A rich lesson learned
Folk singer Richie Havens died last week of a heart attack at his home in New Jersey.
When I was a sophomore at Syracuse University, I met Richie backstage at a small, off-campus venue, years before he became the opening sensation at Woodstock. I was impressed by his unusual guitar tuning, his string fretting with an island-sized thumb and his size-14 black shoe that pounded out his rhythm — and I told him so.
We got to talking — him, a very urban, soft-spoken, black dude in his late 20s and me, a cocky but sincere white college kid looking for purpose. One thing led to another, and he invited me down to his place in the East Village in New York City.
I took him up on his offer and drove my beater Chevy the five-hour trip to the Big Apple. Soon after arriving at his hike-up flat between C and D streets, I did what any weekend college kid with a guitar jones did then — and now: I gave Richie’s bass player, a skinny street musician named Natoga, a 10-spot for a dime bag of pot. It came in the typical unlabeled, palm-sized manila envelope and was probably a bit “light.” The problem, as it turned out, was not the weight but the quality. Pot in 1966 was not today’s sativa, and Natoga’s weed was just a step up from slightly dried oregano, which it oddly favored.
I did the I’m-a-little-disappointed dance in front of him, to which he threw a shrug or two and walked off.
Feeling a bit like a taken-advantage-of stranger, a white honkie in a very dark neighborhood, I padded over to Richie, who was doing guitar riffs in the next room. “Richie,” I said, “I think I’ve been played a little off-key by your bass guy.”
Richie stopped his riff, wagged his great mass of untethered facial hair a twitch, and putting his huge Deuteronymous but philosophical hand on my proverbial shoulder, like a father explaining the facts of life to his son, he spoke these rich, guttural words: “Gaard, it seems to me that my guy went out and procured a dime bag for you, which you paid him for fair and square. Now, my bass player does not make a whole pile of cash from backing me up; he lives in a one-room walk-up that costs him more than he’d like, and it smells like cat pee.”
He looked me right in the eye and continued, “Now you, on the other hand, drove down here from your upstate university for a weekend with more money in your pocket than Natoga could fold into both his socks — if he had any — and you asked him to score you a favor — it seems to me that what you paid him for was a little bit of dope with an inch of oregano thrown in, but what you bought was a whole handful of experience!”
With that, he gave me a wink and went back to strumming his Dreadnought.
That experience, bought for 10 bucks, has lasted a lifetime and has helped me “write off” dozens of rip-offs at prices that have substantially exceeded a five or a dime.
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