I was just a young Canuck lad when I stumbled on your music. It was 1978, in the small East Kootenay town of Cranbrook, British Columbia. We’d driven over from Nelson, my hometown, to do some shopping for the day. Sometimes, when you live in a remote mountain town, and you’re young, that’s what you do for excitement. And there, in the discount record bin was Bullinamingvase. I was struck by the cover design with the romanticized feather quill suggesting this mysterious Mr. Harper might be a poet of some kind. Then when I flipped to the back cover of the LP and saw the company he kept—Paul McCartney and Wings, Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee…I thought, okay, this is worth a risk.
Almost immediately the music struck me deeply. These Last Days, Cherishing the Lonesome, Naked Flame—the poignant work of an alive, vital, thinking and feeling human being who also happened to be a master minstrel. The underlying melancholy and sense of longing that made most love songs hopelessly banal by comparison. The looming sense of yet another world order crashing or crumbling. The poet’s sense of tuning language, turning an everlasting phrase. Or as everlasting as any of us can ever hope to be. The irreverent, joyful nose-thumbing of Watford Gap. Songwriting as adolescent prank-cum-social commentary. Brilliant.
And then One of Those Days in England. Oh my God did this sink into some deep part of me I had yet to know existed. I had spent most of my rebellious teenage and early adult years disowning my English past. I was too ashamed of Empire. My best buddy growing up was Stoney Indian whose mother had had to marry a white man in order to have any kind of decent life. I’d seen the local reservation and it wasn’t pretty. The despair was palpable, even more than the smell of booze. And yet my entire history lessons at school even in the backwoods northern town of Mackenzie, BC were all ‘The sun never sets on the glorious British empire.’ At an early age I sensed this was some kind of lie.
Growing up the intellectual kid in a northern redneck town was like having a bull’s-eye painted on your forehead. You had two options: fight or flight. I frequently did both. In those days in the 1960s in backwoods Canada, having glasses was a sign of weakness at best, weirdness at worst—something to be brutally stamped out. It seemed strange punishment for loving books. My parents were working-class but my father loved to read—mostly history and some poetry. My fondest early memories are of poetry—the Klondike gold rush poetry of Robert Service. Sitting with my father reading my sister and I The Cremation of Sam McGee or The Shooting of Dan McGrew. I was instantly mesmerized by what language could do. At some point I realized I wanted to do the same. I wrote my first ‘novel,’ a children’s book, at age 10. Even submitted it and got my first rejection slip.
Then came the family’s religious conversion. Old Time Southern Baptist style, with a fiery, five-foot-nothing Jamaican madman, visiting town with his Traveling Zealots show. This twinkie of a man literally pounded the pulpit screaming of heaven and hell. At age 13, I knew something was wrong. My family’s eyes had suddenly glazed over and I was being coerced to join the cult. Sometimes three people would back me into a corner: “Jesus saves! Jesus saves! Let the Lord Jesus be your saviour!” My parents put it more bluntly: “We pay the rent so while you’re under our roof, you at least go to Sunday School.” I rebelled by laying down on the floor at Sunday School to catch up on the sleep-in I’d so anxiously awaited all week at school. Didn’t take long for the Sunday School mistress to expel me, which was precisely what I wanted.
For one thing, I could never square one of the basic tenets: ‘God is good, God is loving. But if you don’t worship Him, you’ll burn in Hell forever!’ Even at age 13 this made no sense to me. I remember being angry a lot, and sad, watching my family slip away from me. I’m sure they felt the same about me. I was loading both barrels with angst and hormones, ready to blow myself like a shotgun blast into a troubled adolescence.
The upshot of it, Roy, was that—like you—I left home at age 15. As my father did before me. The night I left it was over an argument I’d had with him about the hash pipe he’d found in my room. “This stuff goes or you go!” So I left. Trouble was, it was the middle of a West Kootenay winter, snow clumping down fast, and we were some 60 miles from the nearest town, Nelson. Our little village of Lardeau had about 25 houses and a few decaying miner’s cabins from the late 1800s. The one by the creek was my first lodging away from home. I had to steal firewood from my parents’ own woodpile to keep from freezing to death that first night. Slept in a thin sleeping bag fully clothed, watching the cheap woodstove glow more and more orange.
The Kootenays were a huge sigh of relief for me after the redneck gauntlet of Mackenzie. Everyone here seemed to have stayed blissfully lost in the Summer of Love. It was 1973 but it felt like 1967. Everyone had a special name, a scrap of ancient lore, a weird philosophy. Girls, music and parties were plentiful, and so were drugs. After ‘freaking out’ seriously on LSD I quit hallucinogenics forever. Ganja was another story. Everybody seemed to be either growing or importing it, not to mention smoking it. The net effect was the most peaceful environment I’ve ever known. For once I could be who I was without punishment.
