The Sword Inside The Blade

 

A review of Stormcock appeared in Rock’nReel Magazine some months ago. Someone said that it was good, so it slid under the radar for a couple of months. When I eventually got the time to check it, I discovered that in some ways it resembled the rubbish that used to be written about me when I was regularly in the charts, and almost always by people who “Couldn’t really be bothered”. It was typically a lazy and condescending review, which in the end tried to award the album three stars due solely to the participation of other people involved on it. Without addressing the real meanings of what the lyric was really saying in the context of when it was written. Bad form. The fact that doesn’t escape me is that this can be described as representative of ‘the majority mind’. And always was. A logical and genuine question that always follows this is, “Is the majority mind right?” This can be answered in a couple of ways.

One, ‘the majority mind’ will in any case be the one that carries us through to our destiny, regardless of ethic, morality or fate. It can obviously be inferred therefore that the ‘majority mind’ is the consistent denominator in human affaires, and from there it can easily be argued that the ‘majority mind’ is the only possible direction for humanity.

Or 2. How difficult is it to alter the established direction of the ‘majority mind’, given that it was first suggested, for instance, that child labour be abolished more than 200 years ago?

Admittedly, the answer to the original question would seem to be a lot more complex than seemingly invited.. (by the question). It could easily be answered to the effect that magazine turnover is much more important than any single article therein, where the requirement is not particularly for context, veracity or detail. Similarly, it can be argued that if child labour was currently banned in Bangladesh, a sizable fraction of those children would end up in prostitution.

So, where do we go with what to think? For instance, how would ‘God Save The Queen’, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and This Land Is Your Land’ be reviewed by someone who was unfamiliar with their context in 2009? It can be argued that quick turnover of the magazine benefits more people than just one single paltry writer. True, perhaps, but this is the kind of fast food/rat race ethic I’ve fought against all my life, so why should I back down now? I couldn’t, and I wrote this to the Magazine in March 2008.

The Review

ROY HARPER

***

Stormcock
(Science Friction) www.royharper.co.uk

Roy Harper was a hippie par excellence and yet his 1971 album Stormcock, an ambitious four-song suite, is full not of the love and peace one associates with hippiedom but of rage, with Harper railing furiously against assorted establishment targets.

The album’s reputation is huge but to these ears it seems flawed for Harper’s songs can seem like adolescent diatribes, as on Hors d’Oeuvres, an overwrought attack on judges, juries and critics. The critic, sings Harper ,’rubs his tired arse/Scrapes his poor brains and strains and farts/And wields a pen that stops and starts…’ which hardly constitutes an attack that will persuade any wicked critic to mend their evil ways. Other targets include war, on ‘One Man Rock And Roll Band’, and religion, on ‘The Same Old Rock’, which is shooting-fish-in-a-barrel stuff, while Harper’s wordy lyrics are surely less poetically satisfying than his many admirers claim. ‘Inside each eye is sitting like the sword inside the blade’, for example, is a nonsensical image.

Still, Jimmy Page’s solo on ‘The Same Old Rock’ is splendid, David Bedford’s arrangement of ‘Me And My Woman’ is wonderfully imaginative and the reissue is beautifully packaged.

Trevor Hodgett

My Reply

Dear Rock’nReel,

I read Trevor Hodgett’s review of the re-release of my 1971 album ‘Stormcock’ with a certain amount of disbelief. Initially, I thought that I’d just let it pass, as I do with quite a lot of unjustified comment, but eventually, I had to question the honesty, not only of the ‘critic’, but of the editorship of the magazine. I found that the criticisms were erroneous, uninformed, and sloppy. Finally, I had to think that it was factional speak, with a great deal of snide prejudice thrown in.

I believe that I have the right to respond to such shallow criticism with some facts and historical detail of my own. Doubtless, if the article is anything to go by, the following will be given short shrift, but at least it will enter my archive and become part of the history of our own times. It may also serve, in that place, along with a few other collected items, to highlight some of the media obstacles encountered by some independent writers in the 21st century.

