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Róbert Dolák-Saly about Roy Harper

2010. 04. 09.

A tale of finding a twin brother from beyond the Iron Curtain or How did I discover Roy Harper?


However hard they try to deny it, the inspiring love of the fans is extremely important for every artist. I have never been an exception to this rule myself, although I never wanted to experience this as a subject of intensive headbanging and drunken ’You are the king!’ cries. I never learnt how to handle fanatic adoration. Once a girl gave me a photo of my name mowed into the lawn in their garden, which was quite a performance considering the fact that my name is not Ian Sly. I always prefer an honest smile, a firm handshake or a few words that make sense.

I have to admit I have been a fan myself. In my youth I liked rock musicians both from abroad and Hungary, but there was someone who - let’s face it - impressed me more than anyone else. It was only later that I found out why. It was kind of discovering that I had a twin brother overseas who I had had no knowledge of before. My ’adoration’ was a discovery of a soul mate or ’brother’ rather than kowtowing before an idol. Great favourites are usually unapproachable both in time and space. In an age with no Internet, from beyond the iron curtain it seemed as if he were living on the Moon. I figured out that for a pedestrian it would take 30 years to reach the Moon provided he walked 7 hours a day at a speed of 5 km/h. My tale is about these 30 years.

When I was twelve I lost my father (12th February, 1967) who left a guitar to me. A year later my mum registered me for a guitar course without asking (which she deeply regretted later). After the first couple of occasions I left the course (which I still regret) because I had realised that what interested me most about music was working out tunes. Knowing only a few accords I made my first ’opuses’. It was the music of the Beatles and the Hungarian Illés that made the deepest impact on me in the ’60s. Then came Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, etc. Interestingly enough the music I made was never similar to any of these.

I was quite alarmed because I thought I wrote ’styleless’ music. ( In my secondary school years I wrote about 50 ’melodic things’, most of which were sung enthusiastically by my classmates.) Then, at the age of 18 I heard a guitarist-singer, and that very moment solved my dilemma discovering that I had been trying to make music like that, only in teenage-style and without the proper tools... I had never experienced such an artistic impact before...


The story begins in 1974. Once upon a time, not so long ago, this side of the Iron Curtain and beyond reason there was a lad who unsuspiciously went to see a film in the Bányász cinema in Lenin Rd. The Hungarian title was Valerie, the original one was Made. The opening image was a swing in a playground. The chain was rubbing against the pillar of the swing and then I heard the music.

There was an unknown bloke singing in an unknown style, then the story started and it seemed it had been written just to give the musician the opportunity to play again and again. The viewers were chatting, laughing and rattling sweets bags while I was staring at the screen mesmerized by the melodies. Who wrote these songs? The performer? Or is it just a movie soundtrack? Are they from an existing musician’s existing album? Then I went to see the film again and again, about eight times. There was this guy with alone with a guitar and I was alone walking home wondering why you can’t hear music like that in Hungary. The words of the songs were unique poems and that floating guitar sound... I got more and more intrigued since I didn’t know anything about the bloke except his name from the cast: Roy Harper. I asked everybody, but nobody knew anything about him, there was no Internet at the time and I had no money. The chances of me finding out about Roy equalled to those of a newborn mouse fallen into a deep well seeking to find its mother.

Then two years later a mate came over and give me an LP whose cover had a hole in it. The title of the low-priced product was HQ. The author: Roy Harper. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. The music sounded much harder than the floating music I remembered, but at last it turned out: the bloke is a musician and he writes the songs too. However, the difference between the atmosphere of the soundtrack and the album made me unsure. I thought my favourite musician wrote the kind of music that hit me only for a film. I was intrigued: is the soundtrack available on LP too?

So, let’s go to the illegal music market! Why didn’t I have the idea earlier? There was a long-haired guy in Múzeum Rd who showed me at least four or five Harper albums. He gave me one of the ones that he had two of. One album cost a month’s salary. Then I had some information about this mysterious stranger. The members of the band Omega ( I played before them from 1976) had heard about the English guitarist. Then a few years passed again. I was doing gigs in the GDR where I was given a Harper biography photographed (there were no photocopiers at the time) from a West-German rock encyclopaedia.

I had Harper’s lyrics translated, but I couldn’t really make much out of the surreal images. What hit me was the atmosphere. However, it was amazing that the titles of certain songs or some lines from the lyrics were almost the same as certain parts of my songs. I wasn’t too surprised though, because it was no coincidence that I was very much into his music. So I decided to get all his albums. I ordered the missing ones from the publisher, but I got no answer. My friends who went to London brought me some more discs and a Harper magazine called HORS D’HOEUVRES, a couple of photos and posters.

Then in 1986 with the help of Zsuzsa Göczey we played Harper’s albums on the Hungarian radio and I was lucky enough to write the preface.

After the broadcast there were some people who called me saying they new the ’old chap’. Then came the call I had been waiting for: ’I’ve got the music from the film Valerie, the album called Lifemask.’ If I remember well I didn’t ask but begged for it. In exchange I gave the person one of the albums I had two of. Little by little I got more and more Harper material. The very same year Jethro Tull came to Budapest. I managed to get hold of the front man, Ian Anderson who had toured a lot together with Roy, but he didn’t know anything about my favourite’s whereabouts.

