Roy Harper – The Unknown Soldier – Happy Birthday Roy!!

Today is Roy’s Birthday. Happy birthday Roy!!

He’s been an old soldier down through the years – always pushing barriers and taking on the establishment – that war-mongering, greed machine that runs the world.  It has cost him dearly in many ways but he has stayed true to his principles.

This was released in 1980, in the Post-punk era. It was on the last album of the Harvest/EMI run – the end of his contract (though he went back to them later). The music press, which Roy had always had an uneasy relationship with, slagged it off – one particular review sending Roy apoplectic (calling Old Faces old faeces). But then these were the ‘hip’ punk journalists who despised anything to do with music from before punk. Roy, to them, represented the ‘old guard’. He was never going to get a fair hearing.

The album contained three songs reworked from the aborted album Commercial Breaks and half the album was a collaboration with Dave Gilmour. While it lacked an epic song, in the style of most of his albums, it had a number of excellent songs and certainly didn’t deserve a slagging.

Roy licked his wounds and set off into the wilderness to set up his own label and do his own thing without compromise.

This track, the title track, is one of my favourites off that great album. Roy has been an old soldier (and a year older today!), fighting his wars for what he believes to be right (musically, poetically and philosophically) without compromise. There’s never any doubt where he stands – he’s against the establishment and the game they are playing.

Happy Birthday Old Soldier!! Keep fighting!!

Unknown Soldier

I am an old soldier
I’ve been in the wars
Backwards and forwards
Creeping on all fours

And I travel the pulses
Unseen and alone
Dogfights in the cosmos
Feeling the unknown

And I laugh in my sleep
Sitting in the gutter
Picking dog-ends from the deep

I am an old soldier
I see in your face
Times repeating
Uniforms in space

Looking forward to Doomsday
Telepathy wars
Dogma daydreams
Imaginary doors

And I laugh in my sleep
Sitting in the gutter
Picking dog-ends from the deep

But in the night a little boy is dreaming mysteries
And looking after laughter with his sister climbing trees
And somewhere there’s a button and a silent satellite
And a bastard who would press it and an everlasting night

I’d hunt him like a tiger and I’d tear him to a shred
There’s nowhere you can hide man
Me and the kids we’d feed you to the dead

And I cry in my sleep
For all the hungry children
And the unbelieving sheep

Have a great day!

Roy Harper – Legend

I have always loved this song. I spent ages playing it through to try to get all the lyrics. It wasn’t until I finally sat down with Roy that we managed to work them all out.

It is hard to believe that this is Roy’s first album recorded in rather primitive conditions. It sounds so good. It is also hard to believe that people saw Roy as a Folk singer. The evidence of this album is of a complete mixture of styles from Rock and psychedelia to acoustic.

The other element is Roy’s poetry and social comment. It is evident in this song in spades. Right from the onset Roy tore into a society that he saw as hypocritical and tasteless with people leading pointless, meaningless lives and talking through their arse (false teeth in the colon). Mount Street is a Mayfair business centre. The line came into being from a throw away remark. When Roy spent a period of time at her Majesty’s pleasure one of the other inmates was a very well-to-do chap who was in for fraud. He asked Roy if he knew the way to Mount Street.

These businessmen knew how to make money but did not know what life was about.

The hollow men echoes back to TS Elliott.

History – the idea of history being a series of crimes as the robber barons war, rape and pillage – A theme that would crop up later.

Salt sodas are speed.

Ending with the classic philosophical comment ‘everything is just everything because everything just is’. There is no god.

What a great song!!

