Roy Harper in Brixton – Waiting For My Man.
Back in the 1980s, I was writing a book with Roy. It had started out as a biography but rapidly progressed, for a number of reasons, to become a book of lyrics, anecdotes and asides.
It took a lot of work. Organising Roy was not the easiest of jobs.
Few of Roy’s lyrics had been written down. We spent many an hour playing the vinyl records and writing down the lyrics. On some of the early ones from Come Out Fighting Ghenghis Smith Roy had forgotten the words and even Roy had trouble deciphering them from the songs. Occasionally we’d get it wrong which resulted in much hilarity. Working with Roy is punctuated with much riotous laughter augmented by chemical intake.
Pinning Roy down to put in time on the book proved difficult. We had to find space between gigs and recording. I also had to try to avoid periods when there were test matches or football. I soon learnt that if there was sport on the TV it was almost impossible to gain Roy’s attention.
Sometimes Roy would call in at my place in Hull, more often than not I would go for a few days to stay at his place. At the time, early on in the project, he was living in a big old house in Brixton. Our ‘work’ meetings usually turned into more of a party than anything else, but we did get some work done in between. I’d turn up with a string of questions and we’d record our sessions on C90 tapes on a grotty old portable tape recorder from which I would try to produce transcripts. They were often so poorly recorded that it was hard to make it out. Took me hours. Back then there were no computers so, when I was back home, I typed it all out on an old manual typewriter. Often I’d return with almost as many questions as I’d started out with.
Anyone who knows Roy will know that he runs on a different time scale to the rest of us. It didn’t make life easy. But it was interesting.
Getting to Brixton was a problem. I had no car back then, and was no longer as partial to hitch-hiking as I once had been; I thought that train was the best solution. I was teaching back then but as it was half-term I had some time to spare. I arranged with Roy the time of my arrival and set off. He assured me that he would pick me up from the station.
This was Brixton a short while after the notorious riots. Watching the news back then all one saw was rampaging black youths, overturned cars, petrol bombs and houses on fire. Brixton looked like a war zone. Colleagues in Hull, which, at the time was not the world’s most cosmopolitan city, thought I was going into some cauldron of race rioting. I was doomed. They assumed that as soon as the denizens of Brixton set eyes on a white face they would tear me limb from limb. I laughed. I’d lived in London. I knew it wasn’t like that.
Now I hadn’t quite expected Roy to be standing there when I arrived; I knew him better than that.
Clutching my bag I made my way out of the station and sat myself down on a bench in a prominent place to wait. The concourse was busy. Everyone was black and a few gave me funny looks, wondering what this long-haired white guy was doing there.
The minutes dragged into an hour. A lady from one of the shops had noticed me sitting there patiently waiting and brought me a cup of coffee. She asked if I wanted to use her phone to contact someone (this was before the age of mobiles). I thanked her profusely but hadn’t brought Roy’s number with me so that wasn’t even an option.
The hour became two hours and I was joined by a very drunk old man with long grey dreads who offered me drinks out of his bottle of whisky, poorly wrapped in a ragged brown paper bag, put his arm around me, and engaged me in conversation in broad patois, only half of which I understood. He was very jovial and friendly but eventually moved on to search for better entertainment.
After two and a half hours a taxi driver offered me a free lift to wherever I was going.
Perhaps they wanted rid of me? I was making the place untidy.
Eventually Roy appeared in his huge car, a big old beat-up Citroen large enough to get all his gear in, and drove me off to his house for a few days of ‘work’.
I could not help wondering if a black guy sitting outside Hull train station would have received as friendly a reception as I’d been offered by the black community in Brixton?