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Uncut - August 2001
The Spirit Lives
BOB DYLAN ISN'T THE ONLY FORMER PROTEST SINGER WITH A FAMOUS BIRTHDAY THIS YEAR.
MAVERICK ENGLISH SONGWRITING GENIUS ROY HARPER HAS ALSO JUST TURNED 60.
"I don't think I'm very good at interviews, because I have too many thoughts going off at the same time to be able to explain all of them," admits Roy Harper. Anyone who's ever read one of his self-penned album sleevenotes - 10,000-word tracts ranging across every topic in the global/historical/political spectrum - might concur. An innocuous inquiry can set us off on a lengthy ramble through miles of tangential terrain, taking in the Mayan civilisation, Napoleon, insect culture, Arthurian legend, the pre-Islamic world, until finally we're way, way off course, completely lost and wondering if we'll be back home by nightfall, with Roy stopping and wondering aloud: "How did we get onto this?"
Actually, though often described as curmudgeonly, Harper's nothing of the sort. Elegantly attired, with a wisp of neatly coiffured Fu Manchu beard and, somewhat surprisingly, a Des Lynam-esque twinkle in his eye, he's far from the "Loony On The Bus" he once parodied himself as.
Roy Harper's is one of the great lost stories of English music. Whereas other great Seventies singer/songwriters like Nick Drake and John Martyn have been rehabilitated, Harper has been largely ignored since punk. He's rarely mentioned, even in the left field music press, except occasionally to be held up as a frightful example of mad old hippiedom, hounded by the apocryphal story that he once gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a sheep. And yet the irony is that there was always a big part of Harper that was punker than punk - take a vicious anti-imperialist tract like "I Hate The White Man", for instance, or the derisive satire of 1977's "Watford Gap" ("A plate of grease and a load of crap"), which led to a civil prosecution brought by the service station in question.
"Well, Johnny Rotten was a fan of mine at one stage. And although punk felt like the same thing happening again that had happened a generation earlier, when you're booted out there's very little you can do about it," he says now, looking back.
While lots of pre-punk tendencies have been reaccepted, from wah-wahs to flares to prog, one thing that never has been is the strong sense of pastoralism and Wordsworthian romanticisation of the countryside, always prevalent in Harper's music, from "Tom Tiddler's Ground" through to "Wishing Well" on his latest album, The Green Man. Once, this hankering after a poetic sense of Englishness was ubiquitous in English rock, from Zep to Tull, to the Canterbury Scene. Now Harper's one of its last standard bearers, an annual, if peripheral presence at Glastonbury. "I do pay a decent amount of homage to my roots" he agrees. "I try, the majority of times I pick up a pen, to refer to the whole of me and that includes those references, which I couldn't throw out."
Yet the potency of this idea is still strong. Listen again to 1975's "When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease", considered by many to be Harper's evergreen masterpiece. Ostensibly a tribute to cricket legends Geoff Boycott and John Snow - "The fabled men and the noonday sun/Are much more than just yarns of their days" - it's movingly reminiscent, in its subtle and sublime sense of nostalgia for lost late summers, of Thomas Hardy and Ralph Vaughan Williams, swelling to a sustained pitch of melancholic triumphalism with the wonderful assistance of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. It would make a magnificent national anthem.
Much of Harper's material, however, is a great deal more turbulent.
"I have an emotional being which is huge," he acknowledges. This could be a boast, but it might be and affliction. Certainly, it's the key to his unmanageable brilliance. Tracks like "Me and My Woman" and "The Lords Prayer" extend for miles, their abrupt changes of colour, tempo, and mood reflected in the orchestral arrangements that accompany them. Elsewhere, the giddy mixture of venom, adrenalin and heightened emotion of Harper's songs is conveyed in the waterfall of electro-acoustic sound he whips up, as on "South Africa" and "Little Lady" from 1973's Lifemask.
At 60, Harper is aware that his roving, angry, inquiring spirit has meant that he's been too large to harness for mass consumption.
"With me, it's the material," he says. "A 20-minute song is unplayable on radio. Most people don't have the attention span to get through even a quarter of that. so you need a certain dedication to approach my stuff - which cuts out 90 percent of the population to begin with."
Born in 1941 in blackpool, Harper's Mother died just after his birth, a tragedy to which he attributes feelings of being marginalised. "That has followed me, I've followed it, throughout my life."