Roy Harper – Legend

I heard the song birds singing in the trees above my bed
In the valley of the shadow of the sea of living dead
I see the same old smells aboard my ship of shapelessness
Meandering suspended in amorphous tastelessness

I hear the happy people striking down their matchless road
The false teeth in the colon partly sharing half the load
I know I cannot ask them so I leave their eyes to say
I know the way to Mount Street, but I just don’t know the way
I see the hollow buildings hanging in the winter sun
Throwing empty shadows that hide the hollow men
The world just isn’t real it’s built on endless timeless time
On land marks in the desert wastes of multicoloured crime

The maps stuck in the tube trains will tell you where’re you going
They’ll also tell you practically everything worth knowing
So if anybody asks me I’d say “take a few salt sodas”
If you don’t you stand the dirty chance of dying stone cold sober

And as I hear you breathing life’s last distant compliment
I know I can’t have said much of what I really meant
The sky desolates the sky and the snowflakes face to face
And everything is just everything because everything just is

Today’s Roy Harper track – East of the Sun

This is one of Roy’s most beautiful love songs. A song about a youthful romance, making love in among the sand dunes on the beach at Lytham St Anne’s where he was growing up. It takes me straight back to the days of my own youth.

It has a haunting melody and is sung with such tenderness.

I remember him recording this in Abbey Road Studios. He was having great trouble with the harmonica. It kept going out of tune. He was getting very frustrated. They could not find a replacement in the right key anywhere in the entire studios. It was late at night so nowhere was open to purchase one. They tried soaking it in water.

Eventually they managed to get it to last for the duration of the song.

The relief was apparent. I remember Roy smashing the harmonica in the jamb of the heavy studio door.

I had taken this annoying American girl who was staying with us along with me and she dutifully picked up the mangled harmonica. I had it lying around the house for ages! Somehow it got lost down the years!

Aaaah – the memories!

The bumble bees stumble
The butterflies tumble
The birds on the water-line stare
The heavens have crowned her
The star grass grows round her
Her dreams fill the very still air
Just east of the sun
Where our loving was done
I can still see her breasts on the edge of the morning
I can still taste the salt in her hair

I thought I needed so beautiful memories to buoy me up in lockdown today!

 

Roy Harper – How Does It Feel

How Does It Feel

 

Today’s Roy Harper track is off the Flat Baroque and Berserk album ‘How Does It Feel’.

I was thinking today that not only is this one of Roy’s most important songs but it is probably the one that has had the biggest impact on my life. I first heard it live back in those heady days of the late sixties. It must have been 1969. I would have been a young long-haired maniac aged nineteen or twenty who was a permanent fixture at Harper gigs. I wasn’t going to sell out or compromise. Life was a big adventure.

The sixties underground was in full swing and there was still an optimistic vibe. You could recognise fellow travellers in an instant. This was the time of camaraderie and sharing. The zeitgeist was different in the underground.

I can only speak for myself but I did not want what was on offer. We were being programmed to fit in, join the rat-race and be a cog in the machine of society. The idea was to make lots of money, buy a big house, big car and demonstrate that you’d made it.

I opted out of that one. I’d been reading my Kerouac and I wanted something more meaningful. I did not want to be the master’s right-hand nose. I wanted to live, travel, explore and love every minute of it.

I viewed society and a career as purgatory. Society was controlling, hypocritical and selfish. It was a warmongering, elitist machine built on xenophobia, greed and status.

The trouble was that if you dropped out of the machine where did you go?

There seemed few options. You could live off a creative endeavour – music, art, dance or writing (I tried my hand at writing) – or you could try to become self-sufficient (back to the land) or you could exist on the periphery of society, selling candles, dope or homemade trinkets and living frugally in a van.

Well I’d watched my parents just getting old (at least they weren’t on the bandwagon) and I wanted something more.

I looked for something else. I didn’t want a god strapped to my wrist. I didn’t want to be two-faced.

But, as with George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the more you try to avoid the trap of money the more it gets you.

I would sit and listen intently to this song. The words all struck home. The interesting thing was that Roy was not singing it with great force and fury. It was more wistful, reflective, subdued and even defeatist. There was no way out of this machine. There were no answers. It had you. Even Showbiz was part of the rat-race. Whatever you did you were part of it.

Well I didn’t want to be a big wheel so I found my way into teaching where I felt I could at least try to get another generation thinking and questioning the tenets of the machine we were part of.

It was a compromise. It meant that I did have two faces, one set of words for here and another for there, I was part of the machine and I did always vote for the lesser of two evils, but I still kept most of my ideals intact.

