Music: All lies! A total fabrication!
Roy Harper has given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a sheep. He lives in Gormenghast Castle. And he's far, far grumpier than Van Morrison. Still, by all accounts he is a folk legend.
Friday 30 October 1998
It may have been a set-up. But then, the Eighties were something of a lost weekend for all manner of dinosaur types. A decade on, and such Seventies giants as Page & Plant, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull are hobbling around with some measure of digitally remastered dignity. Even The Incredible String Band have toyed with the comeback scenario. And guru to them all, peddling his musical dreamscapes, folkish philosophising and singular reputation for ire and outrage, is Roy Harper. He has just embarked on a UK tour, promoting The Dream Society, the best album he's made in years. Still, the question has to be asked: it's 1998 - isn't Harper just an irrelevant old hippy?
"Well," says Harper, "how can I put this concisely? There's no smoke without fire."
An hour's drive to the west of Cork, down dark and winding back roads, you arrive at The Old Convent, a fabulous, Gormenghastian pile in the unillumined landscape. It combines candlelit charm, a dependable set of dictionaries and the sort of modernist home studio and Internet attachments essential to a rurally inspired rock survivor. Roy Harper, like his neighbours Noel Redding and Donovan, is clearly getting it together in the country. I marvel at his home.
"Well, it's getting there," says Roy, using a tone somewhere between gruff and modest, and twiddling a moustache that pitches its hammock somewhere between Colonel Sanders and Fu Man Chu. "Curmudgeonly" is his reputation. "Curmudgeonly, yes, that's what my reputation is," Roy admits. "But I met Van Morrison once and he was far worse than I would ever dream of being. I'm nothing like that."
He never did get on Top Of The Pops, but Roy Harper has, by stealth, found his way into the affections of English pop's brightest stars - Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Pete Townshend and the like. And who could forget, on Led Zeppelin III, the suitably impenetrable "Hats Off to Harper"? "I went up to their office one day, and Jimmy said, `Here's the new record.' `Oh thanks,' I said, and tucked it under my arm... `Well look at it then!'"
He also sang lead on Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar", and he's still a bit miffed that his chosen fee - a ticket to Lord's for life - has never been honoured. "I asked Roger [Waters] for 16 years, but it never came," he says. "And then I moved house. I must say, I am noticing a distinct lack of invitation to Pink Floyd events these days."
Perhaps it's his candour that gets Harper his fearsome reputation, but, this mild grudge aside, his talk is full of warmth and humour. It could be the pastoral lifestyle. "I get up early and walk for a mile and a half, and that blows a few layers off," he says. "I know what's living round here and I always check on them. I have a roll-call when I go outside and it starts with this little goldcrest that's nesting in the garden. At the larger end of the scale there's foxes, badgers and deer. In fact, there's this chattering magpie I'm thinking of putting on a record."
Might his raging muse be stilled at last? "Ah, well, what happens after I've been out is I'll take in the news, and it's nearly always farcical," he says, his eyes widening with intensity. "It's a heinous joke, full of conceit and deceit and people who are self-important, from Joe Bloggs to the Prime Minister..." So, no worries there then.
When he was 15, Roy ran away and joined the RAF. He ended up in a mental hospital, did a spell in prison for a succession of minor misdemeanours and eventually wound up - like Donovan, Bert Jansch, Billy Connolly and other great names - a doyen of Soho's vibrant Sixties folk club scene. He speaks long and fondly of all his contemporaries as a virtual brotherhood. And there's a reminder implicit in that reflection that for every dope- addled ode to anarchy he ever composed there would be a fearless, razor- sharp observation on modern society. You think of "I Hate the White Man" (target, South Africa); "Government Surplus" (Thatcherism's rejection of youth); "The Black Cloud of Islam". He is still waiting for his fatwah.
Profound moments aside, if there's one tale that guarantees Harper's perennial notoriety it is the one involving the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of a sheep.
"A total fabrication!" he says, with surprising good humour. "The most public of all my stories, and there's not a single grain of truth in it. A lot of that stuff came from [the erstwhile publicist] BP Fallon and also a lot from this particular breed of TV producer I used to run into in the Seventies. These fragile, effete individuals - the moment anybody brought anything like a challenge in the door, then suddenly that person became, er... curmudgeonly."
Media luvvies notwithstanding, the declared object of Harper's artistry is to communicate with all ages on equal terms. It's something he learned in his youth from the late Alex Campbell - a melancholy Scot and pretty much Britain's first professional travelling folk singer.
"Alex and I did a gig together at The Marquee and we were chatting afterwards. He looked at me with a kind of knowing smile and said, `Ah, ye young whipper- snappers. Ye'll be the death o' me.' It was as if he was saying, `OK, you're here now, you're taking the reins, so get on with it.' He was a lovely guy. He could relate to his generation and to mine. I've never forgotten that. I never ever patronise young people. You could be meeting a kid who'll be the next Pablo Picasso, and all he's got to remember you by is the one time he met you. Each time you meet someone, you meet them historically."
So 31 years after his first album - with virtually his entire back catalogue available, admirably enhanced for CD through his own Science Friction label - does The Artist Formerly Known as The Loony on the Bus have anything left to offer?
"What I do have to offer," he says with rigorous precision, "is a lot of what's gone before, but also a wisdom that unfortunately only comes with age. It won't be easy. I'm not an easy person to come and see, unless you know me. And then I'm very easy. If you've been to a Roy gig three or four times you're likely to become a heckler, likely to plumb the depths of your own imagination. Like `Show us your bum, Roy!'"
And there, in mutual hysterics, the conversation draws to a close, the magpie chortles and somewhere, far away, a young man picks up a paintbrush and thinks of Roy.
`The Dream Society' is out now on Science Friction Records. Roy Harper plays Southport Arts Centre (01704 540011) tonight and tours the UK until 16 December
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