The time had come for me to write a ’redeeming article’ in Magyar Ifjúság (Hungarian Youth) about the English gentleman, which, course, didn’t help to start the Roy Harper cult in our lovely country.

In the 70s and the 80s Harper worked with people like Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and Kate Bush, released an album with Dave Gilmour and Jimmy Page who he toured with as well. The last song of Led Zeppelin’s third album was called ’Hats off to Roy Harper’. Pink Folyd gave him Have a Cigar to sing on the LP Wish You Were Here, which was the only exception in their history.


Someone indicated that Peter Jenner, Pink Floyd’s former manager was coming to Budapest who had been the producer of some of Roy Harper’s albums. He was holding a lecture on Floyd in a club in Ráday street. I gave him a letter and a cassette and asked him to forward it to Roy. (Let the ’old chap’ suffer: let him listen to Dolák songs in Hungarian) Although they weren’t on friendly terms any more he was kind enough to give me Roy’s phone number as well!

With a mike attached to a tape recorder, we dialled the number with a friend who spoke English. A lady answered and said ’I’ll get hold of him.’ So we waited. I won’t even attempt to describe those 44 seconds. Then we heard the voice: -Hello! -Hello, is that Mr Harper? -Yes...

Later we made a phone interview with him for the radio. Then he wrote me a letter saying he liked my songs and asked me if I wanted some guitar strings. :)

He knew a lot about our country. As a student in 1956 he had written ’HUNGARY FOREVER’ on the blackboard. He knew who Imre Nagy was. Then we somehow lost touch and there was a 15-year break and I still owed myself a visit to one of his concerts.

In 1991 I went to London with the Radio cabaret. On the last day of our visit someone gave me a paper advertising one of Roy’s concerts. The night we left England he played in a theatre which explains why I was in the mood to eat my suitcase and the arm rest on the plane. Then in the 90s I grew old too and sometimes I though it was a pity I had missed that gig... Many know I’m not a great fan of esoterism (to say the least), but something really strange happened in the mid-90s. My stepdaughter was watching TV when she suddenly cried out: -Mummy, there’s Robi on TV! Roy was being interviewed on some English channel. My partner recorded the rest of the interview. We still don’t know why her daughter mixed us up as she had never seen Roy before. He was just talking on TV, he didn’t have a guitar with him... Perhaps kids are more sensitive to delicate human relationships and recognise soul mates more easily?

Another couple of years had passed when I dropped Roy a line for some reason on a called, unfriendly afternoon. I asked him if he remembered that – once young – Hungarian bloke who calle him in the 80s. The next day he answered: ’Of course I do, what’s up?’ ’Well, Roy,’ I replied,’ the truth is that I’ve been waiting for thirty years to have a good ol’ chat with you and to see one of your gigs.’ About three weeks later, on 12th February (the 37th anniversary of my father’s death) I was sitting in the Soho in the pub called Pillars of Hercules No7. We had an appointment at noon.

I was 49 but I was sitting there like that 19-year-old youngster in the Bányász cinema, crippled by excitement. I remembered the all those LPs, the fantastic songs, the rainy afternoon, the depressed evenings which were made bearable by a musician from beyond the Iron Curtain. And now this bloke is coming on his own feet to meet me. I was staring out of the window and still couldn’t believe he would come. He was bang on time. The first words I could utter were: -Look, Roy, when I was 19 and I heard your music for the first time I shat my legs. A roar of laughter. I handed him the magazine from 1988 with the article in it, newspaper cuttings about the radio programmes and rubbish like that. He had a lot of fun when I gave him a piece of paper to sign, which would certify that I was his most faithful fan in Hungary. He wrote: ‘until I arrive.’

Needless to say that throughout the whole 2-hour conversation we felt as if we had known each other for ages.

Then he took me to a music shop where he used to buy his instruments, he showed me the theatre where he had his first gig, so we had a great time. :) Months later he sent me the cds missing from my collection and a wonderful album of his works (The Passions Of Great Fortune /Lyric Book/)

In 2005 I went to London again. Roy invited me to two of his concerts. As his most faithful fan from far away I was allowed to record one of them with a camera. :) Those were the days...


Any lad today who can get through to anyone by a few clicks will smile at all these efforts just like we did when we were thinking about how long it took Petőfi (a Hungarian poet in the 19th century) to get from one town to another when he was a strolling player.

Towards the end of the 80s a Hungarian guitarist (who knew Roy Harper was my favourite) asked me a sarcastic question: ’Are you still so much into that English bloke? What do you see in him?’ I don’t think I replied to him as I had never analyzed what I liked about Harper.

Is it his unique music? The way he plays the guitar? His voice? His audacious musical orations, uniquely effected sound montages, his humour, his brave images? The way delicate poetry and harsh criticism alternate in his songs? Or is it his stylistic consistence which saved him from accepting trends blindly? The way he has always refused to make concessions he would have had to make for stardom? His brave loneliness, extremity, obsession and persistence? The way he has always detached himself from any dogma, ideology and mass faith? Or is it that he has never let his fans down? (He has been making music since 1967.) Then I found out! I think I had sensed he would invite me to a gig! :)

When I met Roy the second time I asked what would have happened if he’d had one or two number one hits. -Now you would be running after my limousine- he answered in his characteristic way.

You might not like me, Roy, but I’m glad it didn’t happen. :)

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