The mindless world was still at my heels and I still railed against it – futilely – and often I felt that most of me had died – but I felt that I still had some vestiges of integrity.

The song had a huge impact on me. It helped me focus on what was really important in life. It made me more aware that there was much to life that work, money and status and to keep those other priorities to the fore. Life was for living not existing.

There were times when I felt bona fide while swimming against the tide, but I still ended up as the master’s right hand nose. I think we all do – even if we think we aren’t!

It was interesting to see that the song was picked up on for the Margaret Atwood TV production of The Handmaid’s Tale. So appropriate.

It is a song that has meant a great deal to me down the years and still does. I was privileged to be part of a select group who actually got to see Roy record it at Abbey Road studio. What a moment in history! I cherish those memories.

It’s not real kid!

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhscUPTaE0M

 

 

Roy Harper – How Does It Feel

 

How does it feel to be completely unreal
How does it feel to be a voter
How does it feel to be a voluntary heel
I wonder who’s it is
I see you queuing up outside Saint Peter’s gate,
You can feel bona fide if you ride with the tide
But it’s not real

How does it feel to be out on your own
How does it feel to be thinking
How does it feel to be out on the run
With the mindless world at your heels
I wish I had no answers to put to you
Cos they got me so high tied I feel
Like most of me has died
And it’s real

And outside on the dragon
And inside in the cold
Mummy’s on the bandwagon, Daddy’s just getting old
And through the blood spew heavens
The roar of lust complains:
Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real

And how does it feel to be the master’s right hand nose
How does it feel to be lieutenant
How does it feel to be stood on someone’s toes
With a leech bleeding you for rent,
When you say you want a bit more rank
You wanna be a bigger wheel
You can feel magnified if you hide in
Your pride… It’s not real

And how does it feel with a white flag in your fist
How does it feel to have two faces
How does it feel with your god strapped to your wrist
And him leading you such a chase
You got one set of words for him,
And you got another for me
You’re gonna feel mystified when you’re identified
Don’t worry kid it’s not real

And outside on the dragon
And inside in the cold
Mummy’s on the bandwagon, Daddy’s just getting old
And through the blood spew heavens
The roar of lust complains:
Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real

And through the blood spew heavens
The roar of lust complains:
Please let me in I have no sin, but you know I’m not real

A Roy Harper track to cheer me up – Forever

This is the best love song anyone has ever recorded – full stop!

It was recorded on Roy’s first album – an album that was recorded in a make-shift studio. The songs were all recorded live with a minimum of technology. A superb album.

The song was poetic, romantic and quite a contrast to Roy’s angst on his epic’s like McGoohan’s Blues.

It was written for Mocy – his first wife. A beautiful tribute.

I remember Roy singing it to Liz and me at the Kingston Hotel in 1970. That was a special gig. He doesn’t normally do things like that.

Roy rerecorded it for the 1974 album Valentine. He felt that the superior technology might enable him to produce a more polished version.

I still prefer the original.

Here’s a live version from early on.

 

Roy Harper – Short and Sweet

Give your life quality by living it!!

Civilisation is built on a hypocritical morality.

Short & Sweet

You ask what is the quality of life
Seeking to justify the part you play
And mask, what seems a worthless fate
To strive, to make it any more or less than short and sweet

And you, you are a fantasy, a view
From where you’d like to think the world should see
Be true and you will likely find a few
Building a vision new and justice to your time

And we, we, the immoral men, we dare
Naked and fearless in the elements
We’re free, carefree from tempting fates, aware
And holding off the moral nightmare at the gates
In the garden

But short, short is from you to me, as close
As we all hope to try to help it be
We’re caught watching the dark in the sky, who knows?
Helpless as time itself to hold the time of day

And sweet, sweet as a mountain stream, beholds
Toward a new day breaking in the east
We’ll meet as every future dream unfolds
And surely quality it is at very least
At very least

Making contact with Roy Harper for the first time in 1968 -Extract from Ruminating on Roy Harper.

