HIGH FREQUENCIES: 'A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest'
Clay Harper weighs in with 'Bleak Beauty'
The last time Clay Harper performed onstage was at the Variety Playhouse, opening for Todd Rundgren. Even though it was “ages ago,” he remembers the night well. The crowd went wild about two songs into his set. The explosive reaction was non-stop. The audience was relentless, the response louder with the finish of each song. Harper still remembers their yelling, “Todd Rundgren now! Todd Rundgren now!” until his band left the stage.
Harper hasn’t performed much since then. That’s not to say he hasn’t been making music. A prolific songwriter, he’s continued to release albums, but confined his activities to the recording studio.
With the pending release of his new album, Bleak Beauty, Harper makes a long-awaited return to performing, taking up a Tuesday night residency upstairs at the Avondale Town Cinema starting May 1.
Harper upset the ‘80s with the Coolies, a high velocity band that deconstructed the hits of Simon & Garfunkel, then debunked the rock star mythos of rock’s hard-hitting aristocracy with the rock opera Doug. Not content with being successful, Harper broke up the Coolies, continuing his rage against the complacency of a post-punk rock world with a new band, the Ottoman Empire. With his lyrical approach turning inward, even the blood bond of being in a band with his bother Mark couldn’t keep the Ottoman Empire together. Harper broke free, striking out on his own.
In retrospect, it was the right thing to do. The personas he’d been hiding behind may have masked his insecurities, but, by round five, it was time to take the off gloves, and Harper had to come to terms with the fact that the demons he was trying to exorcise in public were his — and his alone.
His first solo album, East of Easter (1997), produced by Eric Goulden, is a solid effort that features the late — but always on time — powerhouse rhythm section of Mark Richardson on bass and Charles Wolfe on drums, with Tom Gray providing keyboards and Goulden laying down all the guitar parts. It’s on this release that Harper steps away from the ropes and takes center ring with his songwriting. What was once whimsical is now poignant; once a tease, now a right hook.
Over a decade’s time between East of Easter and its follow-up, the brilliant Old Airport Road, with its release, Harper proved he wasn’t down for the count, but able to go the distance. The album, proffering a wide-ranging musical approach and confessional lyrics, is somewhat of an overlooked gem, showing just how far Harper’s songwriting has developed since he first sucker punched audiences with Paul Simon compositions as he struggled to find his own muse. For its collection of densely layered soundscapes, Harper enlists guitarist Kevin Dunn, bass player/keyboardist James E. Cobb and drummer Paul Barrie to lay down the foundation, with a star-studded cast of others — including Glenn Phillips, Col. Bruce Hampton, Sandra Hall, Errol Moore, Eric Fontaine, Mike Barrie, Mark Bencuya and Slim Red — adding their own vocal stylings and atmospherics.
Bleak Beauty, as its name implies, is just the opposite. A collection of stripped-down tone poems, the songs stand naked, not unlike Harper alone in the ring, the bleachers empty, the roar of the crowd but an echo. His most heart-felt work yet, Bleak Beauty is a sombre, but not saddening meditation on life and loss, a look at what we have and how we react when it leaves us all too soon.
The album benefits from only the simplest of a musical accompaniment — bass, drums, a piano here, banjo there — and additional ace guitar work from Rick Richards and Chaz Jankel. The primary instrumentation on the album is Harper’s voice, augmenting and accenting his vocals in ways that pull the songs out of despair and into the realm of healing.
Over coffee at a local cafe, Harper contemplates the making of Bleak Beauty, and why it’s so different from previous works.
“Bleak Beauty is the soundtrack to a very difficult time for me as I attempt to process and make sense of the illness and death of my partner, Stephanie Gwinn, who died two years ago April 26. We were together 20 years. I always assumed that I would die first and planned accordingly. We were living in San Francisco. After about a year of mysterious symptoms, it was discovered that she had a brain tumor. Over a heartbreaking six month period, it eventually took her life. Stephanie was a very private person. This record is not really about her … it’s more about me. My feelings of love, fear and loss. Feelings that are certainly not unique to me, but are personal and unsettling. Sometimes life comes down to just sadness and coping. That’s now and that's this.
“Kosmo Vinyl did the cover. I stayed out of it for the most part. He knows me. He knew Stephanie. He’s intuitive and tremendously talented. I think it’s a beautiful piece of art and I’m very grateful. It’s an adaptation of George Brassai photographs of graffiti in Paris from the early 1900s.”
The intimate nature of Bleak Beauty finds Harper performing five nights in a small setting rather than opting for one show in a larger venue. That he’s reaching into his past for songs to perform was reason enough to urge him to remember specifics about his recorded output.
