A Skype call to Eire got me straight through to Roy Harper, whose retrospective double CD "Songs of Love And Loss" is already in the shops and on-line stores. The new album is a selection from the most personal and lyrical side of Harper's wide-ranging repertoire. It is rather good.
The time for our conversation was short so I suggested to Roy that he might like to busk on three themes while I tried to stay out of it. I offered the themes of "playing with other guitarists", "women" and "death". Not surprisingly death came along in that last part of the conversation where least can be said.
Roy started with his thoughts on the theme of playing with other guitarists. It's worth mentioning, given what Roy said, that his back catalogue includes some illustrious collaborators: Jimmy Page, Chris Spedding, John Renbourne, David Gilmour and his son Nick Harper in particular.
RH: Roy Harper, SS Sam Saunders
RH: Well, playing with others has been sometimes inspirational and sometimes bloody awful to be honest. But actually, I never ... when I first started out all I wanted to be was a poet. So, you know I wasn't a musician really, to speak of, not for money ... to speak of, until I was in my early twenties .... Yes, I'd picked up a guitar at the age of fourteen and I was playing blues on the street at the age of 18 and all that kind of stuff but I didn't really regard myself as a guitarist at all, until I was in my early 20s.
So playing with other people was kind of, always, a bit strange because even by the time I was 20 my style was so idiosyncratic that it was difficult for other people to kind of understand the things I was doing. And then you throw into the mix the influence that I got from Davy Graham, which practically everybody else did as well ... you know , the influence of sitar and North African instruments ... all of that kind of thing that was going on in the late 60s early 70s where there was a real fusion going on between British folk music and all other kinds of music.
And I of course was a jazz aficionado for all of my youth, which came from the blues ... blues into traditional jazz into mainstream jazz into modern jazz and into avant garde jazz ... all the way through. So that I was a kind of fully-formed, solo, idiosyncratic entity before I met up with other people who said "OK, what tuning are you in?" ... kind of thing.
SS: A lot of tunings ... ?
RH: Yeh, and so it was quite difficult and it always has been for me to play with others. I've got to actually arrange, because I'm not a real ... the only two people I've ever ad-libbed with in my life are Dave Swarbrick and John Paul Jones. And, you know I've never actually ad-libbed ... I guess I did with ‘The Nice', on Flat Baroque And Berserk.. during "Hells Angels". That was another time I did it. I'm not that kind of a guitarist. Although I listened to spontaneous music all the time in my teens as it were (you know … jazz ... and jazz guitar ... ) I didn't actually get into that myself, I was more, much more interested in writing words, in being in the poetry.
It only occurred to me when I was about 20, 21 that actually I should be combining the poetry and the song and putting them together because everybody else was doing it. And that's the reason that I became a singer rather than a poet in effect. So, you know, playing with other people was always difficult and it's not been really that successful ... because I always feel, one of the other reasons.. I always feel that when I have a band I owe more to them than I do to the audience because I've never been in that position. I was never in that position as a young person where I was able to turn round to the audience and forget what was at the back of me. Because what was occasionally at the back of me as a 27 year old in a band was something completely new to me. If I had grown up as a 14 year old and had a band I would treat them as, probably, as arrogantly as band members treat each other, generally, who have grown up together.
SS: Do bands limit you?
RH: Yes, they do. Because I feel as though I have to be part of the band.. relate to them, rather than relating to the audience. It's the audience that matter. So I'm at a disadvantage there in some ways with a band because I didn't grow up with one.
On the other hand I've had some spectacular successes, particularly playing with Jimmy Page and my own son Nick. which have been really rewarding experiences. But actually that's just with two people and it's much easier to handle a duo.
So, that's actually just the beginning. We've scratched the surface of guitars now. Playing guitars.
SS: I remember seeing you in 1968 in Birmingham doing a support with Pentangle and as a young guitar player myself I was astonished at what I heard, I must say. From your guitar playing. For that evening your guitar playing was the revelation. I knew the other guys already, but that was the first time I'd seen you. That was Birmingham Town Hall I think. In the Autumn. Exciting times 1968.
RH: Ah, Birmingham Town Hall, yes.
SS: Do you want to move on to either of the other themes? The women? The loves?
RH: Yes ... I mean ... My problem I guess, and it is a problem ... is centred around.. has a genesis in my childhood, and whose doesn't? You live with your childhood for the rest of your life. But I had a fifteen year pitched battle with my step-mother. Until I left. You know, I left at the first opportunity when I was fifteen. It was a pitched battle and you know I had a feeling at the end of it that if it wasn't… if it hadn't been declared a draw, I had definitely won. And that was my attitude. And it's a very bad attitude because it didn't set me up for future relationships, for loving and giving relationships with women for the rest of my life. Because if you have fought with an adult woman during your childhood – all your childhood – and you got the better of her on a number ... on countless occasions, because, as you get to know her, as you become an adult you can't look after what a kid is doing all the time. You just cant do it. And you know, I was an escapee and I did escape and it caused trouble. And I caused quite a lot of trouble. I mean, as far as I was concerned, she was causing trouble for me so I caused trouble for her. And so it was sheer antipathy from year one to year fifteen.
So when I came out of that ... it wasn't an auspicious beginning I have to say because you tend to go into relationships with other women, actually on a much better ... not with that amount of antipathy at all, not at all. You go into a potential relationship with a girl in a loving way. But I, perhaps, wasn't able in my younger life to give as much as I should and I took things for granted a lot and, you know I don't know whether that was kind of "bloke" behaviour or whether it was just kind of me. But I was very very ... I was absolutely set in my ways by the time I was 10. I learned to deal with people, with adults, and once I was an adult myself I had a wisdom that probably belied my years and yet I was still a fool.
And so my relations with women were really ... sometimes they were very patchy. When I should have given more to one or two relationships that could have lasted a lifetime.. where I just drifted. So it wasn't a case of argument or of falling out or anything like that it was just a case of me drifting and mainly me, sometimes both of us. But mainly me. And my childhood has stood me in good stead all of these years for having relationships that are not stable in that way. And I say it "stood me in good stead" because it's actually the wrong way to come out of them.. not.. without being hurt. But there are a number of occasions when I have been. They are very bad experiences and you do reflect ... in songs ... and ...
SS: They're very delicate and sensitive ... the songs ... aren't they? They're not all battles. There's real tenderness in many of them. That must come from somewhere.
RH: Yes, there is, and I have always, always, desired tenderness. Always. And I never had it. I never had it from the woman I first knew. But I always craved it. I always craved, perhaps attention from a woman. From someone who was going to give me that advice I'd never had. And we're talking about psychological, deeply psychological stuff which I say I don't talk about a lot. In fact I don't think I've ever spoken about it before ... not at this depth. It's character building for sure, but it does actually fall down now and again because ... because in my own experience of being rather lackadaisical sometimes about a relationship, they can disintegrate. Disintegration is something that you don't want at all and it can end up in a very sad place altogether ...
SS: We're nearly up to time. I was going to ask about death. But do I need to?
RH: I don't know. I mean ... "Waiting For Godot"
SS: That's it. I'll listen again. I have been loving these songs over the last two days.
RH: Well Thanks Sam, that's great. But there's a down point, after tea time. The after tea bell has been wrung.. But close of play is not for a good couple of hours yet. A whole session in fact.
SS: Yes. "When The Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease" Hah! That's a famous song, That's a great one.
This interview was first published in the Leeds magazine "Vibrations" on September 17 2011 and is republished here with their kind permission.