By: Dennis Cook
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.
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.
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.
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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Freedom starts with sexuality. It's one of the basic freedoms, and if you don't have that you've lost one of the stepping stones to life, to actually understanding yourself as a liberated being.
While your guitar playing gets a fair amount of kudos, I don't think your singing gets its fair share. Your language, phrasing and texturing of things vocally is much more like Nina Simone or Billie Holiday than anyone in rock. Patsy Cline also comes to mind. You seem to savor the way you say a word as much as the word itself.
Well, thank you, but I don't think I am much of a singer actually [laughs]. I can phrase something, which has a lot to do with jazz. My progression is Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, and those guys back there led me to Bunk Johnson and he led me to Louis Armstrong, who led me to Kid Ory and Henry "Red" Allen and then back into Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan and Dexter Gordon – the guys we had over here. Then, back into Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, who's an absolute luminary for me. I did the whole gamut really right the way from traditional blues.
|Harper by Colin Curwood|
There's always something to be learned musically from sitting at the heels of these guys, even if we're only doing it through records. Even though your albums are usually found in the rock section of record stores, there really is a much closer pedigree to blues and jazz.
I departed from the rock end before it had begun really [laughs]. Lonnie Donegan was the English Presley; of that there's no question. He's the guy who turned us all onto the blues. The minute we heard him we wanted to know where he'd got it from; we wanted to know where the "Rock Island Line" was. The records got imported and we learned them and played them. I think Clapton and Page and people on the blues side went another way. The Beatles went another way, The Stones went another way, there were myriad directions, and I went straight through jazz. A lot of my things were influenced by strange things you'd hardly admit like Duke Ellington, which was very straight laced to most people. There's him and Basie and those guys in my music, too - such a broad church, such a big language.
Yet, your music is most often called "folk-rock." I'm sure I've referred to it that way a time or two, but there's not much "If I Had A Hammer" about you.
That's what the folkies don't like about me [laughs]. They recognize instinctively that there's a whole lot of jazz there, boy! My major influences are poets. As much as jazz is a big canvas in my life, the romantic poets and American beat poets have been even more influential. I'm an amalgam of those influences – jazz and poetry – as well as English culture. Put all that in the pot and see what comes out.
Were you touched at all by Davey Graham as so many of your '60s peers were?
Davey and I were going to form a band together, but it was too bizarre to do it.
How Does It Feel
You have a real appreciation for women. We live in an age of titillation and there's actual sex and sensuality in your music. I think we've become comfortable with the idea of being teased without any sort of fulfillment or connection. You don't do that. When men and women come up in your work there's a physicality to it.
|Are you thinking what I'm thinking?|
That's good of you to spot that, but how did you spot that?
There's a streak to the language you use and a comfort with strong language. People are often uncomfortable with phrases like "sagging tits," uncomfortable with that degree of specificity. There's an engagement with the body in your work, a corporality and...
...yeah, yeah corporality is it...
...incarnation! That's a running theme in your music.
Yes, I worship the animal [laughs]. I love the female animal. There's no point in hiding that? Why hide that? The thing is, I've had a fair few lovers in my life and I've quite enjoyed them. The past is large but I hope the future's just as large as well [laughs].
Why ever let that drive go? I'm dismayed that we live in a time of pecker pills. Why would you need that if you were engaged with your body at all? Studies have shown that these functions don't go away if you actually pay attention to them.
Yes, use it or lose it!
Right on! But it's not just women, there's an openness about your own body riding in your lyrics. And the cover of The Passions of Great Fortune [the book of Harper's commentary dotted lyrics published in 2003] is you bare ass naked with a quiet grin. There's metaphor to that but in simpler terms you're just laying yourself out there. Most people are more guarded than that, particularly now.
Why do you think that is? I think they are as well. They're much more covered now.
I think we're just freaked out by our bodies. I think the rise of disease and the discomfort with a sexual revolution that didn't really pan out for most people caused a backlash. But mostly I think we're just weirded out by the human body.
