or strictly metaphorical images to which Havens’ refers to both in his Stonehenge liner notes and his song lyrics from that and other records—surfacing in the aforementioned sci-fi/fantasy and speculative fiction. I’m thinking specifically of Ellison’s 1968 story “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” in which we confront a physical depiction of evil, and specifically the ways in which it is kept outside one world and inside another, via the kind of “magic” to which Pynchon was probably hinting at; and I’m also thinking of the absurdly vivid wars between worlds that Zelazny imagined in late-‘60s novels like Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness, employing the stories of Hindu and Egyptian mythology, respectively, as guides.

These roots, this same dynamic of duality, even find expression during the birth of cyberpunk, within William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1980. Remember that Havens ranks the physical body last in his liner note trinity—behind the temple and divinity—and describes it as “the hull,” which gains its true power only when used as a vehicle of communication with some great beyond, something outside humanity. Gibson imagines things basically the same way. His imagery is perhaps used to different ends and within a different context, but the choice of language reveals a very distinct underlying bond. The following is another first chapter passage, this time concluding the recollection of when Case—Neuromancer’s hero—was injured by a previous employer, ultimately losing his virtuosic ability to enter the world the virtual reality of cyberspace:

For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.”

But now I need to bring us back to the origin of these ramblings, which is to say, to Mr. Havens’ liner notes themselves and the intense passion that makes them so interesting to think about. Aside from the pure flow of it all—the good vibes that inevitably stem from the combination of those words and the substance of the music of Richie Havens—it’s powerful stuff because it’s not coming from the pen of a fundamentally cynical person.

Pynchon and Farina, as much as I love them, draw their strength from an ability to make fun of everything, and to see the frantic, the absurd and the sinister within all those seemingly normal elements of mainstream American culture and its accompanying socio-political tendencies. Zelazny and Ellison, in the end, are using their images as third-party tools to illustrate the conflict at the heart of a deeply confused, unenlightened humanity.

But Havens, for all his inherent LSD trippiness, strikes me as exceedingly genuine in his portrayal of the tension between the body and the universe, between inside and outside, between tangible reality and the void. He’s giving us a benevolent injunction, to concentrate our heartbeats and to regulate our breathing, because he cares about us—he is our friendly spiritual guide, not only on the road to greater understanding but, perhaps unwittingly, also on the road to discovering the grand conceptions of his peers within that artistic generation. And I know he cares about me, because I can hear him praying for me. In that respect, I’d of course rather have Richie Havens than God. In the end, it probably means nothing, but the thought still makes me feel good.

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