Author’s Note: there was at least one prepared but discarded chapter in my joint book with Trevor Hodgett Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History (Collins Press, 2004) – a section bringing together three non-Irish artists with strong connections to Ireland, about whom I happened to have accumulated a few pieces of journalism in the previous decade. These artists were Ralph McTell, David Gray and Roy Harper. This is the Roy Harper (no relation) section of that chapter, with a first person introduction written for the book.
Roy Harper: Introduction
Prepared for the book Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, along with the previously published journalism below, but unused
As had been the case with Pat Naylor at Rykodisc (viz Kelly Joe Phelps) and Amy Garvey (viz Altan and Martin Hayes), I was sucked in to the crazy world of Roy Harper through the gentle, persistent persuasions of a publicist. This time around the introduction came via Peter Muir – a fundamentally good bloke, plummy of tone and affable of character and with the rare distinction of being roughly equal parts whimsical old hippy and ruthless business operator. Like Richard Branson without the airline, the beard or – and I’m only guessing here – the bank balance.
Over the course of several calls Peter persuaded me to tap into the then marginalised genius of Roy Harper, for whom he was PR-ing – probably more as an old fan with a mission than with any hope of gain. The Dream Society was Roy’s first new record for six years and, aside from its own considerable charms, one had to admire the man’s spirit. Here was someone well-known for being a little eccentric, to say the least, who had nevertheless regained control, over a sustained period of time and effort, of the bulk of his back catalogue and who was now, against the odds, operating as a cottage industry down in the wilds of west Cork with his own label, studio and mail-order business. It is a situation many of his contemporaries would envy. Less well known than his (frankly, exaggerated) public image as a nutter were Roy’s long-standing congenital health problems – which had miraculously eased by the time The Dream Society was recorded. I’ve always been drawn to outsiders who have in some way beaten the system and so, having reviewed the album, a trip to Cork was the next step.
I had, in fact, seen Roy’s live show once or twice before this period – feeling on such occasions like a curious ethnologist at the temple of some rather manic religion, such is the nature of Roy’s fan-base. I had almost interviewed him before as well – in Belfast, in the very early nineties. At that time, prior to becoming a professional writer, I was working on the abortive Pentangle biography referred to earlier. An interview with Roy didn’t happen at that stage: I’d arrived at the theatre, opened my car door and had it promptly ripped off by a passing vehicle. At which point I gave the whole thing up as a bad idea and went home.
By mid-1998 the old biography dream had been revived and, with a publishing deal on the verge of being agreed, new interviews were being gathered apace. The trip to Cork would have a dual purpose: a detailed recollection on Bert Jansch and the Soho folk club days of the mid-sixties for the book and a breezy career trawl for a profile in The Independent, commissioned by Nick Coleman. One of the feature writers I most admire, it was always a pleasure working with Nick during his two stints as music editor on the paper. I learned a lot and, however much Independent office life seemed to be perpetually mired in upheaval and gloom, Nick never let this affect his availability or his manner towards remote freelancers like me. It was much appreciated, and we had some fun along the way.
My association with Peter Muir continued and blossomed after this: we went on to produce together the Bert Jansch tribute album People On The Highway for Peter’s label, Market Square, a year or so later – featuring Roy and many others with whom Peter and I would work or would champion in our various ways subsequently. Lines between writer, publicist, label and artist can often get blurred in the small world of folk music. From the necessarily solitary vantage of being a writer it can be nice to feel part of a ‘family’ sometimes, making things happen by the sharing of effort and information. Both Roy and Peter have subsequently stayed, while in Belfast, with my wife Heather and myself, and would be welcome to do so again. Having said that, Roy might still be a little peeved that a Mojo review of his next album, The Green Man (2001), managed to appear in print with the wrong title, wrong musician credits and no label info. Me, I blame the sub-editor…
The Dream Society
Published: Mojo, July 1998
The Sophisticated Beggar, the Valentine, the Loony On The Bus… Roy Harper has worn these and other Lifemasks for more than 30 years now and with this new, remarkable instalment the real Roy stands up. Not in one easy motion, of course – this is the first part of a two-volume autobiographical song cycle. Accessible, yes, but rather in the same way as Lewis Carroll. Are all these densely wrought worldviews and achingly poignant recollections from the same cornered, vulnerable little soul? Apparently so. For anyone who has struggled with Harper’s work in the past – the swings and roundabouts of his vitriol and tenderness never allowing for an easy relationship with the casual listener – this could be the one. The abiding thoughts from even a handful of listens is not only the intensity of Roy’s passion, even after all these years, but the deeply emotional content of his own history that he succeeds in crafting mercurially and believably into songs with beautiful, instantly memorable melodies and appropriate musical settings as required.
