Holiday Harper

May 6, 2013

Just over a year back i wrote a post glue-ing together video-music clips from four ages of Joni Mitchell. There is a strange feeling of resolution tracing the history of creative artists – musicians, actors, writers – whose lives have paralleled your own, maybe ten years ahead. Because I can’t quite work out whether I am on holiday or not, I will start the morning with another hippy music arc-of-life trip. Here is another singer-songwriter who has intrigued, moved, and baffled me in almost equal measure over four decades : Roy Harper. Many will know him as that bloke what Zeppelin wrote a song for, or the geezer what sang on that Pink Floyd number. A smaller number of dedicated fans see him as one of the key hippy bards of the sixties. At that time I still preferred childish pursuits like cricket in the park. I turned onto him in the early seventies in my undergraduate days. My copy of Stormcock is worn paper thin.

Here is the brash young man, on a mystery recording that may or may not have in Sweden in 1969, singing Hells Angels. He looks scarily like I did in 1973 when I first heard him – long fair hair, scruffy beard, friendly but sarcastic. (Free speech ! One each !)

In 1971 Harper produced something quite unique on Stormcock – four extended and meandering pieces with striking but baffling lyrics. (I never know what time of day it is, on my battlefield of ideas.) At the same time he is still writing simpler but beautiful songs, soaked in memory and vibrations of lost opportunity. Here he is in 1974, a smooth and mature performer on the safe-as-milk Beeb Two show The Old Grey Whistle Test, singing Commune :

Through the later seventies and eighties Harper split into two halves, writing rock songs, but also even more songs awash with nostalgia and the passage of time, like When An Old Cricketer Leases The Crease. Meanwhile, he is still performing the extra-ordinary work from Stormcock. Here is the middle aged artist on an Australian TV show in 1986, performing One Man Rock and Roll Band on semi-electric guitar. It has evolved into something somehow fluid and phantasmagorical :

Finally here is Roy in his seventies, playing on Later with Jools Holland in 2011. I have chosen his performance of Another Day, a famous song from the the 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk. (Younger folk will know the cover version by This Mortal Coil). I think of this song as the hippy version of To His Coy Mistress. (Oh really my dear / I can’t see what we fear / Sat here with ourselves in between us.) It is very moving to hear an old man singing such a song from his youth. What was, and what could have been.

I am aware that all the songs I have chosen were written in a short window of time, given Roy’s five decade writing career. But they were the nicest video clips, and show the man evolving if not the songs.

Hats Off To Harper.

Four Ages of Joni

April 13, 2012

Enough of this  computer nostalgia. Time for some music nostalgia. This evening I have been meandering around the YouTube landscape, as you do, and found myself settling comfortably into Joni Mitchell valley. Joni is an extra-ordinary figure. A genuine pop star but also a song writing genius, a poet, and a painter. Joni has been with me most of my life. Its fascinating looking back at the evolution of an artist.

Here she is  – Joni Anderson – on Canadian TV, in 1965. The song is very good, but somewhat like several other folk songs of that era… and she sounds just like Joan Baez ! She is not yet famous, but confidence and charisma is bursting out of her :

Next up, early 1970s, and Joni is a mature and deeply original songwriter. The song is a live performance of “For Free”, from Ladies of the Canyon. Its classic Mitchell in two ways. First, although the lyrics are straightfoward, they are perfectly judged and balanced; and the combination of tune, sentiment, piano and ethereal voice is amazingly moving. Secondly, it shows her discomfort with the celebrity life; but unlike Dylan, she didn’t go off in a huff.

On to the early 1990s and Joni the middle aged woman. (I have zipped straight past what is actually my favourite stuff – the jazzy late seventies records). This is “Night Ride Home” from the album of the same name, performed live for a  TV programme in Amsterdam. Whereas other pop stars, even very good ones, are burned out, or  re-cycling their past glories on endless stadium tours, Joni is producing hypnotic songs different from anything that went before.

Finally, here she is in 2000 at age 57 (same as me now) doing a spooky orchestrated version of “Both Sides Now”, her famous hit of 1969. The impossible high notes have gone; instead she has a smoky haunting voice. I find it hovers between profundity and schmalz; but her humanity wins.

Got to go and wipe my eyes now.