On a personal level, I write from a particular ethical standpoint. There is a very certain type of morality to everything I write. That particular standpoint might not be to your own taste: in which case you could at least comment on that, and why you disagree with it, rather than to go into print with this kind of uninformed prejudice. Shameless cynicism seems to be the hallmark of modern pop journalism.. it really is sad for me to see that sort of thing in a publication I used to think of as largely open.

I had no need to think about what is written below, it just fell onto the page in minutes. It’s from the heart, as is everything I do. If you don’t like me, and there are plenty of reasons not to, then say so.. but please don’t stand as editors over an article that attempts to tear the work to shreds without you or your employees really know how to. In my own opinion, that’s just going to make the magazine look silly and frivolous. The letter below is from the heart.

Thanks,

roy harper 29/3/2008

The sword inside the blade

Your reviewer, Trevor Hodgett, reviewed the re-release of my record ‘Stormcock’ in exactly the way the pop press reviewed it when it first appeared in 1971. It is hard to find much logic in what he wrote. In that sense, things don’t appear to have changed that much in 39 years. The majority of red-top and glossy critics still ‘wield pens that s-s-stop and s-s-start’, and still fail to see themselves doing so.

To start with, one of the things that Mr Hodgett obviously doesn’t appreciate is that I was never a hippie. Never, in any of the literature I’ve produced over the decades, have I once associated myself with ‘hippie’. Other people have done it, and it’s always annoyed me, and I’ve always said so. In recent years I’ve tended to ignore it, but in this instance I can’t, because his personal criticism of me crosses the line and becomes insulting.

Firstly, what Mr Hodgett must understand is that many of us in the UK were aware of the hippies as early as 1964, but they were local to northern California at that time, and more than a world away. It was only in 1967 that the phenomenon started to achieve worldwide notoriety. I would have been 26 at the time. At the time I can remember thinking that it was a new manifestation of an older lifestyle, and ‘whose leg were they trying to pull’?

I tend to like most hippies, but I did have issues with week-end hippies in the early 70s. Essentially, I was older than that, and I’d been loosely bohemian for about 15 years before the hippie reached Britain. A few bohemian types had existed in Lytham St. Annes as I was growing up. They were usually artists, drifters, teachers or musicians. Cliff Walmsely would have been typical. In 1958, he was designing and painting the Blackpool Illuminations. On Thursday night, he would be the mainstay at The Blackpool Jazz Club. He was a really good guitarist. As good as anyone nationally. He combined these two jobs for at least ten years that I know about. His dark hair was on the long side and unkempt. He wore glasses. There are hundreds of people who will still have these memories, and cherish them. One or two might be Rock n Reel readers, but I doubt it. There were others in the area. John Rhodes, Peter Ward, Fred Yates, Tony Febland, Jimmy Peglar, James Edgar, John Malkin, Malcolm Warner, Barry Foster and Michael Glickman… and they were just some of the men. Ian Anderson would have been another, but he was younger, and I didn’t really know him at the time.

In 1961, I became ‘The Marathon Jazz Poet’.. in Blackpool’s Evening Gazette, a story in itself. This is seven years before the word hippie became really known. I hadn’t minded being called a ‘beatnik’ at the time, because, although we all knew that the word was originally coined as an insult, I really enjoyed the Beat Poets as a young man. Essentially, at the age of 29, when I wrote ‘Stormcock’, I was still the same person I’d been fifteen years beforehand, with the same bohemian way of life. The hippies in the UK were young people. Mostly, they were ten years younger than me. These are all undeniable historical facts.