There's always going to be some kind of backlash, but then again, I've always been very free. One of the real tenets of what I regard as real freedom is sexual freedom, freedom to express yourself in a sexual way. And I think a lot of people's mores have been dragged in. The mores we had probably 20-30 years ago were much more expansive, more liberal, too. Things that were probably frowned on just a little bit by neo-cons 30 years ago are now jail offenses. They are absolutely taboo. So, life has changed totally over the course of a 100 or 120 years in terms of what is acceptable and what isn't amongst humans generally on the planet. It's a much more sort of anal existence now, a more retentive environment.
Which then explodes in bizarre outbursts like wars and conflict. I really loved "The Death of God" single. I adore anyone who bops power mongers on the nose.
Absolutely! And I think if it wasn't so repressed there would be a lot more freedom, general freedom, in the world. Freedom starts with sexuality. It's one of the basic freedoms, and if you don't have that you've lost one of the stepping stones to life, to actually understanding yourself as a liberated being.
I think we live in a time when we could be liberated. I get frustrated sometimes that we're still having the same conversations. That anyone gives a shit whether two men or two women want to be together is stunning to me. We're really STILL having this conversation as a society?
It's pathetic. It all comes down to politics being revisited time and time again.
And the reemergence in the last 50 years of Sky Gods. Why worry about what's down here if there's a better home in the by & by?
It's ridiculous really. I'm writing an essay and there's a line in it that says you have retail therapy on the one hand and on the other instant emotional therapy as soon as you cross yourself and put on a Jesus tattoo. Yes, that'll do it! You're set for life! You're going to go to heaven and you're one of god's people. It's such a load of bullshit. I can't believe that people still believe in the integrity of these things. Unfortunately, we'll never be able to prove the existence or the non-existence of a god. But, the inability to prove that there is one is enough for me. Just that one thing there is enough for me. In my lifetime, I've seen enough decades of religious politics. If I care to I can read 2500 years at least of religious politics. I can see what it is. I can see who runs it. I can see what kind of people they are.
You may not be able to prove or disprove the existence of god but you can see what "God's People" look and act like.
I know what it produces in mankind, and I've had enough of it. Please do not even say "creationist" when I'm in the same room! It's not going to wash at all.
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Your fifties are the prime of your life. It's where you can put your mind and body together if you've taken halfway decent care of yourself. Your mind reaches a kind of apex, I think.
There's a conversation between tradition and modernity/innovation both musically and lyrically in your work, as if you're looking forward and backwards at some still point between the two. My sense is you're not unaware of what's come before OR anxious to let go of what could be.
In order to see the whole picture you've got to arrange the past with what you suppose the future could contain. It's easy to see what a lot of the future will be about. Ten years ago I was thinking, "Very soon the Chinese will be running the world," and there isn't any other thought you can have now. I have a Japanese friend and when I said that to her ten years ago she just laughed, a real sort of belly laugh. "Another joke, Mr. Harper [chuckles]."
So many people are ignorant of history when there's really no good reason they should be. There are a few books on the subject.
We don't live long enough, I don't think, to be able to correct our mistakes. A nice, long life is say four generations. That's a long life. That's just enough time to see it all coming 'round again [laughs]. But, it's not enough time to STOP IT from coming 'round again. If that fourth or fifth generation was involved in the average politics of 40 or 50 year olds, if those guys at 80 or 90 years old were at the top of their mental powers – which is what you are in your fifties – and able to hold it together physically, then it would be a different thing. Your fifties are the prime of your life. It's where you can put your mind and body together if you've taken halfway decent care of yourself. Your mind reaches a kind of apex, I think. If 80 or 90 year olds, with their experience and wisdom, could have the strength of a 50-year-old and be involved in life at the level of the average 50-year-old, then we'd see a completely different life on Earth evolve. It would be one based on experience, whereas the current one isn't.
There's also the commonly held notion that "the best" rises to the top, which experience shows just isn't true. A quick look at the music charts is all I ever need to prove the falsehood of that idea.
It's supposed to be meritorious but a lot of that is luck, a lot of that is money, a lot of that is right place, right time. Whereas, if we lived just 20 or 30 years longer you'd come through anyway – the cream would then rise to the top. But, that's a whole different thing to imagine because a lot more people would reach that stage, that level of accomplishment, and have a lot more to say and offer. It would be a changed world.