His stepmother, a stern Jehovah's Witness, succeeded only in inculcating in him a lifelong loathing of all organised religion. At 15, he escaped home to join the RAF, but reacted badly to the discipline and was discharged on a count of insanity. He subsequently spent a period homeless, in jail, then busking across Europe, before being deported from Denmark for smuggling dope. After returning to England, he scraped onto the folk circuit, though his raging style was to prove disconcerting. As he once put it, he spent years being thrown out of folk clubs "for not being Ralph McTell".
He was a relatively late starter, cutting his first album, The Sophisticated Beggar, in 1966, and it wasn't until 1970 that his cult status was sealed when he was signed to EMI/Harvest and he released Flat Baroque And Berserk . As well as "I Hate The White Man", this included the pro-Judas Iscariot "Don't You Grieve", the sort of diatribe that Dylan might have produced in his pre-Surrealist days. He followed this with a series of excellent albums, culminating in 1975's HQ, on which he did a "Judas" himself, going electric.
What's all the more remarkable about this period is that Harper was living on borrowed time. Diagnosed in 1972 with a rare congenital disorder whereby his body was producing too much haemoglobin for his system to cope with, he was told he would be dead by 37. He had to make weekly visits to a clinic have pints of surplus blood removed from his body. somehow, in what he describes as a feat of "mind over matter", he survived and eventually, in 1997, had an operation in which Teflon-coated steel coils were inserted into his lungs. "There was a risk - they said they could get lost in my system and they'd be fishing these coils out of my brain."
The operation was a success, however, as Harper realised when his fingernails, which had been blue all his life, turned pink. Still more astonishing is that news of his condition did not persuade Harper to curb his riotous lifestyle in the Seventies. He'd been a buddy of Led Zeppelin's since the Sixties - they pay him tribute on Led Zeppelin III's "Hats Off To Harper", and he has a walk -on role in the Zep biog, Hammer Of The Gods.
"I love those boys. John Bonham was great, too. He turned up alone at one of my gigs once. He battered my dressing-room door down and came in backwards. He was dressed like Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and he just shouted 'Arsenal! Arsenal!' Any pre - gig tension was completely dissipated by that. They've been so good to me, real friends."
Did they feel guilty about their success compared to yours?
"No! None of that matters. We're still us. Y'know, Robert used to call me 'Merlin' and it's not that far from the truth - I'm beginning to live the role out! And of course, no one understands the true hardship of being Merlin.
"It was a fantastic time. But I always knew the idea that at any moment I would become Robbie Williams was unrealistic. It's been good to have had that notoriety. I do get some mileage from it and it's occasionally come in handy to get me through a door."
Harper was also matey with Pink Floyd, singing on "Have A Cigar" on Wish You Were Here, though he was subsequently piqued that his fee, a lifetime season ticket to Lord's, never materialised. He also fondly recalls his friendship with Keith Moon and the time when he and Harper drove up Oxford Street in a car topped with loudspeakers, with Moon bellowing exhortations to passing shoppers through a mic.
Following the critical success but commercial failure of 1980's The Unknown Soldier, it became clear that Harper was never going to achieve anything like the sort of mega-rock status that some of his friends had found. "I could have retired or become a roadsweeper at the beginning of the eighties and made my life listening to music. But I am motivated to create, so I'll always find myself a place to do it. I never, ever get to the end of what I want to do."
Harper would eventually move to Ireland and measure the ebb and flow of his moods against the rural landscape and occasional storms. He's continued to be prolific and inevitably his work has not been consistent - Harper has always let himself get the better of himself. That's his strength and failing. With his latest album. The Green Man, however, he seems to have discovered a sense of reconciliation, as reflected on the title track: "I would have to say at this stage in my life that I'm a pantheist. I would definitely say that all things are not yet discovered."
He hasn't exactly mellowed but he's changed - he's less comfortable about challenging other people's deeply-held beliefs and regrets at least the title, if not some of the sentiments of his bitter 1990 tract, "The Black Cloud Of Islam", written in reaction to the Lockerbie bombing. However, even now, his hackles are still capable of rising to the occasion - "The Monster" on The Green Man is a sideswipe at Tony Blair, primarily, Roy being Roy, for his religious beliefs.
"He's trying to reintroduce this very strict, almost Roman Catholic Christianity. How can a man who runs a country then profess such naivety? That time is passed, those criteria aren't anything we should be measuring anything else against."
"See, there I go again," sighs Harper. "I say that and I drive 80 percent of the people who might be into me away."
Roy Harper dedicated Lifemask, one of his finest albums, "to those people who will never hear it". Friends, don't be one of them.