Making contact with Roy Harper for the first time in 1968 -Extract from Ruminating on Roy Harper.

I am presently rewriting this book. I should be through in a week or so and then I will start thinking about publication.

I have used this long-standing relationship to provide a backdrop to my life and the times I have lived through. I found it useful to illuminate both Roy and his music and the impact it has had on my life.

This is a short extract – an account of the first time I met the man face to face.

I’d be grateful for any feedback.

Meeting Roy was a lot easier than I thought. I had no interest in being a fan. I was fanatical but not about Roy as a star, as a musician or performer. I was intrigued with the man. I needed to know if he was genuine and I knew I would connect with him if he was all he seemed. I wanted to make that contact with him on a personal level yet making any kind of friendship seemed absurd. There was a gulf between us. Roy was, whether we liked it or not, up there on a stage and I was a young kid in the audience. Roy was in his mid-twenties with a wealth of life experience and I was starting out with a brain only starting to gel out of the pupation of adolescence. We might both share a perspective on society, life and loves and a common fascination with Kerouac and Ginsberg but we were still worlds apart. Just what did you say to a living hero when you met them?

For once my imagination and quickness of mind and tongue failed me. Or rather my imagination worked all to well. I could clearly see myself in my mind’s eye tongue-twisted and embarrassed mumbling my lines as the imperious Harper looked on in bored bemusement. Regardless I had to press forward. There was no going back. I rehearsed some stupid lines in my head and was determined to approach the man and say them. Life has since shown me that the only thing holding you back is your own subconscious. It sits on your shoulder whispering in your ear about all the potential disasters awaiting you. It is an expert on your every weakness and fear.

Needless to say it worked out totally different to the pictures I had built up in my mind. I hung around the stage as Roy collected his stuff together following a gig at some college or other – I think it was the Queen Mary College. It didn’t take long for Roy to pack up. He travelled light in those days. All that was required was that he put his acoustic back in its case and collected his black notepad of lyrics, poems, ideas and thoughts together. I like the image of Roy gathering his thoughts. There were no Pas or cables, no gizmos or foot-pedals. Back then it was just Roy, an acoustic guitar and a couple of mics courtesy of the venue – unadulterated and naked. He sat and spilled it forth.

I stood there nervously waiting with my heart pounding and a lump in my throat. This was hardly the hipster of cool that I saw myself as; it was much more the adolescent fool. Still – nothing ventured – nothing gained.

Roy looked over and saw me. His face broke into a big warm smile and he strode over and grabbed me by the hand.

‘I’m glad you came over, man,’ Roy enthused shaking me by the hand. ‘I’ve seen you at a number of gigs and I was going to come and speak to you. It’s good to see you. Here. Here’s my number. Give us a bell and we’ll get together for a smoke or something.’ With that he scribbled on a page of his notepad, pressed a piece of paper into my hand and was gone, off to collect his paltry pay, and off back on the bus home to Kilburn to the flat he shared with Mocy, Nick and a range of pets. For gigs further afield he would catch the train or even hitch-hike but this was just down the road for him.

I had said nothing. I had his telephone number. I was ecstatic. It was like arranging your first date or something. I could not believe how it had gone. Roy had asked me to give him a ring and for us to get together and I had not said a word. I had not made a fool of myself.

I look back at that now and am amazed at the complete openness of the man. He was so friendly and generous to a complete stranger of a kid – so genuine. It is a measure of the open-hearted person he was back then.

Today’s Music to stop me going mad in Isolation – Bert Jansch!

Bert was an amazing acoustic guitarist and songwriter who came down from Scotland to be part of the London Scene in the mid-sixties.

The contemporary Folk scene had exploded in the mid-sixties owing to the Dylan effect. It had catapulted people like Donovan into the Pop Charts.

The London scene was focussed around places like Les Cousins in Soho and Bunjies near Charring Cross Road. It was where people like Roy Harper, Al Stewart, Jackson C Frank, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Davy Graham and Bert Jansch cut their teeth. A lot of Americans also dropped in – like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

I’d been introduced to John Renbourn and Bert Jansch by a school friend – Neil Furby – in 1965. I was already into Donovan and this first album by Bert seemed more authentic. I loved it – particularly the more political stuff like – Do You Hear Me Now.