A ponderous opener aside, this is an album so taut and focused it could snap. When Roy builds up a head of rockabilly irony on ‘Psychopath’ and sings the refrain, ‘I wanna leave this psychopath behind’, you know he means it. But likewise he’s still wowed by the libido-drenched young man memories of ‘Songs Of Love Part 2’, pumped out in suitably sensual Zeppelin riffage. Not in contrast but in complement the ‘no more pain’ simplicity of ‘I Want To Be In Love’ and the desperately sad ‘Dancing All The Night’, where Roy’s desire to waltz with the late mother he never knew is executed with a sincerity and artistry that few others could master. Exploring a whole life’s experience, the sentiments of this record are far, far too complex to file under… whatever. Repeat plays are compulsive. It’s as if, after all these years we thought he was a nutter, Roy Harper is the only sane man left alive and this his brilliant memoir. Nightfighter? Songwriter.
Published: The Independent, 30 October 1998
Circa 1984, and during one of those latterday sojourns in the course of the once Old and Grey Whistle Test’s sleepy history when it found itself enjoying a prime time slot, we were taken on a field trip up some windy hillside in Wales. ‘Where else,’ said breezy pundit Mark Ellen, ‘would you expect to find seventies rock stars consulting the muse?’ And so an unforgiving generation of pop fans were given a televisual precis, in the form of Roy Harper and Jimmy Page twiddling away portentously in the gale, of what they’d missed in the previous couple of decades. Frankly, it didn’t seem they’d missed very much. ‘It was a set-up!’ says Roy, with customary hint of rage and conspiracy.
It may have been. But then the eighties were something of a lost weekend for all manner of ‘dinosaur’ types. A decade on and the seventies giants – Page & Plant, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull – are striding the world once again or, at the very least, hobbling around with some degree of digitally remastered dignity and respect. Even The Incredible String Band have toyed with the comeback scenario. And guru to them all, peddling his musical dreamscapes, folkish philosophising and singular reputation for ire and outrage consistently and irregardlessly through bad times and better, is Roy Harper. He kicks off a UK tour today, promoting The Dream Society. It’s the best album he’s made in years. Still, the question has to be asked: is this bloke not just an irrelevant old hippy? ‘Well,’ says Roy, ‘how can I put this concisely? There’s no smoke without fire…’
An hour’s drive to the west of Cork city, down exactly the sort of dark and winding back-roads one would expect, one arrives at The Old Convent, a fabulous Gormenghast-ian pile amidst the pitch black of the unillumined landscape in which it resides, combining candle-lit charm, a dependable wall of dictionaries and the sort of modernist home studio and internet attachments essential to the far-from-retired, rurally-inspired rock survivor. Roy Harper, like his neighbours Noel Redding and Donovan, is clearly still getting it together in the country. I marvel at his home. ‘Hmm, well it’s getting there…’ says Roy, somewhere between gruffness and modesty, and twiddling a moustache that pitches its hammock somewhere between Colonel Saunders and Fu Manchu. ‘Curmudgeonly’ is the man’s reputation and yet it seems but a superficial aspect of Harper’s character: ‘Curmudgeonly – yes, that’s what my reputation is,’ he admits, matter-of-factly. ‘But I met Van Morrison once and he was far worse than I’d ever dream of being. I’m nothing like that.’
He never did get on Top Of The Pops but Roy Harper has, by stealth, found his way into the affections of English pop’s brightest stars – Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Pete Townshend and the like. And who could forget, on Led Zeppelin III, the suitably impenetrable ‘Hats Off To Harper’? ‘I went up to their office one day and Jimmy said, “Here’s the new record”. “Oh… thanks,” I said, and tucked it under my arm. “Well look at it then…!”’
Roy also sang lead on Pink Floyd’s ‘Have A Cigar’ and he’s still a bit miffed that his chosen fee (a season ticket to Lords’ for life) has never been honoured: ‘I asked Roger for sixteen years but it never came. And then I moved house. I must say, I am noticing a distinct lack of invitation to Pink Floyd events these days.’
