Songwriters are those minstrels/troubadours, strange mysterious creatures who hold a mirror up to our times or pour their tortured souls out for us to observe their innermost thoughts. They are our higher selves connecting with our souls to bring us truth and light. Or on occasion they are crazed loons screaming into the storms of life.
I have been tossing and turning trying to decide who to write about and how to write, I have unfinished thoughts on many a songwriter percolating in my mind. Let’s face it songwriter covers a lot of territory from Burt Bacharach to Taylor Swift, via Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and those other tortured souls from the 60’s and 70’s and beyond. It’s hard to know where to begin.
Recent events in the media have taken me to strange places thought wise as I have tried to find a way into this subject. I wanted to write about Ian McNabb or Mike Scott, really wanted to think about Van the Man or Neil Young, maybe Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Patti Smith or Dave Brock, not to mention Bob Calvert, John Martyn is a favorite or how about Simon Nicol, that one would be easy he has only released one song and a tune in his name, or Richard Thompson the list could go on and on.
I was attempting to come to terms with gun culture and paranoia and all I could think about was the moment on Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion when an audience member shouts “White Man” and Roy bellows back “you’ve got a white man.” I knew I wanted to write about Roy Harper but didn’t really know how.
A few years ago I loaned Death or Glory to a friend and he came back the very next day and handed it back to me. “He feels too much” was the comment. I think that is what we need now is to feel too much. From day one of his recorded output Roy has felt a lot, he also has done the other side of this which is to tell the world what he is feeling. In another age I may have mentioned his beautiful love songs, that are poetic, honest and earthy. However this is the time to think of his social commentary, he is not a protest singer and does not write protest songs. He does write commentary on our human nature, spiritual and political but ultimately how we connect as humans. His strength is he will happily tell you how he feels and thinks, he will however not tell the listener how to think or what to do, he is a chronicler of our baser and better natures.
This year for the first time in 35 plus years I put on a watch. There are many complicated reasons including some to do with health why I made this decision, it did however feel like an abandonment of an ideal. 35 years or so ago I was sat on the floor when Roy sang the line “with your god on your left wrist.” This had a profound affect on me, I took my watch off and threw it into the mud under the pier in Southport, I would say sea but anyone who knows Southport would know the tide seldom comes in. Since that day I walked through the world with no really convenient way to tell the time. This made me look up for clocks, talk to people in the street and at times turn up late for meetings. It also meant I saw and met people I may not have if I had been able to look at my wrist.
Then cell phones arrived and suddenly time telling was part of my life again. I was pushed into being even more disconnected from the passerby and stranger. I no longer had to exit my own comfort zone for a mundane reason. To combat this I have forced myself into the decision to make the attempt to connect with people during the day, to attempt to talk to one stranger at least in some way even saying good morning/afternoon/evening or thank you. Now I have the ultimate tool for (dis)connection in an Applewatch, now I can be contacted anywhere at any time, tracked, monitored and at the beck and call of work, home and anyone who has the number. In some small way I feel like I have compromised my ideals.
So this week as I along with the rest of the USA dealt with the ultimate result of disconnection in mass murder I turned to Roy. For 52 years he has been holding the mirror up to humanity. Singing into the wind like the Stormcock. I listened to idiots demanding that our schools become fortresses manned by armed teachers so our children can be caught in the crossfire. I watched the NRA spout hate and our politicians prostitute their souls on national TV and the children sound more adult than the be-suited men and women that sought to belittle them and steal their voice.
Like Roy so many times on stage I pointed a finger at myself and you and hollered:
“While outside in the whitewash
Where the guns are always, always right
A shooting star has summoned
Its dark angel from his night
And I hate the whiteman
And his evergreen excuse
Oh I hate the whiteman
And the man who turned you all loose
And the man who turned me loose…”
So for 52 years Roy has kept his message pretty consistent, go listen to the records, take some time to be still and contemplate the world we have made for our children and what they are saying to us now. He may be flawed, opinionated but like any truly great artist he holds the mirror up and shows us ourselves, the difference with Roy is he places himself right there in the frame too.
