Discovering Roy Harper Pt.2

In the midst of this furore, I had a friend, who is lost somewhere in the oceans of time, called Mike. He had long dark tousled hair, much like Syd Barrett, and wore a frightening white plastic jacket. Delicate sensitive Mike told me to check out this fire-brand of a singer he had seen. A guy who was as crazy as me, a mad poet singer with wild eyes and raging mind who was saying the same stuff I was spouting. He thought we’d get along.

I filed it on my list of things to do amid the swirling patterns in my head. There was too much happening. Never enough time.

However, shortly afterwards I was exploring the streets of Soho and had settled on a gig at Les Cousins in Greek Street. 

A friend Neil had introduced me to Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and another friend, Bob, had revealed the wondrous Jackson C Frank. They had opened up a whole fresh delight – contemporary folk music – a new world of music that included Davy Graham, Al Stewart and linked into the Greenwich Village scene of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Paul Simon. 

It was a genre that I was very taken with. It led me to add the folk clubs like the Barge, Bunjies and Les Cousins to my growing list of favourite venues.

Les Cousins was a great place to hang out. It was situated in a cellar on Greek St in the heart of the shady part of Soho, surrounded by strip joints, massage parlours and sex shops. You went down these steep steps into a darkened room. It was quite gloomy really but nobody minded, the atmosphere was great and you were up close to the action. There were wooden chairs and tables that you sat around, the stage was not really a stage, it was hardly raised at all and the performers sat on a chair, with a spotlight on them and a microphone or two. There was none of this fancy sound systems, lighting or soundboards. All very basic.

The crowd were made up of regulars who were into the music. The air was thick with aromatic smoke. You could get stoned without trying. It was very intimate.

Admission was cheap – a couple of shillings. For that you would get a number of singers. All the singer songwriters played there – John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Donovan, John Martyn, Jackson C Frank, Sandy Denny, The Incredible String Band, Whizz Jones, Al Stewart, Nick Drake.

There were regular all-niters. It had everything you wanted. Good company, warmth, great music and a cheap price.

For a penniless student it was perfect.

I used to go to see John Renbourn and Bert Jansch play there and caught a number of other acts. It was always good. There was a special warmth about the place.

Back then London was ablaze with great venues with amazing bands playing every night.

There was always a difficult choice. 

The top bands and singers seemed to play all the time. 

Whether to see a psychedelic band like Pink Floyd at UFO, Fleetwood Mac at the Toby Jug, the Who at the Marquee, Captain Beefheart at Middle Earth, John Mayall at Eel Pie Island or catch some blues or rock ‘n’ roll legend?

It made your head spin. Not only that, but tickets were cheap even then. 

Two and six (twelve and a half pence) to see top acts.

 I still have regrets for all the greats I might have seen……….

That weekend I opted for Les Cousins. 

Both Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were on the bill. They were two favourites of mine and I liked the atmosphere of the club.

It is wondrous how serendipity works, for there, sandwiched between Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, was the young hothead Mike had told me about. I don’t believe in fate. It was luck that took me there that night. 

If not then it would have happened soon enough. There was an inevitability about it. We swam in the same waters.

It was the briefest of sets – just three numbers and an equal amount of searing gig-talk. The numbers were great but the talk was even better. I remember one of the songs was Blackpool, another was Goldfish but the third is forgotten.

Those early songs were a million miles from his later epics but they were enough, he was more than enough. What he was saying between the songs was more interesting than the music itself. 

He seemed to speak without any filters, whatever came into his head like we were friends sitting around together playing music. 

I glimpsed a mind that was raging with the same lusts and passions as mine and it turned me on. I came out of Les Cousins with my head zinging. 

I was on such a high.

That was my first encounter with the young and fiery Roy Harper, a madman crazed with revolutionary zeal, a poet whose words spelt trouble, a social dissident whose eyes pierced the skin of society and a musician singer-songwriter of unique scope and skill.

When I heard Roy’s words it felt like I was peering into a mirror. 

The world was run by maniacs and only the sane could see that. 

Finding other sane people? Luck? 

I had unearthed a supernova in the depths of Soho and found what I was looking for – he was one sane madman. 

Roy Harper was on the loose and I had discovered him!

Discovering Roy Harper -Pt.1

In the late fifties, Roy had been a Jazz poet in the Blackpool area. He once described Lytham St Annes, where he lived, as a cemetery with bus stops. 

In the early sixties, Roy, after briefly forming a skiffle group with his two brothers, set off to busk his way around Europe with Mocy who later became his first wife in 1965. 

Roy returned to London intending to try his luck in the music business.

The contemporary folk scene was burgeoning and Roy found his way into the folk clubs. He had begun to combine his poetry to the folk and blues standards that he had been busking with. 

Roy was in London at exactly the right time. 

Roy was just starting out. 

So was I.

I was busy discovering.

It was the start of the London ‘underground scene’.

So much excitement to experience.

Music – folk, blues, psychedelia, west coast, progressive.

Art, drama, film, literature, beat poetry.

I was immersed in it. 

Roy was creating it.

Peter Bellamy from the Young Tradition took a liking to him and made a few introductions so that he started out at Les Cousins.

At that early stage, Roy had choices. Peter Bellamy was encouraging him to go along the traditional folk route but Roy had other ideas. 

He was more under the spell of Davy Graham and Jackson C Frank and was finding a new application for his poetry and jazz background. 

