What George Orwell dubbed “Newspeak” back in 1950 has become pervasive in modern day marketing. Examples are too numerous to be noteworthy, but every once in while someone will display enough chutzpah that one has to stop and say, “Really?” Such is the case of Alan Douglas and the new release of two Richie Havens’ albums on one compact disc with the title, My Own Way.
The story goes like this: Havens originally recorded the songs acoustically, and several were demos and not intended to be in their final versions. After Havens signed with another record label and became commercially successful, Douglas released the material and added electric guitar, harmonica, organs, and other instrumentation to the mix to make the original folk material into folk rock. Douglas even called one of the albums, Electric Havens, which implied that Havens was playing an electric guitar (Douglas later explained he meant the electricity of Havens as a performer. Yeah, right.). Havens resented Douglas’ butchering of his music and expressed his dislike of what was done to it. He disassociated himself from the two records (the other called Richie Havens’ Record) and they have been hard to find for decades.
The records were never put on CD, until now. This would provide a brilliant opportunity for Douglas to rectify his wrong. He could reissue the albums with two versions of the songs—one with and one without the added production. The original albums were only about 25 minutes long and could easily fit on one disc. Instead he put the two records on one disc. The unnecessary and somewhat clunky production remains intact.
Let me be clear. There are some records that have come out as unvarnished versions of great finished products that have sounded, “Meh.” The production of these discs enhanced the music and artistry. That’s not the case here. The best that one can see is that the instruments often do seem detached from Havens’ singing and guitar playing. One can hear them without the noise, if you concentrate.
No doubt Douglas will claim that he named the disc My Own Way because that is the title of one of the 14 songs. However, this is one of the worst produced tracks on the record. Havens’ voice is covered up by a throbbing percussion instrument and his acoustic guitar blended into a mix and hard to distinguish from the general noise. The inherent mediocrity of the title cut is highlighted by the fact that follows on of the album’s best tracks, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”. Now be forewarned, Douglas shmears harmonicas, strings, and percussion all over this track, too. The difference is that he allows Havens’ voice to be heard. Havens theatrically sings the bittersweet lyrics in a compelling voice. It’s beautiful—or would be without the overproduced accompaniment.
Do I sound angry? Disappointed? And I even haven’t mentioned the heavy organ and the sound of waves that turn “Drown in My Own Tears” into a salty mess, or the western movie kitschy guitar recapitulating the sound of train tracks that turns the acerbic “3:10 to Yuma” into “3:10 to You’re Kidding”. The accompaniment buries Havens, who actually gave a tight performance.
“My toast was cold and my orange juice was hot,” Havens sings on another track, and that’s how I kind of feel about this release. It has been over 40 years since this music has been available. Havens is in fine form. The music deserves to be heard. But it also deserves a better treatment.