ROY Harper has come to a realisation: Having reached the age of 75, he is now likely to be around when he’s 80. He’s finally going to become a pensioner.
“I could actually put in for my old age pension, which I have not done for 10 years,” he says. “I had this altruistic idea that somebody needed it more than I do. Now I have been told by my partner that I ought to take it.”
A long-time resident of West Cork, he says he is not going to dip into the takings of his adopted land; instead, he’ll collect the English pension he’s due from the country of his birth.
“I think there are actually other people in this country who are in need of what I could grab from the exchequer of this country.”
He might be of pensionable age but Harper isn’t putting his feet up. As well as a series of gigs in the UK, he’s also playing a show at St Luke’s on Thursday as part of the Cork Folk Festival.
The UK gigs were announced earlier this year as part of his 75th birthday celebrations, and during the summer he tuned up by playing at Monk’s Lane bar in Timoleague, on his actual birthday, before returning to the stage in the famous De Barra’s in Clonakilty at the end of August, with guitarist Bill Shanley as his onstage musical foil.
BACK ON FORM
A few days later, he’s feeling good, if a bit knackered, although that might have more to do with the bottles of cava and white wine he’s been sharing with friends who popped over recently for a visit.
“What the hell am I doing?” he says, laughing, as he reprises his pre-gig consumption, not that it mattered when it came to going on stage. “I was kind of a bit nervous but I skated over the top of everything, everybody else did too.”
There were a few mistakes, he adds, but nothing major. “It was kind of refreshing because everybody was up for it, everybody in the room was up for it, so I couldn’t go wrong.” As he tweeted earlier this year: “De Barra’s is the nearest thing to the folk clubs I was playing in when I first started, and it feels like home to me.”
For a 75-year-old who has been around the block more than once, Harper looks well. His movements, like his speech, are deliberate, not dulled. The trademark beard has some Musketeer-like flourishes at the points of the chin and the moustache. A half pint of pale ale goes largely untouched over the course of our lengthy conversation. Sometimes, when he engages with a stream of thought and his eyes are cast out into the middle distance, he almost has an ambient air.
This is a man who, arguably, has already lived a life and a half. Born in a suburb of Manchester, he lost his mother when he was still a baby. By the age of 15, he “jumped from the frying pan into the fire” by leaving home to join the Royal Air Force — “probably the biggest leap I ever took”. The leaping wasn’t finished there — two years later he wanted out; a tall order, as he recalls. He feigned madness and found himself undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. “One ECT treatment, that was enough,” he quips.
Legging it from a mental institution, he hit the road and began his career as a musician, recording a number of acclaimed albums, including the classic Stormcock, which has been hailed as an influence by performers such as Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes.
He hung around with his friends in Led Zeppelin, who wrote ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’, and he contributed vocals to Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here.
Harper endured a fractious wrangle with a wing of EMI records which he claims damaged his career; then, in the 1980s he ended up so in debt — not of his own making but instead attributed to a business associate — that his home was repossessed.
“My life has actually been full of upheaval, so I am not a stranger to it,” he says. Not a fan of rehearsing, he has been working on new material in what appears to have been a burst of creativity. “I have written two songs during the mess and thought of many more,” says Harper. “There are reams of ideas.”
This is the first mention of “the mess”. Last year Harper was acquitted of historic sex abuse charges dating back to the 1970s, having always proclaimed his innocence. Speaking outside Worcester Crown Court afterwards, he said: “The psychological cost to myself and my wife has been enormous and the financial cost is hugely unfair. I lost my livelihood and I spent my savings and more on my defence.”
He doesn’t want to dwell on “the nightmare” that transpired, only to say that he still feels a deep anger and hurt over it all. One of the new songs he has written is called ‘Salem’. It’s a good song, he says, “but it can’t be sung yet”.
Better instead to look to the future. As he tweeted late last year: “I’ve lost some momentum but I’m back...” In this year of disappearing musicians, that counts for something. “It’s quite strange because being the most unwell of all of the members of my contemporaries, a lot of them are dying before me, which is quite weird.
“From where I stand now there is nothing wrong with me so it’s looking likely that I’ll make 80 and that is going to be really strange because none of the males in my family lived past the age I am now.”
Previous generations of his family never made it into their seventies, so mortality be damned.
He admits that there is a financial imperative to continuing to record and play live, but you get the feeling he would want to continue in any case. “One of the things that has happened that’s positive is I have decided, OK, I have absolutely nothing to lose now. What did I want to do way back when?”
New songs will follow, a tour of Europe is likely, more chapters in a life with many years left in it.
In a recent blog post, Harper mused about his upcoming return to the stage: “Am I singing the right songs? — er.. Dear Roy, can you please sing songs full of political angst this time? Dear Roy, Can you please sing love songs this time, instead of all that loud angry stuff. Dear Roy, Can you drop all that boring historical stuff next time you tour?”
Looking ahead to the concerts, he has an undeniable air of quiet confidence. The audiences are going to get all of the above, he says with a laugh, “the full gamut, the whole thing, and some of it,” he adds, pointing his finger as if at a bullseye, “is going to do that.”
When we met in De Barra’s, the Damien Dempsey version of the Pogues’ ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ was playing. It’s tempting to frame Harper among the lyrics: “I sang you all my sorrows, I told you all my joys.” But maybe one of his own famous songs, ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’, is more appropriate — except with one key difference. Harper is still out on the field. The nightwatchman, still swinging.
Cork Folk Festival: best of the rest
- The Unthanks + John Blek, Live at St Luke’s, 8pm
- Atlantic Arc Orchestra: Donal Lunny (pictured), etc, Cork School of Music, 8pm
- Lynched + Morning Veils, Live at St Luke’s, 8pm
- PLUCK on PLUNKETT, Oliver Plunkett St, street music party, 3pm-6pm
- Céilí Mór, Allow Céilí Band, Seán Ó Sé, etc. City Hall, 2pm-5pm
- Mick Flannery, Cork Opera House, 8pm
For details of other gigs, sessions, workshops, and more, see the website corkfolkfestival.com