Roy was making a unique kind of music.

I too was experiencing revelations. The world seemed to be changing and a wave of liberalism was crashing through and sweeping me along.

I probably had a permanent grin on my face…..

Music was the centre of my life but I was beginning to experience the other arts for the first time – poetry, dance, drama and modern art.

My mind floated in a sea of music and lyrics.

All seemed revealed to me.

I was euphoric.

I felt it was my time.

I had been unhappy with life’s expectations

I did not want to be part of the machine that I perceived careers to be.

I was resisting that type of control.

The rebellion I had been feeling now had a focus.

Freedom was what was important.

My Dad sat on the sofa and declared that ‘The Prisoner’ (Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant satire on society) was a ‘pile of rubbish’

He couldn’t see that it was a metaphor, an expose of the society in which we were all controlled, programmed and numbered.

At that time I felt sorry for my Dad. He didn’t get it.

I was not a number. I was a free man. 

I had a mind and I wanted to use it.

I was opposed to a world full of greed, corruption, war and suffering. 

This was 1967 and a new generation was tearing the walls down. Move out of the way – we were taking over. There was a better world and we were going to build it. 

The optimism was palpable.

Anyone who had ears was deafened by the noise from the underground. 

I was on fire.

I was inspired by the likes of the electric polka-dotted Dylan with his snarling tongue, wicked insight and ferocity, whose words created explosions in my cortex.

The magnificent Captain Beefheart with his acid desert blues, sniping and peppering his songs with streams of conscious. Hip poems and space-age music so original it created a new genre.

Woody Guthrie whose heart was out there in front of him, the first and foremost social commentator, whose words were rabid with righteous anger. 

I threw them all in my melting pot with Kerouac’s road trips through life, Ginsberg’s screams at the insanity of society, and Henry Miller’s ragged explorations of reality in the Paris streets of the 1930s. 

They were my inspiration. I thirsted for their lives, their experience and hungered for their vision.

I was stumbling through a world that was illuminated with new insights. They came so thick and fast. I was energised by them.

It was a mad roller-coaster ride! 

Through long nights of agitated verbal gymnastics, my friends and I tried to harness the sense contained within the squirming words. 

Music expressed everything to us.

Today’s Music to keep me SssSAAaannnEeeEe in Isolation – Jackson C Frank

Right now I’m reading this biographical book on Jackson C Frank called The Clear Hard Light Of Genius by Jim Abbott.

It embellishes the picture I already knew. A sad tale. But I can’t get his songs out of my head so I’ve given in and started playing them!

5 Great tracks from Sixties Contemporay Folk

The Sixties contemporary Folk Scene was exploding with great possibility. It was centred around places such as Les Cousins and Bunjies.

  1. Roy Harper – Forever
  2. Bert Jansch – Do You Hear me Now?
  3. Davy Graham – Anji
  4. John Renbourn – Whitehouse Blues
  5. Jackson C Frank – Just Like Anything
  6. I spent a lot of time marvelling at these guys and enjoying myself.
  7. Available on Amazon. In the UK:

    In the USA:

John Renbourn – Tribute to a superstar and unsung genius

John Renbourn77 john-renbourn2

John was one of the warmest, friendliest men I have met. You would not know he was a superstar, a founding member of the highly influential contemporary sixties Folk Scene (that so influenced both Bob Dylan and Paul Simon) , a brilliant guitarist, innovator and songwriter, a member of the successful Folk-Rock group Pentangle and a man who popularised Old English Music and gave them a unique modern twist as he did with American Folk-Blues. He was a genius.

Despite all this he remained an unassuming man.

A number of year’s back in 2001 I chatted and laughed with him as we both waited to get albums signed by the great Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in a rare Leeds gig. He was as excited and thrilled to see and meet Jack as if he was a young kid, and was in awe of the man. It was a delight to witness.

Only a week later I was at the Royal Festival Hall I saw him again. He was doing a song with Roy. Did his bit (guitar on Highway Blues) and unobtrusively went off. I saw him sidling off after the show and had a quick work with him. He signed my brochure and was cheerful and friendly.

I first saw John play in the fabled Les Cousins on Greek Street in 1967. He did a set of folk-blues and instrumentals reminiscent of his first two albums. Bert Jansch did the second set and Roy Harper was sandwiched in between. It was quite a night!

I later caught him a couple of times performing with Bert and loved the way their two styles, very different, complemented each other. It’s hard to think that they are now both gone and that era is shunting off down the line into history.

I was also fortunate enough to see the wonderful Pentangle a number of times. The times that stand out for me were in the basement of the Three Horseshoes Pub in Tottenham Court Road. Bert and John, augmented by Danny Thompson on bass and the beautiful voice of Jacqui McShee (as well as the rest of her beautiful self) performed a loose jam/practice/gig for what felt like a group o friends. It was free and performed for friendship, love of music and enjoyment. It was great to see something so far removed from the avarice and greed of music today.

This was music for music’s sake – sharing for friendship and love and the sheer enjoyment of performing.

Bert and John, along with Davey Graham, were the core that that British Contemporary Folk Scene of the mid-sixties and their energy and innovation propelled it to another level.

I had just noticed that he was touring with Whizz Jones and made a note to go and see him and then a read a tiny obituary. It should have been front page. He was a figure worthy of a headline.

John achieved so much and yet he remained a modest man and one who should have received so much more recognition and respect.

We all owe him a lot. He will be missed.