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Famous Friends ... and a Landmark Album

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Famous Friends ... and a Landmark Album
Yet while Harper never achieved mega-rock star status, the people he hung out with did. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, David Gilmour all were close long-time friends. In 1970, Led Zeppelin recorded the tribute “Hats Off to Roy Harper” and put it on the folk-leaning, III. Harper remembers how he heard about the song.

“I went up to see them in their office, and Jimmy handed me the record, and I was like ‘Oh, new record ...’ and twirled it around a bit and said, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’  And I gave it back,” he says. “[Jimmy] he handed it back to me, and said, ‘Well, look at it then.’  And I sort of realized I should be looking at something else. And then, of course, I saw it, and I said, ‘Oh, dear ...’” 

Harper says he’s still in touch with friends from the old days, and had just attended Robert Plant’s 60th birthday. Still the gap between their success and his was large. Was that ever difficult? 

“Well, you can imagine, being a multimillionaire and all of that ... the level on which I operate is nowhere near that,” he admits. “Automatically, they have completely different lives from me. Although I must say that particularly Robert does his absolutely level best to keep his feet on the ground and stay in touch, constantly. Robert actually does his best all the time. Not that the others don’t. But after so many years, after so much life experience, people do become separated, you know?”

A year after Flat Baroque and Berserk, Harper returned to the studio to make the record that many people believe is his finest, the four-part epic Stormcock. Allegorical, politically engaged and extraordinarily beautiful, the album is as much a manifesto as a piece of music. It ties together an extraordinary range of issues and philosophies.

Consider opening track “Hor D’oeuvres”, a gently strummed, acoustic ballad about a judge, which makes an impassioned case against capital punishment. Harper says he was inspired by the Caryl Chessman case in California. There a black man was sentenced to death and finally executed after multiple appeals, even though the evidence against him was weak. “Think about that ... now to be hung when you’re not guilty is the most abject thing that I can imaging happening to anyone. Culturally and emotionally, it’s devastating,” he says. “You’re asking ‘Where are my own kind?  What are they doing this to me? What is this? What was this life?’” 

(Along with institutional murderers, he also got a pretty good shot in at the critics who had savaged Flat Baroque and Berserk. The relevant verse went: “The critic rubs his tired ass and strikes his poor brains and strains for thoughts and wields his pen but stops and starts and thinks in terms of booze and carts and sits there playing with his parts.” Ouch.) 

The rest of the album was similarly pointed. “The Same Old Rock” castigated the religious bigots Harper had been struggling against all his life. “One Man Rock and Roll Band” lashed out against violence and human cruelty. And “Me and My Woman” can be read as an early warning against overcrowding and mass pollution. “It’s really asking, where are we going to?  What’s going to happen to us when we’re doing all these kinds of destructive things?” says Harper.

“It really was quite a hefty pill to swallow,” Harper admits. “EMI hated it. Absolutely hated it.”

Yet the album has since been acknowledged as a milestone in folk rock. Rough Guide to Music‘s entry reads, “Harper at his most ambitious in an acoustic mode. Just four tracks, but two of them are classics. ‘The Same Old Rock’ is his most articulate diatribe against organized religion; musically very complex, with some excellent guitar playing. ‘Me and My Woman’ is an epic love suite covering a vast range of emotions. The other songs would be much better if half their length.”

And Harper has always done better with musicians than critics. In a 2006 article for the Guardian, Johnny Marr of the Smiths picked Stormcock as his “secret weapon,” or the one beloved album that no one else seemed to have heard of. He wrote: “If ever there was a secret weapon of a record it would be Stormcock by Roy Harper. I don’t know why it’s such a secret. If anyone thinks it might be a collection of lovely songs by some twee old folkie then they’d be mistaken. It’s intense and beautiful and clever: [Bowie’s] Hunky Dory‘s big, badder brother.”

Michael Duane, formerly of the no-wave band Dustdevils and currently working on a project with the Jackie O Motherfucker’s Tom Greenwood, says that he’s been a fan of Harper’s since age seven, when his decade-older brother turned him onto Sophisticated Beggar. Duane points to Harper’s “wonderful blasphemy and his complete disregard of authority,” as the main attraction. Though he loves all Harper’s records, he admits, “It’s hard, but if I had to pick one, it’d be Stormcock. It’s just perfect. His guitar playing is jawdropping, and lyrically it’s completely focused.”

More Reissues A-Comin’
Koch is starting with a reissue of Flat Baroque and Berserk, Stormcock and a 1984 collaboration with Jimmy Page called Jugula, but there’s more on the way. Harper says he expected to re-introduce 12 or 13 of his records to the American market over the next year or two, many of them out of print for decades. 

Coupled with the 2005 Mojo Hero award and renewed interest among contemporary rock and folk artists, the releases look like a bit of a revival for Harper. “I think there’s a renewed interest in me because of my general connections and the fact that the music is not obsolete. I have continued relevance.”

Harper lives in southwest Ireland, relying on a kitchen radio for his dose of current music, for the most part. Still, he did open for folk star Joanna Newsom in London in September 2007, playing Stormcock in its entirety. He found, across the generations, a sort of kindred spirit. “I think people like Joanna Newsom are absolutely marvelous. Absolutely wonderful. She’s brilliant,” he adds. “She’s an original. She’s really important for people who actually put music in those ways . And she’s written some very good songs.” The esteem appears to be mutual. Newsom reportedly had Stormcock on repeat play as she was writing Ys, and, in Pitchfork in June 2007, she named Harper’s “Me and My Woman” as one of her three favorite songs ever.

Harper says he’s now five songs into a new record, though he admits he has been at exactly this point for over a year. He’s had a period of poor health—now apparently over—and as soon as cricket season and the transfer market (trading in football player contracts) is over, he expects to be back at work. Breaking rules as usual, one imagines.

Roy Harper - Me and My Woman (Part 1) [Fan Video]

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