The Empirical Poetry of Roy Harper

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.

-Roy Harper



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.

Roy Harper
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.

Roy Harper from
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

Harper in the studio from
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...

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