Hats Off: An Interview with Roy Harper

Jimmy Page wrote a song about him. Paul and Linda McCartney sang back up for him. And now, after decades of languishing as "the longest running underground act in the world", Roy Harper is reissuing his entire catalogue to a world that may just finally be ready for him.

Roy Harper never had any interest in traditional folk. Even in the mid-1960s, playing at the legendary London club Les Cousins, surrounded by earnest pickers and song catchers, he had something else in mind.

"I was never really a bone fide member of the folk scene," says Harper, whose 1960s and 1970s albums, including Stormcock, Sophisticated Beggar and Flat Baroque and Berserk are now considered classics -- and precursors to today's alternative folk genre. "I was too much of a modernist, really. Just too modern for what was going on in the folk clubs. I wanted to modernize music, but more than that to completely modernize people's attitudes towards life in general. I was involved in trying to bring meat to the folk music, which is a big mistake anyway."

Yet though Harper never enjoyed the mass popularity and commercial success of his contemporaries in Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, his work has drawn fervent admirers. A self-taught guitarist, he is known for eccentric and sophisticated blues-into-folk accompaniment. And, as a poet inspired more by Shelley, Keats and Coleridge than Dylan et. al., his lyrics have always been striking -- full of riveting images and confrontational salvos. This is an artist who can spend half an hour explicating the politics and philosophy behind Stormcock, and who still, nearly 40 years after the fact, remains passionate about the injustices that inspired its songs.

Now in his 70s, Harper has recently seen an upsurge in interest in his work. He received the Mojo Hero Award in 2005, presented by his long-time friend and admirer Jimmy Page. In 2007, he shared a stage with new folk diva Joanna Newsom, who counts him as an influence and inspiration. His albums, long out of print in the US, are being re-released by Koch records (in conjunction with Harper's own label Science Friction). The first batch, out this fall, includes his best seller, the 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk, the four-song epic Stormcock from 1971, which is widely considered his best album, and his 1984 collaboration with Led Zeppelin's Page, Jugula.

Early Rebellion

Harper was born in 1941, near Manchester. His mother died early on, and he was raised by his father and stepmother, a Jehovah's Witness. Then as now, he was uncomfortable with religious certainty. This conflict, between his own inclination towards free inquiry and a restrictive environment formed the kernel of his art, first through poetry and later through song.

"I was definitely six by the time I saw that the person in the house who was being a religious person was invariably too hot headed, too irrational, too wrong to actually be able to hold those kinds of views with anything like authority," he says. "I've taken a stand against religion for as long I've been able to write and think."

Developed early on, that distrust of authority -- especially religious authority -- became a key element of Harper's work. "All my songs are written from that particular standpoint, a standpoint that I've had since I was six more or less, since I first began to understand that I was human," he says. "The only difference between me now and me at the age of six is experience. I have the same mind and the same mindset as I did in those days. It's not changed at all. It's the same defiant kind of introspective look at the way society, a very critical look at the way that society is balanced. And it's never changed. I've never changed."


Joining the Beatniks

Like many teenagers, Harper found an escape in music. By the mid-1950s, two significant musical figures had emerged: Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan. British teenagers, Harper remembers, typically went for one or the other. He and many of the musicians who would go on to form Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles were Donegan fans.

"It was a revelation really, because music changed right there," he says about first discovering Donegan. "Because we were suddenly introduced to this music that was actually saying something. Which made me, which impelled me to take up the guitar."

Choosing between Donegan and Presley was easy. "I was on the Beatnik's side, of course," he explains. "The bohemian thing. When I was 15 I was wearing sandals and corduroys, Guernsey, striped pullover, a beard that was hardly there, shades and a beret, and the goal was hanging out."

Notwithstanding his rebellious streak, Harper joined the Royal Air Force in 1956, at the age of 15, mostly to escape his family. "Well, I jumped from the frying pan into the fire," says Harper. "There was one way to get out when you were 17 and that was to join the military. But, you know, that was a mistake." He was discharged, for mental problems, and began writing poetry.

What kind of poetry? Harper says he only has one piece left from this period. "It did rhyme a lot of the time," he recalls. "It was very Keats and Shelley influenced. And yet there was the ... latterly there was the Keroauc, Ginsberg, Beat influence. So it was a combination of those two, really, and bits and piece of other things as well. Bits and pieces of T. S. Eliot. Although I enjoyed his poems, I didn't really think too much of his politics."

Developing a Style

After leaving the service and throughout the early 1960s, Harper supported himself with busking, playing blues on the streets of whatever town he found himself in. He'd taught himself to play, developing an eccentric style that is instantly recognizable and completely different from anyone else. "Well, it's self-taught, of course, which is why it's like it is," he says, when asked about his playing. "Because you can listen to people, but unless you look at them, you're not going to do it the same. Unless you study what someone is doing with the left hand and the right hand and generally up and down the fretboard, then you're not going to do it in the same way."

He adds, "A lot of the blues players -- a lot of the, boys like Eric [Clapton], would learn from each other and from watching guys like Freddie King and B.B. King play, and actually say, well, how do you do that? Whereas I have to admit, I'm too lazy with the guitar to do that. I just wanted to do it instantly so that what came out was, to start with, in the early days, quite simplistic, but built on its own style. You gradually found that the roads widened and opened up to you as you got more used to being able to play."

Harper also thinks that he may have originally been left-handed, but was forced, growing up, to learn to use his right as the predominant hand. Watching him play, you are struck by how easily he uses his left hand in the bends and pull-offs and hammer-ons that embellish his blues-y style. But Harper, who considers himself primarily a poet and secondarily a player, brushes any compliments off. "But of course, I'm still not a musician really. I don't really consider myself to be a musician. I'm a pretty odd player, really. But ... and you know if you start to copy me, it would be something completely odd."

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