The Empirical Poetry of Roy Harper

By: Dennis Cook

Roy Harper
Some artists are so marbled into their craft that they've become invisible to most over time. They are an influence felt but rarely named, something experienced second hand through those they've inspired. While Roy Harper may not be a name you know, just ask Jimmy Page, David Gilmour or Robert Plant about Roy and they'll talk the ears right off your head. Harper has been an elemental force in modern English/American music since his 1967 debut, Sophisticated Beggar. At 67, his tendrils reach into the root systems of folks like Devendra Banhart, Six Organs of Admittance and myriad others. It's Harper's voice on Wish You Were Here inviting us to "Have A Cigar," and Harper who's saluted by name on Led Zeppelin III. Critical darling Joanna Newsom cites Harper's landmark Stormcock as the direct influence on her "Best of List" topping Ys album, and even had Harper perform the entire Stormcock album as an opening set for her Ys show at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2007. He's appeared on Gilmour's solo albums (including co-writing the stunning "Short and Sweet" on Gilmour's 1978 solo debut). He's played with Kate Bush, Jimmy Page and Jethro Tull, and been the subject of numerous BBC profiles.

Still, even as he ripples and shifts musicians of the highest caliber, Roy Harper remains an ethereal presence to the masses – that elemental thing taken to a gross extreme – especially in the United States, where his albums have been out-of-print for decades. Thankfully, late last year a domestic reissue series began with several milestones in his long, fruitful career (20+ studio releases, more than a dozen live sets and multiple comps). The first batch includes Stormcock (1971), Flat Baroque and Berserk (1970) and his 1985 collaboration with Jimmy Page, Jugula. Each represents some of the essential creative brilliance Harper has shown throughout his 40 year and counting career, but as with most things Harper, there's a lot more to the man than any one fragment can reflect.

While often lumped into the "folk-rock" bin, Harper is really the child of early blues and jazz and a protest singer in the finest sense. He's spent a lifetime giving voice to those without it, fighting dumbness and injustice with art and melody, proving the pen's edge can be as sharp as any sword. He is a marvelously inquisitive, lusty person whose work exhibits those qualities but also an intuitive knack for restraint, quietude and soft laughter. Harper's work seeks genuine discourse, not the pantomime, Kabuki theatre we find in today's media and government. He wants his ideas challenged in order to test them, and in the process tests your own resolve. While often heady stuff, his music is also massively enjoyable - a flowing, lovely, humanizing sound that speaks to the best possibilities within us.

It is with great pleasure that we present the brightest fruits of a lengthy conversation with Harper, where we explore his influences, his strong views on god and culture and the value of growing older. More than a chat about music – which does come up, but like Harper, often floats behind the main conversation – this is an inquiry into the world we live in. Harper actively tests my views and questions my questions. Without hyperbole, this is one of the liveliest, most challenging talks this writer has ever had, and it's an experience I hope readers find even some small amount of the insight and enjoyment I drew from my time with Mr. Harper.

Harper in '64 from
JamBase: In America, you're not an easy man to find. So, it's a real treat to see some of your best albums finally resurface in the States.

Roy Harper: Yeah, I know. There's been a problem over there for a long time. I had a distributor connected to a giant company called Happy Valley that went down years ago. So, in the meantime, the albums fell out of print and the dollar fell in value, so it became impossible to export them [from the U.K.] and make any money on them. We would have been doing it as a loss. A lot of people at my sort of level can't import to the U.S. at all.

JamBase: You've always been fiercely independent, and while there's compromises you could have made to get your work wider release I never got the sense you were willing to do that. At least to my ears, you've always made just the albums you wanted to make. You never seem to capitulate to the style of any given period. What we hear always seems totally of your mind and your mind alone.

Roy Harper: There's 90-percent truth to that. I do waver now and again towards thinking, "That's a good idea." So, I'll take a little something from somewhere and put it on my bread. On the financial side of things, for the past 20 years it's been useless to even engage with a record company because record companies have no idea anymore about what artists like me need. The problems multiply the moment an album goes out beyond the British islands. It multiplies the minute you go into Europe or the East or the United States. So, it becomes prohibitive to actually move. In some ways I don't mind, but you become very confined. I wouldn't say parochial because I've never been parochial.

No, I think confined is the right word. You're quite revered within that little set of islands, yet for someone who's had such a long, fruitful career I'm always a bit surprised by how many people don't know your music, at least to some degree.

Roy Harper
The thing is I had a bit of bad luck in the U.S. right at the beginning. I kind of fell into a situation where I had a bad time with a guy who owned The Troubadour. I don't think he's around anymore but he did actually try to... well, I don't want to put too fine a point on this but he tried to rape me one day. We'd signed up for a whole load of gigs and he was probably instrumental in bucking me across the U.S. when I kind of refused his advances, which were actually physical. This is information I've never imparted before but it's true enough.

Wow. You've long had a sort of cult awareness/audience in the United States but I've wondered why you weren't able to grow a larger following like what you have in England, especially given your connections with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

It was this incident that made a real mess of it. His last words to me were, "You'll never work in this country again." And I found that he had actually spoked a few wheels for me in the U.S. in that way. The other problem was the guy running Capitol Records, which was EMI [Harper's U.K. label] in the States, didn't like my stuff at all, and he and my manager didn't get on at all. So, those two things were really opposed to me working in the U.S. and by the time I got free of EMI/Capitol and was able to go to another record label in 1978 it was too late. And an album like Stormcock had tracks that were just too long for U.S. radio, too, but I wasn't bothered by that. A couple years later people were bending over backwards to play things like "Stairway To Heaven," which is a relative [laughs].

Again, it's funny and sad to me how many people don't know what an aesthetic influence you were on these revered artists and their signature works.

The thing is you've got to have the groundbreaker. Once you've had that then it's okay for the rest to come and fill that space. You don't get much kudos for being a groundbreaker. Well, that's not right. You do get kudos but you don't get the financial muscle or reward.

True! Your music is so unique. The first time I heard Stormcock I knew instantly that I'd never encountered anything quite like it, and that's always what I'm drawn to most, things with an original spark burning inside them. And you've never really given up chasing after that original flame in your subsequent work.

Harper & Newsom from
Well, that's very nice of you. It's nearly always lyrically these days because I've found there's really only so much you can do with music without alienating people. It's easy to alienate people musically. All I would need to do is write songs as long as albums, and I don't think anyone would sit through that. I've had aspirations in the not too distant past to use strings in an ultra-modern capacity, to use strings in a discordant manner for a discordant lyric, so the lyric matches the bouquet it's in. Things like that are very expensive to set up and not cost effective. In other words, someone like me has to pay an awful lot of money for that to take shape without any reward at all, just money thrown away.

I can appreciate that. There's an audience of some size for this sort of thing but not enough to wring a coin from, eh?

It's very difficult to justify in this financial climate, in this market as it is.

I don't know how Joanna Newsom's Ys did in terms of sales, but it was well received critically and as a live experience that stretched boundaries.

She's so articulate, musically.

You announced that your set opening for her in London was going to be your last live performance for the foreseeable future.

How could I top that? To have a really beautiful, young woman play the Albert Hall with me is quite a thing. We've only got to see two or three other records of the same depth and she becomes an enormous talent. If she can keep it together and keep the spirit and the drive and the enterprise in it that it has at the moment then we're looking at someone with longevity and a significant career. She is wonderful. You fall in love with her on the spot. It's really easy.

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