This year marks the 70th birthday of 2 of the greatest singer/songwriters that the world has known. Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known to the world as Bob Dylan celebrated his birthday yesterday, and Roy Harper celebrates his on 12th June.
Most people can be forgiven if they've never heard of Harper. He's a British artist who has had very limited commercial success, largely because he refused to compromise with the corporate music labels and has doggedly followed his own muse. And yet over the course of almost 50 years as a professional musician, he's produced 23 studio albums and as many again live and compilation albums full of extraordinary music.
Harper’s music has consistently rattled the cage of received ideas. His versatile, poetic sensibility has been employed in a wide range of song styles from romantic love songs to late-night mantras to blackly comedic throwaway numbers. From the start of his career he has been a brilliant percussive and fingerpicking guitarist, and he has extended the form over the years, allowing himself the space to stretch out in long, lyrically dense and mantrically repetitive odysseys of poetic thought. “I was writing long poems in the 50s,” says Harper, “none of which unfortunately made it past the first few moves of living quarters. My first inspiration was John Keats’s Endymion.”
I've loved Harper's music ever since I first saw him play live at my local college here in Stevenage sometime in 1969. He was booked as the support act for early British blues/rock pioneers Free, who were riding high in the charts with their big breakthrough hit 'Alright Now'. Free did a brilliant show with some exquisitely good playing from their sadly fated guitarist, Paul Kossoff.
But for my money, Roy Harper blew them off the stage.
So all in all, it was a much better gig than I expected, in fact probably the best gig I've ever been to.
I've seen Roy playing live many times since then, and to this day every live show of his has been special. Despite being a very angry man in his worldview, Roy has crafted strings of beautiful songs full of dense poetic imagery and coupled with extraordinarily uplifting musical accompaniments.
I have yet to see Dylan live, and I don't suppose I ever will now. But over the last couple of years I've tried to get to Roy's now infrequent live shows, fearing that each one would be his last. He has largely retired from public performance and lives very contentedly with his lovely wife Tracey in the delightful Irish town of Clonakilty, just west of Cork on the SW coast of Ireland.
I last saw Roy a couple of months ago in London. He had been asked to take part in a musical series to be broadcast on TV called 'Legends'. Each episode will contain interviews with the artist(s) and a live gig shot at Metropolis Studios in Chiswick W. London. I was amongst the lucky 120 people who saw the gig. And at the end of the gig, Roy mentioned that he would probably do just one more live gig, to mark his 70th birthday. His fans have been waiting in anticipation ever since.
Only just recently we heard that the gig had been set up for Nov 5 at what has become a favourite venue for Roy and his fans, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Its a 2900 seat concert space which retains the intimacy that is very much part of Roy's live shows. His wildly spacey rambling monologues introducing his songs are best appreciated in this setting. His performance at the same venue for his 60th birthday produced a cracker of a live 2-CD set, unfortunately I missed the gig itself as I was living and working in the USA at the time.
So I hoped very much that I would be able to get a ticket for this last gig. Tickets were expected to go on sale to the 'Friends of the Southbank Centre' last Friday, and over the weekend a few 'Stormcockers' - members of Roy's online fan club gleefully announced their acquisitions and noted that tickets were selling rapidly.
We had been told that tickets would go on sale to the general public on Monday 23 May.
There was just one snag for me.
I've been jobless for a while now, and reliant on JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) - a 2-weekly payment from the UK Government to anyone available for work and demonstrably seeking it. The problem was I had been living in Hastings on the South Coast for a couple of months and had only recently returned to Stevenage. You would have thought this shouldn't be a big deal, but the UK bureaucracy can be notoriously slow, unhelpful and to be quite blunt incompetent. I had completed all the necessary paperwork at my local Jobcentre 2 Fridays ago and been advised that my JSA should be paid into my bank account the previous Wednesday (18th). Of course it came and went without any money arriving in my account. The same on Thursday. On Friday, I spent all day attempting to phone the JSA claimants centre, getting put on hold for 20 minutes at a time before the line would eventually go dead.
On Monday, I tried again and got through at about 10am. After re-answering all the questions that I'd answered at my local Jobcentre, I was told that the money would be paid into my account later that day and that I should receive a phone call to confirm the payment within 3 hours.
At about 2pm I got through to them again, explained about the lack of return phone call and lack of money in my account......and went through the whole cycle of answering all the questions I'd answered last time. This time payment and a confirmatory phone was promised 'within the hour'.
At about 3.20pm I got through to them again, explained about the lack of return phone calls and lack of money in my account......and got transferred to a team leader, where I went through the whole cycle of answering all the questions I'd answered last time. This time payment and a confirmatory phone was promised for 'tomorrow morning'. I told her that I would be made homeless if I didn't give my landlord some money today and asked if there was any way to pick up a payment from my local Jobcentre. 'Yes', she says, 'I'll arrange that for you, you should get a phone call to confirm it within the hour, and you'll have to get down to your Jobcentre by 5pm with some form of ID'. I confirmed that I was able to do that and waited with bated breath. At 4.30pm I was just about to call them again when they called back. 'I've arranged for you to pick up a Girocheque from your local Jobcentre tomorrorow at 9am' sez she. 'Umm, please I really desperately need some money today, I've already explained that I'll be made homeless if I don't pay some money to my landlord. 'Oh OK' says she, 'if you head to you Jobcentre right now, I'll let them know you're coming to pick it up tonight'. I jumped on my trusty bicycle and pedalled furiously into town.
I got to the Jobcentre at 4.40 and explained the position to the receptionist. She looked on all of her lists and confirmed she knew nothing about my story. 'I'll just check with the Finance team' sez she. About 5 minutes later I was shown into a room to wait for a cashier. Another 5 mins and he opens up his till, I show him my passport and Jobseeker papers, sign a piece of paper for him and finally get given the Girocheque. A couple more minutes and I'm in the Post Office getting the Giro cashed. Then onto my bank just before closing time at 5pm to pay the money into my account.
Then high-tailed it back home, where it was time to prepare dinner. I live with my 85-year old father and we share cooking duties. Having got dinner on, I logged on and found the Southbank Centre website. It took a while to navigate to Roy's gig in November as the site just allows you to look at events up to three months in advance. Eventually I find the gig, click on the 'Buy Tickets' button.....and it comes up 'This event has now sold out'
Here is a selection of Roy's songs, there are lots more on youtube
'Another Day' - a beautifully poignant love song
'I Hate the White Man' - one of his 'Angry' songs, and reckoned to be one of his best
'Same Old Rock' - one of his long poetical songs, accompanied by his son Nick Harper