Roy Harper is a consummate musician's musician, straight out of the British folk scene. He chats with PopMatters 20 Questions, sometimes with tear in eye, sometimes with tongue in cheek, about film, literature, and music.
Since 1966 Roy Harper has recorded a string of eccentric but highly influential albums including Flat Baroque and Berserk, Stormcock, and Whatever Happened to Jugula?. His collaborators include Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, among others. He's a consummate musician's musician, straight out of the British folk scene, but these days, his heart is in his garden. He brushes the dirt from his knees to chat with PopMatters 20 Questions, sometimes with tears in his eyes, sometimes with tongue in cheek, about film, literature, and music.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
All good movies make me cry; if they don't, they're not fit for purpose. I don't like blood and guts junk. I go to the theatre to be moved. I was very sad to hear of Paul Newman's passing just recently. He made a couple of my favourites, including Cool Hand Luke. Irreplaceable. Great man.
In private moments, I cry at least ten times a day on average. My favourite all-time film with a romantic edge is probably Blade Runner, but that's perhaps because the book, by Philip K Dick, is on my favourite books list. It's a close run thing, though.
Breakfast At Tiffanys, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Philadelphia Story, Brief Encounter these will always make me cry. So, too, Apocalypse Now, Rebecca, Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil, Dark Star, La Dolce Vita, My Fair Lady, Cyrano de Bergerac, Pride and Prejudice -- there are too many, but this list has shocked me. I found myself sticking in Pride and Prejudice at the end just to include something modern, but I'm struggling to compare anything made in the last 20 years with the depth of older films. I don't really want to think this, but has mainstream film gone the same way as mainstream music, in that technological technique suffices for quality of content?
The book that made me cry: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams. I'm very critical of some of it, but it has made me well-up a few times. I've just started The Symbolic Species, by Terence Deacon, given to me by a friend. It's going to be a challenge, but it's got me there a couple of times already, and seems to be an even better book. I think I'll read some baseball cards after that.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Maybe Don Quixote (El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha). Or perhaps I'm just a Gromit wannabe.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Today it's definitely Porgy and Bess by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Tomorrow I might be feeling more like Reflections in a Crystal Wind, by Richard and Mimi Fariña, but I won't know 'till I get up. Mind you, the tone of the second song, 'Bold Marauder', may be asking for another 'Ride of the Valkyries ' day, which can now bring a 'napalm in the morning' context to the simplest of daily chores.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Close, sometimes, but Star Trek is less Roman and more Greek… and slightly less moralist, and therefore preferable.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Fish, which I try to eat as often as I can, and marijuana, the usage of which has dropped off as I've got older, but is still a very useful tool in tight situations.
6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I'm proud of my garden. It's about five acres and I've worked on it for eight years now, when time has allowed. I've planted over 150 trees, some of them are now 30ft to 40ft high, and I'm proud of it because it's the biggest canvas I've ever worked on and it's definitely one of the best.
In some ways, I've given up trying to work on some of the things I would have attempted in music in favour of the garden. Just the nature of the music business alone can drive you mad.
7. You want to be remembered for...?
My consistent vision. Being an honourable friend. My driving. That's a very hard question to answer… for holding the line... I can't answer that, and I won't have any choice in any case.
8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?
Socrates, William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Frederick Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Charles Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Newton, Leadbelly, Picasso, Ben Franklin, Dali, Miles Davis, Asimov, Thomas Huxley, Philip K Dick, Einstein, Coltrane, Solzhenitsyn, Elgar, Jung, Billie Holiday, Stan Lee, John Lennon, Rosa Parks, Hunter Thomson, Blake, 'Bird', King Alfred, Matisse, Richard Wagner-(music rather than words), Dostoevsky. There are too many, and unfortunately all of them are dead.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.
10. Your hidden talents...?
Buying and selling houses at about the right time. Erotic photography. And the rest will remain hidden!
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
When I was 16 I had a friend called Fred Yates who was 35. Just after we met he gave me a tin with about 25 pills in it and a book called On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He said, "Take one of these and read this, and only take another when you need it".
This was my introduction to mind altering substances, in the form of amphetamine sulphate. He changed my life in seconds, and I never looked back. It's been 20 years since I had any speed. Things have their time and place.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The best thing I ever bought was an S-series 1959 Bentley in 1969 for £600. I had more hilarious fun in that than any other material object that's ever come my way. I did everything in it except die. I could write a book on that car. I didn't bother taking a driving test 'till 1976!
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?
One of the first places I head for when I get to any of the big cities is Armani Jeans, which you can find on Regents Street and in Selfridges and other big department stores in London. Sometimes you get a really good, unusual shirt in there, as well. I love clothes as much as I do birthday suits.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Audrey Hepburn, or failing that, Susan Sarandon. Failing that, Park Chan-Wook, failing that, Alan Greenspan. Failing that, Amy Winehouse. Failing that, I'd go for a vindaloo!
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I would have liked to have fought alongside King Alfred at Athelney in the Somerset marshes and at Edington in Wiltshire in May 878 when he defeated the Danes under Guthrum. This was the year and month when the English language was effectively saved from comparative obscurity. A quarter of the world's population may now be speaking in a Danish dialect had it not been for Alfred's victory at Edington -- or maybe not.
Hard physical work with a spade or pick-axe usually does the trick.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?
Home made fish and chips, (well basted with olive oil and made in the oven) and a pint of real ale, such as Bishop's Finger, Hobgoblin or Hen's Teeth.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Nelson or Napier, both in New Zealand. I'd love to go to Sausalito again, maybe it won't have changed. Maybe I can eat some fish, by the water, for a couple of bucks; and feel the tightness of the salt on my sunned skin... and the stickiness in my hair... take a walk in Muir Woods... and sleep where I drop again.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Can we now reform capitalism completely, and more for the benefit of the social good? Please.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
The late Autumn planting season. I've got about 15 trees to go in and two to move. Then I'll be thinking about the next record.
Readers might also enjoy Hats Off: An Interview with Roy Harper by Jennifer Kelly.