We'd be able to see the full consequences of our mistakes and then be able to step in as people began to make the same mistakes again. One of my favorite mistakes we keep making is how at the end of the Roman Empire the goddess Fortuna became hugely popular, with other god's temples being torn down to erect new monuments to her. Gambling and games of chance became all the rage, and masses prayed to this goddess of luck. I can't help but think of Las Vegas and the Christian TV preachers who sell the idea that Jesus wants you to be rich and drive an expensive car, and then wonder how far off we are from Rome's last days.
It's so obvious now after at least 3000 years of let's call it "civilization" – it's not that but we'll call it that. And there's been at least 4000 years of written history, if not 6 or 7 thousand years, which amounts to a history of our own consciousness. So, having that, we ought to be wiser than we are. Now we have such numbers. People are breeding so rapidly that it's very difficult for the young to pick up from the older. It's very difficult for the young to be part of the same world as their grandparents even.
That's conscious on some level. Keeping people separate from one another makes them easier to control.
It's not an accident, but again, if you were to live those extra 30 years it might help mitigate that separateness. I think life has to be finite but it doesn't have to be as finite as it is at the moment. It comes down to social models and social science. The thing is once you get into that there are so many myriad opinions about what's to be done. Think about what was happening 60 or 70 years ago with eugenics. Now, eugenics is totally discredited – and rightly so – but there's certain minute things eugenics suggests that are right. But the majority of the moral thing was wrong, saying that we should preserve the most intelligent and most physically perfect so we all become brainy athletes and carve out all the disabilities humanity is often born with. But then you wouldn't have the genius born in humans born with some disability. A lot of brilliant people were born with some disability and it didn't hinder their gifts. You cannot actually prescribe these sorts of things.
You'd lose out on a Ray Charles under strict eugenics.
You'd lose out on Ray Charles and a lot of brilliant, valuable human beings. The thing is the next evolutionary step this animal makes may be precluded by doing [something like eugenics]. It will perhaps not be the Olympic athlete with the Hawking mind that comes through into the vanguard of humanity. It might be something completely different all together – a smaller human altogether with a bigger brain perhaps that isn't able to gain control right away. I'm just passing figments through my mind but there's no way of predicting it. And no need either. It will be, it will come, it will rise and it should be part and parcel of a natural progression. That's why life has to be finite in my opinion. If it isn't finite then we can't have that natural progression.
I think there's something to be said for endings, too.
That's right. You have a certain amount of time on the planet and you should enjoy it for what it is and not treat it as though it were a cheap movie.
Song of the Ages
Big ideas have always been woven into your music. You don't write a lot of ditties when a mind works like yours, Roy. Not a lot of jukebox, kissy-kissy numbers in your catalog.
No, there aren't. The compulsion comes to do it now and then but it fades quickly.
Even in your earliest work you seem to be stretching accepted norms, accepted boundaries, even just in track length. Songs like "I Hate The White Man" or "How Does It Feel" consciously try to transcend the usual boy-girl, "this is how I'm feeling" dul de sac most rock or pop lives in.
Most rock is boy-girl, which is vaguely annoying to me. Sexuality, as we've discussed, is incredibly important to the human animal but there's a base to our mental life that has nothing to do with our sexual satisfaction, if you will, and more to do with our satisfaction with our surroundings, what you are in the scheme of things.
Popular culture often misses the really big truths, the big lessons we most need to learn.
What I desire is empirical proof of something we can actually go to the end of the line with. Not just trial and error but empirical proof. You can't actually prove "yay" or "nay" with god, as we discussed, but ALL the evidence is on one side and none of it is on the other. So, what would make you for one second think that the side that has nothing on it is right?
Despite my own inklings of faith, what amazes me is how so many self-described religious people believe that ethics and morality can only exist under a church steeple or in a mosque.
Which really denigrates any other moral code. That really disowns any moral code besides a religious moral code. To say we can't have one without religion is truly ridiculous. We cannot be kind without god?
I also marvel at how almost every major world religion tells their followers not to kill and yet so many of them are out there throwing stones in the name of their god. I never trust anyone who doesn't follow their own advice.
You and I will agree on that for a lifetime. It's amazing to me as well and I can't help thinking there's going to be another backlash, but there's no convincing the young at this moment.
Continue to the next page for a video primer for Roy Harper's music...
Harper's tribute to Miles Davis
"Tom Tiddler's Ground"
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