“The Coolies Dig was my first band-first recording. The fondest memory of that time was going from the studio to 688 with the mix of “Scarborough Fair” and getting them to play it over the PA. Huge! Doug was a bit less celebratory. I was heavy into drink and drugs as you might remember. I was excited to be working with (producer) Brendan (O’Brien) for that very reason. I only knew him as a druggy, I had no idea how talented he was. When I arrived at the studio he made it clear that he was clean and he wouldn’t work with us if drugs were around. I don’t think there’s a drug addict alive that doesn’t wake up every morning and say to themselves, ‘Today, I quit.’ Brendan and my friend Murray Attaway (Guadalcanal Diary) helped me get the help I needed to get clean — and mean. That happened then.
“Lester Square and Ottoman Gold are records completely under the influence of Wreckless Eric’s record The Beat Group Electrique,” Harper continues. “I met Eric in France and we’ve been friends ever since. He produced Ottoman Gold and sings on a song called “Stages.” We also started writing songs together. “An American in Paris” is a co-write that’s on Ottoman Gold. “The Girl With the Wandering Eye” was a single in the UK and is on Eric’s record 12 O’Clock Stereo. Later we did East of Easter which we wrote together in Austin when we were there for SXSW. I think it’s a great record. It got a lot more attention in Europe than here. We’re actually working on a new record that’s a session or two away from being finished. Eric’s on tour for the next several months, then we’ll get back to it.
Many of Harper’s collaborations have been with another Englishman, the aforementioned Kosmo Vinyl, best known for his longstanding association with The Clash and his brief work for Stiff Records, the early recording home of Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury. An artist in his own right, Vinyl has contributed artwork to many of the releases on Harper’s Casino Music label.
“Kosmo and I met in New York City about 20 years ago. I was recording Martin Stone (RIP) , one of the great English guitar players of all time (the 101ers, Pink Fairies, Savoy Brown, Mighty Baby, The Action, Chili Willy and the Red Hot Peppers), short-listed to replace Brian Jones in the Stones. Kosmo’s name came up. Martin knew him, as did the engineer, Mark Richardson. I knew him from his credit on the Stiff Live record and his work with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Back in those days I called directory assistance whenever I was looking for somebody. He was listed. I’m a firm believer that, especially if you’re a bit offcenter, you instantly recognize your tribe. Kosmo's been my brother ever since.”
In 1996, as people were dumping their turntables for CD players, Harper initiated a subscription service for 45 r.p.m. records. Pay your money and you’d get a new single mailed to you each month for a year.
“The singles were a lot of work, but fun,” Harper laughs. “Vinyl was dead. I got to work with Rodney Mills and know Buddy Buie (both associates of the Atlanta Rhythm Section). Kosmo did the covers ... they’re all great. We had a mailing list of subscribers. Everyone had to pay…no exceptions. KV’s crew of my heroes were all subscribers. The entire Clash, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley … Matt Dillon recognized me at a movie once — Surreal!”
For two children’s records, Harper once again paired up with his brother Mark to produce Not Dogs … Two Simple (A Tale of Two Kitties) and The Slippery Ballerina. Both were conceived with illustrative artwork by Jack Logan, and each consisted of contributions by a vast array of Harper’s friends (and heroes), including Ian Dury, Maureen Tucker, Rick Richards, Kevin Kinney, Col. Bruce Hampton, Cindy Wilson, Murray Attaway Susan Cowsill and others.
One musician who refused the invitation was Lemmy Kilmister. “I was working on The Slippery Ballerina and I asked Kosmo for Lemmy’s number. He gave it to me but asked me not to say where I got it. Of course, that’s the first thing I did when I spoke to him. He seemed amenable to the idea of participating. He asked that I fax him the script. I did, but I guess I screwed up and sent 5 copies or something. I followed up with a phone call…I could hear the fax machine still going. He got very Lemmy on me.”
His next two projects, Gotta Get High, recorded under the guise of Antoine Electra, and Mighty Fine Everlasting Music, attributed to the Island Gruve Supper Club, were musically diverse reggae albums.
“I was working with a core of Reggae musicians. I decided to create a fictional character on the run from the law. I called him Antoine Electra. Pot was going through a kind of glamorous phase, so I called the record Gotta Get High. I engineered and produced. It was mixed by Caram Costanzo who went on to work with Elton John and Guns ’N’ Roses. It’s one of my favorites. The grooves are huge and the songs are good. We mailed the record out to the press and followed up with collect phone calls. Only two people accepted the charges!”
“My associations with the Reggae/West Indian community remains strong,” Harper continues. “There’s a pocket of seasoned and tremendously talented musicians and singers here in Atlanta and I wanted to write and record songs for them. On Everlasting MusicI worked closely with Errol Moore (Monyaka, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, Toots & the Maytalls …). I got a melody idea and words and he arranged, produced and performed along with other artists, including Erica Newell of Ziggy Marley’s band, Monty Montgomery of the Pyramids, Messenger Selah and others. While we were recording at my house the police showed up and banged on my door. They were serving me with papers … my ex wife was on a money grab. That was memorable. Everyone could relate. I felt the experience brought us closer as a group. They still think it’’s funny. I recorded snippets of dinner conversation and inserted them between songs. This was routinely criticized, but I love them. The record is hard to find, but has been pirated in Europe at least twice. The Master’s of Reggae or something and another, with Bob Marley in the title. You can hear it on Spotify.”