Perhaps it’s this tenacious candour that gets Harper his fearsome reputation but, this mild grudge aside, his talk is full of warmth and humour. Could be the pastoral lifestyle: ‘I get up early, walk for a mile and half and that blows a few layers off,’ he says. ‘I know what’s living round here and I always check on them. I have a roll call when I go outside and it starts with this little goldcrest that’s nesting in the garden. At the larger end of the scale there’s foxes, badgers and deer. In fact, there’s this chattering magpie I’m thinking of putting on a record.’ Could this be the end of the raging muse of yore? ‘Ah, well, what happens after I’ve been out is I’ll take in the news and it’s nearly always farcical – a heinous joke, full of conceit and deceit and people who are self-important, from Joe Bloggs to the Prime Minister to…’ So no worries there then.
When he was fifteen Roy ran away and joined the RAF, ended up in a mental hospital, did a spell in prison for a succession of minor misdemeanours and eventually wound up – like Donovan, Bert Jansch, Billy Connolly and other great names – a doyen of Soho’s vibrant mid-sixties folk club scene. He speaks long and fondly of all his contemporaries as a virtual brotherhood and even at the height of his anarchic celebrity for every rambling, dope-sozzled ode there would be a fearless, razor-sharp observation on modern society – ‘I Hate The White Man’ (South Africa), ‘Government Surplus’ (Thatcherism’s rejection of youth), ‘The Black Cloud Of Islam’ (no prizes for guessing). And on that score, like the cricket ticket, he’s still waiting for his fatwah.
Profound moments aside, if there’s one tale that guarantees Harper a perennial notoriety it is the one involving the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of a sheep: ‘A total fabrication!’ he says, with surprising good humour. ‘The most public of all my stories and there’s not a single grain of truth in it! A lot of that stuff came from BP Fallon [his erstwhile publicist] and also a lot from this particular breed of TV producer I used to run into in the seventies. These fragile, effete individuals – the moment anybody brought anything like a challenge in the door then suddenly that person became, er… curmudgeonly!’
Media luvvies notwithstanding, communicating with all ages on equal terms is at the core of Harper’s artistry, and it’s something he learned in his youth from the late Alex Campbell – a melancholy Scot, and pretty much the first professional, travelling folk singer in Britain: ‘Alex and I did a gig together at the Marquee and we were chatting afterwards. He looked at me with a kind of knowing smile and said, “Ah, ye young whippersnappers – ye’ll be the death o’ me”. It was like he was saying, “Okay, you’re here now, you’re taking the reins, so get on with it”. He was a lovely guy. He could relate to his own generation and to mine and I’ve never forgotten that. I never patronise young people. You could be meeting a kid who’ll be the next Pablo Picasso and all he’s got to remember you by is the one time he met you. Every time you meet someone, you meet them historically.’
So, 31 years after his first album, with virtually his entire back catalogue available, admirably enhanced for CD, through his own Science Friction label, does the Artist Formerly Known As The Loony On The Bus have anything left to offer? ‘What I do have to offer,’ he says, with rigorous precision, ‘is a lot of what’s gone before, but also a wisdom that unfortunately only comes with age. It won’t be easy – I’m not an easy person to come and see, unless you know me. And then I’m very easy. If you’ve been to a Roy gig three or four times then you’re likely to become a heckler, likely to plumb the depths of your own imagination. Like, “Show us your bum Roy”!’ And there, in mutual hysterics, the conversation draws to a close, the magpie chortles and somewhere, far away, a young man picks up a paintbrush and thinks of Roy.
Vicar Street, Dublin
Published: Mojo, January 1999
Roy assures me that it only happens in Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin. ‘It’ being the verge-of-chaos spectator sport and crowd participation version of what would elsewhere be termed a concert. Every time I’ve seen Roy ‘it’ has happened – an auditorium full of lunatics, drunks, ostentatious people with dodgy substances. The biggest and loudest tosser in the building was sitting next to me. But not for long. This is Roy’s first tour in four years and one wonders where these people go when he’s not touring. No matter, it’s all part of the experience of a Roy show and, foibles aside, one cannot but admire the performer for keeping the whole thing on the road for two hours, weaving merrily around, but never quite diving headlong into, the verge. At a Roy Harper show one may be surprised to find that the most reliable person in the building is usually Roy.