I was sixteen and had my first motorbike which had given me the chance to get up to London. So I was able to go to see these guys live. It was at a Bert Jansch/John Renbourn concert at Les Cousins in 1967 that I first saw Roy Harper.

Later I’d go along to the Three Horseshoes pub basement on Tottenham Court Road to hear Pentangle play for free! Imagine that!! What would we pay for a dose of that now?

So today I’m going to reacquaint myself with the music of Bert Jansch!

Jackson C Frank and Roy Harper

Jackson C Frank

 

When I was playing Roy’s first album, back in 67, I didn’t know that ‘My Friend’ was about Jackson C Frank. It wasn’t until much later, when we were talking about the songs on that first album, for the book we were working on, that Roy told me all about his friend.

Jackson had a tragic life. At the age of eleven he was badly burned when a fire at his school killed fifteen of his classmates. It scarred him both physically and mentally.

In 1965, equipped with a batch of brilliant songs, Jackson sailed to England. Once here he established himself on the Folk Scene based around Les Cousins. Roy was also starting out and they became good friends. At the time Roy was going through his metaphysical stage, questioning infinity and reality, and the two of them would talk and laugh long into the night, probably very stoned, having deep conversations of a philosophical nature.

Jackson recorded his wonderful Paul Simon produced album in 1965. That’s when I discovered him. I was sixteen and a school friend by the name of Robert Ede introduced me to that album just after it was released. I loved it and still have the copy I bought back then. I have played it to death. It was an album that had a huge influence on everyone at the time because the melodic songs were so personal and introspective – a real departure from traditional styles. It certainly impacted on Roy as well as others like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, and had a profound impact on their song writing. Jackson, like Davy Graham, was a major inspiration for people in the progressive Folk Scene.

I started going to Les Cousins in 1967 (which is where I first saw Roy) but I did not encounter Jackson. That was because, following the album, he had suffered further mental problems (probably Post Traumatic Stress) and returned to the States.

He came back to England in 1968 and I was delighted to see him in a small pub on Ilford High Street. He was absolutely brilliant – such a warm character and great performance. He was so shy and modest. He sang all the songs from that first album and no others. My mate Pete and I sat at a table right at the front and loved every minute. Afterwards we stayed behind and had a chat with him. I cherish that.

I asked him about a second album. There had been much talk. He said there wasn’t one and that he’d suffered writer’s block. There were no new songs. I found that very sad.

Roy Harper was playing his important St Pancras Town Hall gig the following week and Jackson was supposed to have a guest spot (the only guest spot). I went along to that watershed Roy gig and was looking forward to see Jackson again. He never showed. I saw his friend there and asked after him. He told me that he wasn’t well.

I never saw him again and neither did Roy. He returned to the States shortly afterwards and suffered tragedy after tragedy (marriage split up, child dying, living on the street, having an eye shot out) before dying in 1999.

Roy’s song ‘My Friend’ was recorded in 1966 for his first album. It was about that first departure, when Jackson returned to New York.

And was it gold or is it silver, my friend?

I can hear you crying

Through the mist you stumble

And when you’ve taken that last sun

We’ll watch it in the darkness

Even though Jackson returned to England a year or so later that relationship never returned to what it had once been – probably because Roy’s life had become hectic with a lot of gigs, recording, a wife and kid. The freewheelin’ days were over.

Later, in the eighties, Roy talked very sadly and lovingly about his friend Jackson. They’d shared a lot in a short while and I reckon something of Jackson lives on in Roy’s song writing. He was a remarkable man and that first album still resonates with me.

Music for Today – to Cheer me Up in Isolation – Roy Harper

Today I shall be playing the music of Roy Harper! I shall listen to the poetic lyrics, the beautiful melodies and also the angst!

It will make me think, wonder and smile.

Roy is the greatest songwriter on the planet!