The Empirical Poetry of Roy Harper

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.

-Roy Harper


Counting Ancestors

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.

Harper by Colin Curwood
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.

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

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
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.

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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