The follow-up,Main Street, took the idea of audio vérité to a new level. A soundtrack to a nonexistent film, Kevn Kinney performs the songs, which are tied together by dialogue from the film. “It’s a soundtrack like what I listened to as a kid … with bits of the movie included to set up the songs, though there is no movie. It’s a response to soundtracks today where the movie is basically irrelevant to the soundtrack,” Harper explains. “I’m close friends and a big fan of Kevn Kinney. I love his sincerity. I wanted to hear him sing outside of his usual borders, so I wrote the record with him in mind and he graciously agreed to do it.”
Prior to recording Bleak Beauty, Harper worked on two other collaborative projects, Plus Sized Dan with Marshall Ruffin and In Case That One Of Them Is You, with Milan Mumin.
“I think words are what I really bring to the table, for the most part,” Harper acknowledges about his many and varied works. “I can find a chord, but it’s usually one of three. I depend on my friends to help make my songs. I admire and respect their talent that they generously give. They try hard for us, I try hard for us. I’m usually proud of what I say, so I want it heard and understood.
For the residency at Avondale Town Cinema, Harper hopes to bring together his disparate works, while creating a sense of community, the same kind he shares with his friends.
“One constant in my life is music. Most of my friends are somehow involved in music. We talk about music. We share discoveries. I can’t function without it. Happy or sad, there’s a soundtrack.
“I wanted to do something more interesting than just one song followed by another. I think the program I’ve put together will be funny, bizarre, relevant and musically significant. I also am hoping that this becomes a chance for people to reconnect and be social without struggling to be quiet (to hear the band) or loud enough (to be heard over the band). At the same time, I wanted, for lack of a better word, to be in a band again. I’ve done plenty of one-offs, and the way it usually works is you have one or two practices just to get through the set and its done.” That’s not the case with the core musicians (Marshall Ruffin, guitar; Chris Case, piano, and Jordan Dayan, bass) he’s assembled for these dates. “We’re practicing. We’re working. We’re getting to know each other personally and musically and we’re trying to be good.” They’re not only rehearsing songs from Harper’s more recent solo efforts, but drawing from his work with the Coolies and the Ottoman Empire.
The five Tuesday nights each follow a theme, with each night curated to present a bigger picture.
Harper sees them “as a way to extend the boundaries of what is basically a musical event. I love performance art. I’ve always had a tendency towards the bizarre. I was mesmerized by the Now Explosion, The American Music Show, the Swimming Pool Q’s and the Restraints. As absurd as the Coolies already were, I always tried to insert some kind unexpected event into the program. Having the freedom that’s been extended to me at these shows allows me to embrace this concept as well as pay homage to people I think are talented and fantastic.”
May 1: “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” — An examination of the convict persona, hosted by attorney Daniel Kane, with music by Muleskinner MacQueen and an additional set by Clay Harper with Marshall Ruffin, Chris Case and Jordan Dayan. After party music may or may not be selected by John Foy, “the Strong Arm.”
May 8: “So You Think You Know Atlanta” — A tour de force of the city, hosted by Tom Zarilli, followed by music with Harper, Ruffin, Case, and Dayan. After party music provided Juan “Boombox” Davis, played through his custom motorcycle sound system.
May 15: “New York Conversation” — A reading from “Lou Reed: A Life” by author and former Atlantan Anthony DeCurtis, with music by Clay Reed, followed by an additional set from Harper, Ruffin, Case, and Dayan. After party music selected by host Anthony DeCurtis.
May 22: “50 Shades of Clay: An Erotic Journey” — An international examination of American erotic literature hosted by Jeff Calder, with music by the Sexual Healing Band (Harper with Mark Harper and Alex McGill), followed by an additional set from Harper, Ruffin, Case, and Dayan. Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore) has been tapped to provide the after party play list.
May 29: “Bleak Beauty” — Hosted by Kosmo Vinyl, the evening unveils Harper’s new work, performed by himself, Ruffin, Case, and Dayan with special guests. In addition, “I Was Trying to Sound Like …” offers performances by Kevin Kinney, Murray Attaway and Errol Moore of songs Harper wrote and sang with the aforementioned guests in mind. In addition to a performance of the play, “Coke Out the Window — the Gene Tracy Story,” Vinyl will field twenty questions before the after party, with a play list he’s selected.
Read extended versions of Tony Paris’ High Frequencies column weekly at www.creativeloafing.com/high-frequencies.''