By Ritchie Yorke.
“Roy Harper and myself got to play a small part in the Zep movie, The Song Remains the Same.”
The gentle shades of Autumn are just lighting up the dawn vistas of County Cork in Ireland when the classic singer/songwriter Roy Harper is stirred from his slumbers.
Having recently chosen to return to rock music’s active ranks with the release of his first studio album in 13 years, the artist once described as a ‘psychedelic troubador’ is being reminded that the contemporary marketing game can be a tad demanding.
Such as rising early to meet the world clock dictates of scheduling promo phono linkups from Ireland to the Antipodes.
But the seasoned 72-year old performer is pleased to learn he’s being interviewed by a grey-haired bod not that far behind him on the age scales.
Not ignoring your scribe’s private connection with the famed Led Zeppelin who on LZ 111 penned an affectionate tribute entitled ‘Hats off To Roy Harper,’ as a tribute to his creative determination and unwillingess to compromise.
My own Zep connection is reflected in John Paul Jones’ comment in 2010 that your dedicated reporter herein was – back in 1968 – “our champion. You were the first journalist to spot the potential of Led Zeppelin.”
And thus, both Roy Harper and myself got to play a small part in the Zep movie, The Song Remains the Same.
That sort of shared cred automatically opens the door, no matter how near the dawn, on an interview agenda.
We were, in short, in the door and almost in his head!
Although the new Man and Myth album has been 13 years coming, initial listening proves it’s been worth the wait. A standout track is ‘January Man,’ an autobiographical account of Harper’s current condition.
“It’s about being 72 years old and falling in love with a 25-year old woman – and all of the emotional turmoil that that creates,” he readily admits.
“You couldn’t do it every day. I’m becoming a bit inarticulate – maybe it’s too early in the morning.
“There are times when you put your big boot right into the middle of it and say something stupid like ‘what are you doing tonight?’ or something crazy.
“Then you have to step back and look into the biographical mirror. And then suffer. Until you’d said something stupid like that, she’d been looking straight through you anyway.
“So this is a song about that condition.”
‘January Man’ was penned and produced on home soil but Harper travelled to Los Angeles to record four tracks in Laurel Canyon with Jonathan Wilson.
“I didn’t really have the will to make another album (after 2000’s The Green Man) until about 2009 when I was inspired to be writing again.”
Among the epic moments on Man and Myth is the 15.24 min track ‘Heaven is Here’ which details Harper’s strong views on the functions of religion in modern life.
“I’ve maintained for my whole lifetime that heaven is actually here on earth. It’s a proposition for the creationists to get hold of. When we depart from this place, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going back to the dust that we came from.
“That might be an outrageous idea for some people to get their head around, but there’s nothing to prove it either way. The concept with the most evidence on its side is my view, I believe.
“There’s piles of evidence on my side of the mystery – but none on the other side.”
Whilst it may be difficult to debate against Harper’s elementary logic, it’s a simple matter to uncover where he’s coming from.
He apparently developed an allergy to Christianity – and to any organised religion – following his experiences with a Jehovah’s Witness stepmother and a Lancashire (northern England) childhood that he’s described as “totally dysfunctional.”
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Harper’s musical influence was recognised by a younger generation of musicians, some of whom covered his songs or invited him to make guest appearances on their albums. In 1995 Harper contributed spoken words on The Te Party’s 1995 album The Edges of Twilight, and appeared on stage for their New Year concert in Montreal. The track ‘Time’ from The Tea Party’s 1996 multimedia CD, Alhambra, was sung and co-written by Harper.
Asked if he had a personal message for the celebrated Jimmy Plant disciple, the Tea Party’s Jeff Martin – who now resides on the north coast of NSW – Harper offered: “Tell him to get his finger out!” He pauses for effect. “How are you Jeff? Hope you’re well.”
Praise from contemporary artists (such as the widely-admired Fleet Foxes) coupled with an overdue discovery by some of his own generation pushed Roy’s self-esteem over the line.
“People of my generation who said they’d never bothered to listen to me until now, but in the process of looking for something else they might like, they found me. Some said that they `now knew why they’d kept hearing my name.’ Good for your confidence when things like that happen.
“It’s really quite inspiring to be praised by current acts like the Fleet Foxes, and it’s gotten me back into writing again. It got me thinking again. And it got me back into information action. A part of the actual being-plugged-in-again situation.”
Not that the veteran troubadour has ever lacked artistic cred at any level. Aside from the Zeppelin accolade ‘Hats Off….,’ it’s fairly widely known that Pink Floyd hired Harper to do the vocals on the iconic opus ‘Have a Cigar’ on the landmark album Wish You Were Here.
Both Jimmy Page and David Gilmour have appeared on stage supporting Harper. Name how many singers can make an equivalent claim.
And perhaps more significantly, noted DJ and talent spotter, the late John Peel, requested that the cricket obsessive Harper’s 1975 track ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease,’ be played at his funeral. (I’m giving serious thought to making a similar musical request. It’s a great song by any definition and I’d urge you to Google it).
I remarked to Roy – a fellow lover of the grand old game – about my dismay that cricket-tragics such as Clapton , Elton and Rod had never mined the creative field of cricket for a memorable tune or two.
Yet we enjoyed our conversation, tip-toeing around in the early Irish hours across the internet. He reminded me, in one way, of an agreeable well-fed old cat. Or as Adam Sweeting noted in his first rate London Telegraph feature on Harper, our chat (and his) was “…full of long, rambling anecdotes told with great good humour and a certain amount of incoherence….” I’ll go along with that.
In recent years, encamped upon County Cork in Ireland, Harper has overseen the re-mastering of his collection of albums, all 19 of them, including Sophisticated Beggar (from 1966), Flat Baroque And Berserk, Stormcock and Bullinamingvase. Which all appear for the first time as digital downloads from iTunes and other online outlets.
Asked if there was any chance of a Down Under tour in the foreseeable future, Harper was understandably circumspect.
“There’s a remote chance, I suppose. I mean, I would personally love to come out there again. But I’m afraid that I might be sequestered around here for a while.”
“Don’t shift because fashion has shifted. Don’t move from the original ethic you had, the original reasons. They’re part and parcel of you,” he likes to tell serious interviewers.
ROY HARPER’S CONNECTION WITH JONATHAN WILSON
“I’d been watching Pakistan play at Lords cricket ground in 2012. Somebody invited me along to the Borderline club in London where Jonathan Wilson was playing. They said that Jackson Browne would be coming along with him.
“Without any prior meeting, I ended up having a few drinks at the club. I found Jonathan to be very humble, quite tall young-ish American who’s very gentle.
“We got on right away from the first minute. He was beautiful and it was a really, really nice show.
“I was pleased to hear that Jonathan was making this tribute album for me because he’s a really good musician as well. It was serendipitous, purely of the moment.
“So I worked on his album and he worked on mine.”