‘I grew up, as a lot of us did,’ says Roy, ‘with a lot of bollocks…’ Immediately the fun begins. ‘Where’s your hat?’ shouts someone. ‘Where’s my hat?’ says Roy, somewhat wrong-footed from what was undoubtedly going to be a pithily amusing polemic. ‘Er, what are you talking about?’ A stirring rendition of ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’, from 1970’s Flat Baroque and Berserk, provides a temporary halt to the nonsense and despite regular bursts of vocal requests and people passing notes up to the stage (‘She’s The One’ and ‘Another Day’ being the big hits in Roy’s Dublin constituency), it will be one of the few established classics in the set. ‘Next time…’ says Roy, more than once.
This time around is very much a showcase for his exceptional new album The Dream Society, conceived as part one of a two part autobiographical work examining his life and experiences in loosely sequential order – growing up, love, being branded a loony, meeting his late mother in a dream state, heartbreak and other stories. It had the potential to be a self-obsessed disaster area, but both on record and in the commitment of his song performances tonight – in difficult circumstances – Roy has crafted a work of some profundity, accessible and subtle yet charged with great emotional investment. ‘Hmmm, I went too deeply into that one,’ says Roy, opening his eyes and emerging from a particularly delicate moment. ‘You’re not in Glasgow now!’ comes, on cue, another plainly irrelevant yell. This is the real performance artistry of Roy Harper – being able to deliver heartfelt, serious and alternately delicate and raging music in between submitting himself to lengthy barrages of surreal, ludicrous badinage with his fans. Few in his position – and this is not a small crowd – would put up with it, but Roy is a generous host. Eventually though, even Roy has to cry, ‘Enough, enough,’ and finish on his big new epic, ‘These Fifty Years’, a beautifully melodic, intriguing and compelling dream-meeting between God, Roy and Tom Huxley, the father of modern agnosticism. It lasts a good fifteen minutes. A very good fifteen minutes. The show may not be for the faint hearted, but there are truly gems in the quagmire.
The Errigle Inn, Belfast
Published: The Independent, 6 November 2000
Releasing his thirty-sixth album, and still best-known to the world at large as a bloke who once sang on a Pink Floyd record (‘Have A Cigar’), who inspired a song on a Led Zeppelin album (‘Hats Off To Harper’) and who had all sorts of outrageous goings-on attributed to him in the seventies (all down to an over-zealous publicist, apparently), Roy Harper begins his UK tour in Belfast – truly the mark of an independent man. Indeed, such is Roy’s independence that the new album, The Green Man, will only be available directly from himself or his website. Nevertheless, anyone fearing that this integrity might lead to a road marked ‘oblivion’ should be comforted that a big-push compilation is on its way from EMI America, heralding Roy’s star-studded sixtieth birthday concert in June at the Festival Hall. He ain’t heavy, but he certainly has some heavy friends.
Tonight, though, it’s Roy solo. These days, having not-entirely-wittingly come to symbolise the last bastion of the sixties troubadour ideal – a one-man encapsulation of Tim Buckley’s drug-sozzled hedonism and cartwheeling vocalisations and Nick Drake’s pastoral and deeply English fragility – the Roy Harper live experience is a trip to the edge. Young men and hippy chicks, high on something (maybe just enthusiasm), mix expectantly with middle-aged couples and boozy groups of men with moustaches out to relive their youth. From the moment Roy emerges – a quizzical, gentle demeanour only slightly at odds with a facial hair situation borrowed from Colonel Saunders – people start yelling for favourite songs, usually the once-notorious ‘I Hate The White Man’. Roy decides to premier five songs, in a row, from the new album. The mischievous war of attrition between performer and audience, a trademark of Roy gigs, has begun. And, as usual, Roy wins – just.
All Roy really wants to do is communicate his songs. Many of them are delicate and exquisitely crafted things (strangely at odds with his audience’s behaviour) richly textured with pathos, humour, rage and poignancy, and sometimes all in the one song. New songs like ‘Glasto’ and ‘Midnight Sun’ concern moments rather than the monumental concepts of earlier works – welcoming little worlds to be entered and left, with Roy as our guide. The response to the debuts of ‘Rushing Camelot’ and ‘Sexy Woman’ suggest classic status is assured while ‘No One Left To Vote For’ not only struck the populist chord but made one realise, with multiple ironies, that we were all listening to a once-institutionalised madman singing a song to a roomful of weekend loonies about the inexorability of everyone else in modern society going insane. Roy may not be able to change the world, but he can still challenge the way each individual deals with it and, more than ever, we surely need someone like this to rail against mediocrity, hypocrisy and voyeurism. Once again, hats off to Roy Harper.