Here is a brief selection of lyrics from every album, enjoy, squirm and get angry.
“You teach the children fear to gain some easy applause…”
October 12th from Sophisticated Beggar. 1966
“The social game we live in is based on possession
And if you think you own a body then you’re playing
But if you think you own anything you must be mad”
Come Out Fighting Ghenghis Smith from well that album…1968
“I’m the rich man, the poor man, the peace man, the war man, the beast
The festive consumer who ends up consumed in the feast”
MsGoohans Blues from Folkjokeopus. 1969.
“How does it feel with your god strapped to your wrist?
And him leading you such a chase?”
How Does It Feel from Flat Baroque and Berserk. 1970.
“And you tell me that Grandad was a hero
That he fought for peace and no more guns
But you know I think he must have changed his name to Nero
You see that every time he grunts, he kills his sons.”
One Man Rock’n’Roll Band from Stormcock. 1971
From God and the state
Of homo his shadow
The well known long haired straight”
Highway Blues form Lifemask. 1973.
“To think of my friends underneath the same roof in one common destination
When all we do is remain aloof like we have no close relation”
Commune from Valentine.1974.
“Where once were men are now but sheep
-A fiction and far cry
From planet earth’s proud animal
-Who would be you and I.”
The Spirit Lives from HQ. 1975.
“We might have to take the world the way we made it
It seems we have to find a fight
Though some of us ain’t satisfied with less than any Universe
I’m not sure that any side is right.”
These Last Days from Bullinamingvase. 1977
“And I cry in my sleep
For all the hungry children
And the unbelieving sheep.”
The Unknown Soldier, well from that album 1980.
“All of my life I’ve been chasing reality
All that I write is a dream
But some dreams come true
Though it’s only a few
The most are off-beam
And all that I see are the ghosts of the robbers
Who laid all these traps
Where blind politicians made desperate decisions
With wall to wall cops”
Work of Heart, from that self same album. 1982.
:Whatever persuasion you are
You must open your door
If you mean to meet
Come and be counted in whispers of multitude
And come on your own feet
I’d love to be able to say
My old grandmother marched
To people the street”
Elizabeth from Whatever Happened to Jugula. 1985.
“But what I say ain’t worth a sheet
Is it mother?
Breaking methane through the seat
Lighting it to warm my feet
How we gonna cool the heat
Cool it mother
And don’t make a fuss
They’ll think you’re just a loony sitting next to me on the bus”
Loony on the Bus from well again that album. 1988.
“The young folk in my country
Deserve the truth
Uncluttered by deception
In the flower of their youth
What they have are gutter papers
Biased news clandestine capers
Run by shady operators”
Government Surplus from Descendants of Smith. 1988.
“The world you died for, was all but a pack of lies
It had to fall down, and keep on falling
You gave us the world they promised you,
And in the morning
We are the flowering
We are the flowering youth
Berliners from Once. 1990.
“Left right left right
The war came home tonight
Set alight by satellite
Drenched in tracer bullet bright
Left right left right
The newsmen stir their appetite
Camera zooming every goof
Shooting ratings bullet proof
Desperate to generate
A crisis to manipulate
You’ll wonder where the country went
In the target rich environment”
The War Came Home Tonight, from Death or Glory. 1992.
“Come the revolution
You’ll be brushed aside
By the wisdom of the teeming millions
Who know that money stinks
That possession is against the mind and soul of destination”
Come the Revolution from, The Dream Society, 1998.
“The revolution’s always over
The apocalypse is now
All hands are on the keyboard
Hardly any on the plough
The new government’s the old one
Same old handbags at the helm
Lapsing back into religion
Letting voices overwhelm:
The Monster from The Green Man. 2000
“The punters gather at primetime
On the flat screens of their dreams
To vote for dumb celebrity
And witter into gathering storms
Of universal screams
The great shampooed are stranded
With the cowgirls in the sand
Here in Cloud Cuckooland
We are condemned
We are condemned
The same mistakes
Over and over and over and over
And over and over again”
Cloud Cuckooland from Man and Myth. 2013.