Mr Hodgett goes on to say that Hors D’Oeuvres, the first track on ‘Stormcock’, quote, “seems flawed”, but then doesn’t really explain what he means other than to add, “Harper’s songs can seem like adolescent diatribes” while then proceeding to quote three lines from the song. Denunciatory the song most certainly is, but what on earth is adolescent about ‘The judge sits on his great assize, 12 men wise with swollen thighs’ ? There are a couple of allusions here that seem to have escaped Mr Hodgett. And that’s just the first 2 lines. The lyric proceeds in the same manner, attempting along the way, with successive imagery, to illustrate the dishonourable and class-ridden conduct at the heart of many justice systems. What he also fails to understand is that verse 1 of the song is questioning the kind of justice that existed at the time. In plain English, it’s attempting to illuminate 1969 injustice. Which hadn’t changed a great deal from 1960 injustice. That first verse is dedicated to the memory of Caryl Chessman, who died in the gas chamber at San Quentin on May 2nd 1960 in really awful circumstances. On its release, and over the years, that fact has frequently been alluded to.

Most people who have a bohemian lifestyle oppose the death penalty. The reason, in my own case, is that inevitably, some innocent people are put to death. This is also an historical fact, and an awful fact of human life on earth. We don’t really know how guilty Chessman was, but he never killed anyone. The execution was world news in 1960, and its effect had remained undiminished in my mind. I literally did constantly re-live the terrible cruelty of it. In my opinion, execution is barbaric, stoops as low as the murderer himself, and is still profoundly common in 2008, which surely damages the very concept of ‘civilization’.

Another good reason for abolishing execution is that ‘execution day’ is a macabre rubber-necking session on the street outside the jail. Something that happened in my youth that I don’t care to re-visit. Humanity in a very strange light.. Seedy in the extreme. I’m very passionately against the death penalty, and I don’t care who knows that. And I really do think that it needs to be said, regardless of who thinks that that’s “adolescent diatribe”. Justice is not a precise art. The lynch mob is still very much alive.. and must be resisted. Perhaps it’s the adolescent adults among us who really do need to be better informed.

The first verse of Hors D’Oeuvres is dedicated to the rough judge, (‘Whose lead ball through the courtroom flies’).…the second verse is dedicated to a relative of his,  the off-hand ‘Rock n Reel’ critic, (‘who wields a pen that s-stops and s-starts’) and is very often heard to say things like, quote,”Other targets include war, on ‘One Man Rock And Roll Band’, and religion, on ‘The Same Old Rock’, which is shooting fish-in-a-barrel stuff, while Harper’s lyrics are surely less poetically satisfying than many of his admirers claim. Inside each eye is sitting like the sword inside the blade, for example, is a nonsensical image”. Unquote.

Apart from his obvious inference that war doesn’t need to be criticized, Mr Hodgett has made a wild and flailing criticism of The Same Old Rock here, and I would like to take issue with him on this. To start with he’s taken one line of a song, out of that song, without its context. He’s idly discounted its context. In its context, it ends a metaphorical introduction to the song. The first half of the introduction, (‘All along the ancient wastes the thin reflections spin, that gather all the times and tides at once we love within, that build the edges round the shrouds that cloud the setting sun, and carry us to other days, and other days to one..), where the scene for the song is set, speaks about human emotion in the huge context of love, life, portent and culture being handed down from antiquity. The second half of that intro attempts to bring that general thought down to the personal; from plural to singular, from general human to personal being ‘….and full the single stillness of the mirror that is made, by each and every one of all the colours in a shade, inside each eye is sitting like the sword inside the blade, and longs for once upon a chance to open love’s cascade, for here we stand, hand to hand, fighting for the promised land’.