Then I hit the bottom—my first experience with depression at about age 16. And just as I did, the Jehovah’s Witnesses came calling, in the form of a girlfriend whose mother was giving her an ultimatum: Convert this guy or get rid of him. Funny how ultimatum and religion often go together. I was in a weak state spiritually and emotionally. At first I asked a lot of questions but gradually the Romantic in me was enticed by this odd idea of a ‘paradise Earth.’ I didn’t realize that I was slowly being conditioned not to ask certain other questions. I took the bait. Partly I hoped it would help me keep my girlfriend. In the end, it didn’t even do that.
In characteristic fashion I dove headfirst into my new religion with great energy. But as the years ebbed away, doubts began eating away at me. For one thing, what I was being taught wasn’t matching up with reality. For another, the deeper I delved into scripture, the more contradictory God’s nature seemed to be. One minute—kind and open-handed, the next—vicious and vindictive, even murderous. Since my adolescence, justice had always been a big concern. Now I was questioning how a God who claimed to be the very personification of justice was happy to allow wars, holocausts and a helluva lot of suffering to go on. When he had the power—supposedly—to stop it at any time.
And then there were church ‘elders’ who were quite willing to meddle in my personal affairs. It cost me a fiancée once and a lot of grief generally. Simply because I stood out—I was different somehow. I dared to ask the wrong questions. And I could never take pleasure that God would pay back all these bad people with death at Armageddon just because they didn’t share our faith. I’d finally had enough, after far too many years. It was time to start living.
My wife has often asked me how I could have stayed so long, an otherwise intelligent person like me. The short answer is that I felt alone in the world. I had a kind of ‘family,’ however loosely connected. And I was afraid of being even more alone. But eventually the strain of cognitive dissonance becomes too great and bursts. For a long time after I quit the JWs I was completely happy to have no answers whatsoever about life, death, God or the state of the universe. Having spent so much of my life cloaked in the false certainty of belief, I was enjoying the state of ‘not knowing.’ Studying the Tao te Ching helped me come to grips with another new concept: the balance of opposites, the coexistence of apparently contradictory forces in the universe.
And all along the way, Roy, your songs played in the background, reminding me to think, and to trust what I feel. I Hate the White Man. Don’t You Grieve. One Man Rock and Roll Band. The Same Old Rock. Referendum. The Game. Yet somehow, The Spirit Lives: “Alas our forebears drank the cup / of poisoned alibis / and made excuses far and wide / and made god in the sky. / The man of peace was overrun / by armies of the Lord / who signed their names to any war / and sang to praise the sword.” Strange—I knew this all at 13 but not at 24. Grown-Ups Are Just Silly Children, after all. Sandbox dynamics elevated to the high art of Sun Tzu.
Then to discover that in addition to Irish ancestors I have a 500-year history in the south of England—Dorset to be exact. The high and mighty Norman lords—my ancestors—come down a few pegs. Vassals to a new aristocracy—and finally, tenant farmers and millers. The lovely, whispering green of the River Stour pushing past a thousand-year-old flourmill, and a cottage fit for three but crammed with generations. Voices alive in the blood after half a millennium, alive in the wheat chaff embedded in brick, alive in the sheen of the millpond where a small boy once drowned. The village miller a man with a place in life, as much a part of the landscape as bran husks in the soil, the serpentine hedges hiding their fields, the burrows alert with small lives.
Ah—so this is what Roy meant by One of Those Days in England: “Alfred had me made / from Albion’s everglade / and I made him to lie with me / whence all my troubles fade…” Somehow missed the ferry to parenthood, and learned a new kind of grief. But then, “what does it matter when they’re all gone we don’t even have the power to choose them…” My struggle for truth and justice thwarted by simple powerlessness under a system “counting points of social scale / while our water brother whale / meets extinction on the seas…” (Ten Years Ago, from the album The Unknown Soldier) And the delicious, dusk-tinged nostalgia of When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease—a reminder that Britain has also given us much to celebrate.
Lacking the sense early on to pick up a guitar, not just a typewriter, now that the role of the poet has been taken by our songwriters. But too late now. I am what I am. A Scott of the page’s blank Antarctic. Ancestors leaning over my shoulder to whisper clues: “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” (William Faulkner) Some of them simple sweet shop merchants working the high street, keeping the village pulse: “The corner shop that sold us almost everything / the farthing in the change, the sirens and the planes / puffing billies shunting eras down the lane…” (One of Those Days in England, parts 2–10) The sense of continuity, identity—a rootedness in place that is both solid ground and rushing stream, “Slowly slipping into history, feel us go / with these times another age could never know…”
So Roy, I thank you for traveling along with me, unbeknownst to you. We share many things in common on this Earth. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
Which leaves only one question, Roy: “Don’t you think we’re forever?”