by Robert Forryan

 The Sophisticated Beggar


Roy Harper walked onto the small stage at about 9.00pm. He just strolled on from the back wearing a long-sleeved casual shirt, buttoned at the neck and wrists, and pale corduroy trousers. He was carrying what looked like an A4 writing pad upon which seemed to be scrawled, in large lettering, the set list for the evening. This was 17 October, 2002, The Lemon Grove, Exeter University – a small venue that was nearly full with an audience of some 200 persons (both sexes, all ages). He might have been one of the university’s lecturers coming to give a seminar on Huxley’s ‘The Doors Of Perception’ – if anyone studies such things anymore. These days Harper has longish, wispy grey hair and beard, adding to the professorial aura. As he tuned his acoustic guitar in homage to the traditions of ‘60s folk music, I thought how good it would be to see Bob Dylan alone and unplugged in such an intimate setting, and how much I would like to see Dylan so casually dressed.

The 9 o’clock appearance was because Roy’s son, Nick, had done a warm-up set of 7 or 8 songs – also performed solo and acoustic – in which he had performed with great verve and strummed so rapidly and so hard (Richie Havens-like) that he broke a string.

Roy himself opened with 3 or 4 songs solo before Nick joined him onstage to provide additional electric or acoustic guitar as needed. A Roy Harper concert is almost as much about the between-song chat as it is about the music. He talked to the small audience and, sometimes, we talked back and he would respond in turn to our words, often humorously, always warmly.

Roy still carries the torch for the dreams and ideals of the Sixties – addressing us in vague, absent-minded professorial tones about the environment, resistance to religion, opposition to the death penalty, peace, war, time and space, eternity and Red Giants. He never once sounded preachy or self-righteous, but he reminded us of what the Sixties had meant, and he spoke quietly, calmly and without rhetoric – like a man who knew his place in the Cosmos and who would be able to die, whenever the time came, at ease with himself.

His songs covered many of the same themes. He said he had deliberately set out on this tour to sing some of his lesser-known songs. Roy played a sweet, mellow guitar and his voice was as clear and pure as mineral water – you would never think he had inhaled tobacco in his life. This man – born just 19 days after Bob Dylan in 1941 – is living proof that the voice does not have to deteriorate with the years.

I am struggling to remember as much about a magical evening as I can. I remember his antipathy towards capital punishment and him saying how its presence in the world – in America as well as Iraq – demeaned us all. I recall him speaking of how he couldn’t imagine how lost and rejected must be the feelings of the innocent who are sentenced to death, and of how a world in which all nations renounced capital punishment would immediately grow in true humanity. In saying this, he acknowledged the horror of some recent murders but argued that state murder in return was not the answer. Linked to this theme he stated his disdain for the warmongers, but said that George W and Saddam should not be executed but locked up together in the same room until they somehow discovered their common humanity. His contempt for politicians should be taken as read.

At another point Roy talked of how Miles Davis had been one of his heroes and of how affected he was by Davis’ death. He described Davis’ music as being about space and then played his tribute to the jazz man, ‘Miles Remains’. In the process of performing this 1992 song, Harper created so many sounds with one acoustic guitar that it was possible to close your eyes and imagine you were listening to a four-piece band. In other words, Roy himself created the space for more and more music – music that was in itself the sound of astronomical space. Simply lovely.

I hope that I have not made Roy Harper sound too good to be true. He was certainly not sanctimonious in any sense. His chat was filled with much humour but I cannot recall all the best things he said. I do remember that before singing ‘The Sophisticated Beggar’ he told a tale of his early days as a busker and of how his wife used to collect the cash: “She was a zoologist and botanist. Come to think of it, there are a few botanical smells wafting across this stage just now”.

Near the end he talked of his home on the west coast of Ireland and how, after a hot day followed by a cold night, the mists roll in over the valleys creating the impression of a ghostly inland sea where you might see the ‘Marie Celeste’. And then he sang the song he wrote about such days – ‘The Green Man’:

And slowly I can feel me
Slipping peacefully away
Moment by each moment
To some future yesterday

Roy Harper is an English original. Being in the same room as this man was a pleasure, a privilege and a totally life-enhancing experience. He made you appreciate what matters in, and what is precious about, this life. What more can you ask of an artist or a friend? I left the theatre feeling uplifted. For a few hours Harper had made me feel, not just that I was a better person than I am, but that humanity itself may even be redeemable – though he doesn’t believe in any deity.

At the end Roy Harper responded to our applause by quietly and gently clapping his hands in a gesture of thanks. Then he said ‘thank you’ and how much he’d enjoyed the evening and hoped he would be with us again sometime. And he meant it. It had all been so gentle, so moving, yet so low key and free of popstar grimaces and posing, that I’m tempted to say it was all quintessentially English. There – I’ve said it.