These two verses, put together as they are, attempt a poetic analogy of a movement in time and scale, of vision and awareness in humanity, for peace and rationale; added to which, the old English way of making a sword, by repeatedly folding the metal in on itself under intense heat, is so personal and so exacting a process as to provide another fitting analogy to the singularity of individual vision that comprises general human awareness. The sword inside the blade. The actual innate sword inside the personal blade. The eternal sword inside the mortal blade. But this lyric has even more than that going for it; it also has unspoken movement, it says “Ready”, which you can think of as an admirable trait within the human character. The sword inside the blade is always “ready”. The sharp eye is motivated. Mirrored in billions. In its most perfect readiness it sits, in the socket, in the sheath, relaxed, in permanent readiness. Ready to see. Ready to defend. Ready to strike. Ready to make peace. Ready to own up. Ready to become a better human. As ready, as sharp as the inner eye that guides it. For good or ill, but hopefully, in this instance, for more treaty and understanding among the unthinking superstitious. Among the multitudes of armed religious antipathists, that they may eventually be able to recognize a different expression of humanity other than one that breeds war and boasts submission to dogma. There are different cadences of meaning here. To attempt to explain them all in this place would be fruitless. Suffice to say that there are the historical, philosophical, moral, metaphysical, political and, at the end, among many, even the hopeful.

The notional meaning of each separate line in the song is not as easy to pin down as might be the case with the average pop song lyric, but perhaps Mr Hodgett needed a little guidance there. Not enough to entirely wreck the song for everyone else by exposing Joyce-like minutiae to extreme, but just a little push to point him in the right direction. Most poets hope to achieve work that says more than the sum of its words. One of the first things that you get to know when you start to work with words is that all they can really be are indicators. At which point, you’re out on your own limb. As most of us know, the human capacity to abstract its own world works outside of the constraint of mere words.

After further reflection

The original title for ‘Hors D’oeuvres’ was ‘The Critic’, and the way I imagined it being delivered was as at speed with a touch of the sardonic. I was particularly interested in how the stuttering ‘and wields a pen that st-st-stops and st-st-starts’ was going to go. I always thought that that was an important line. The poem was done in a few minutes. Once I’d got the general drift it was a very easy poem to write, but it seemed lightweight, and it almost got left in a drawer. As I worked on the new project, and the songs began to take shape, I realized that some of the new stuff that I was singing ‘live’ didn’t really fit on a record with ‘The Same Old Rock’ and ‘Me And My Woman’. As they were maturing, those two songs seemed to be guiding the nature of the record. I began to feel that the record needed an introduction. When I rediscovered ‘The Critic’ fragment again, it seemed wrong because it was just a lesser thing. Then I can remember thinking that if I could introduce it into a bigger song, give it a bigger scope, it may serve, in a light-hearted way, of introducing the record, and of reminding the critic, right at the beginning, that he too was on board when it came to questions of judgement and justice. In fact, the critic is on the shop floor. I’d received some very strange criticism for the previous record, Flat Baroque And Berserk. A couple of these still stick in my mind. In one of the broadsheets, Joan Bakewell had written, “It’s to be hoped that he doesn’t believe in some of the things he’s singing about”. She was known as ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’ at the time. I often cremate mine…

It has become a habit of mine over the years to put lines into the critic’s mouth, which may well date from the writing of this song. I very often say something on a stage that I know is going to find its way into some critical piece in the press. This can be dangerous, because you flirt with chance when you say something which is purely honest, but is then taken down as evidence, as it were, and used against you.. out of context.

Another thing this critic has blatantly disregarded is that “establishment targets” shift, at least in gear, over a period of forty years. Forty years ago, with the advent of the revolutionary CND in 1958, The Cuban Crisis in 1961 and the direction of the Vietnam War in the late 60s, war was fast becoming an establishment target, but it was still early days, and there were frequent lapses in the anti-war position due to altering perceptions of its imminence, and later on because of the difficulties ordinary people had of coming to terms with the technical nature of a lot of the nuclear power/weapons/waste subject matter, together with the elusive and clandestine behaviour of successive governments. Forty years after ‘Stormcock’ was written, and in the middle of a conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that war still needs to remain a so-called ‘establishment target’. Unfortunately, Mr Hodgett obviously thinks that this is unnecessary, or boring, or both, and is prepared to use the two words as a weapon in the form of a well-worn cliché to dismiss the integrity of a record and an era he cannot understand, but which is still going on around him.

He uses this cliché, ‘establishment target’, in the same way with regard to my 60 year stance on religion. This is even further off the mark. Not many of my contemporaries in music saw the serious danger that religion posed forty years ago…. There’s an obvious and inherent danger in suspending and subverting the more obvious facts and growing knowledges of humanity to beliefs that are purely fictional. This is tantamount to suspending reality, for real. This is greatly compounded when a belief system governs a state. It’s very nice to be able to suspend reality while reading a Philip K Dick book, that’s what a Philip K Dick book is for, but when it comes to suspending reality FOR REAL, and FOR GOOD, then consequent behaviour is going to get weird. When there are billions of humans doing this, the human world is in danger. You cannot suspend reality. Doing so has killed millions of people in the last few thousand years, and left the whole species largely traumatized.

This was easy for me to see as a nine-year old. My ‘Damascus’ moment happened by the sea in north west Lancashire in 1950. At the time, I wouldn’t have known what an “establishment target” was. The only thing I experienced at the time was relief. In time, I became determined to pass that sense of relief on to others. It became a driving force for me. I held a fist up to blind dogma and I rejoiced in my life, and extended that joie de vivre into my poems. Towards the end of my life, and because of the information age, I find that I have a lot more friends who are willing to make the journey into that kind of freedom, and just to be able to support them is enough. Many people I know would now actively want to “target” the “establishment”, but that’s still a very long way off for the average person. To start with, we have billions of establishment music critics all blocking the road to the gates of the establishment. How much chance of targeting the establishment d’you really think we have? From isolated small islands in music? You would have to think that it’s not as good a chance as we had in 1970.

Mr Hodgett may consider the issues of “judges, juries, war…. and religion” as ‘old hat’, and be quite cynical about this in print, but if he’d been twenty years old in 1961 or 1968, he would have another view entirely. And to describe Hors D’Oeuvres as an “overwrought attack” is an open admission of indolence, ignorance and nonchalance in the face of a future which is now very uncertain. Perhaps he’s already seen the light.. or in his case, the dark.

Stormcock was not written with the intention that its lyric would be immediately accessible. The music was written to be immediately accessible, but not the lyric. Some of the ideas are too complex and too precis-ed for that, so that time and care have to be taken as a given when putting this record into your collection. In the end, what you put in, you will get out, with interest. I wouldn’t want to write records any other way. That’s been my habit for 40 years now. The lyric is intended as a collection of seeds that grow, or not, depending on the fertility of the ground they are planted in. You can refuse to have a record like this in your collection for many reasons. One of the easiest reasons NOT to have it would be that it requires you to become involved. The simplest reason would be that you don’t like me, or the idea of me, which I suspect is true in the case of Mr Hodgett, but to criticize its lyric in the manner he has, out of hand and out of context, is basically meaningless and unintelligent. Which brings me to a question or two. Why would I want to use a quote from Rock n Reel in any future ad campaign? Could I really get away with “Wonderfully Imaginative”.. or would I be honestly forced to use “Beautifully Packaged”? And what’s the general editorial policy at Rock n Reel now then? Certainly, if this article is anything to go by, Rock and Reel has narrowed its focus and lost its old energy, and my interest in its opinion.. and its reputation is obviously at stake. No question. This ‘review’ was just a piece of meanness. Just plain mean, un-researched, unnecessary and narrow. Enough to make me question Mr Hodgett’s honesty.

Copyright 2008 Roy Harper

 

2 thoughts on “The Sword Inside The Blade

  1. Hi Roy,
    Must be nearly fifty years since we last met, I hope uou are really well, I know you will still be young! Think of yiu and those times a lot.
    My very best regards John Maulkin

  2. Your reply to the critic is fine and true and will be ignored.

    Your lyrics have accompanied me for 30 years. You foresaw the danger of the idiocies of religion before the war on terror and the new crusde were twinkles in the politician’s eye.

    As you say “The history of religion is the history of the state” a strange symbiotic struggle for power.

Comments are closed.