A SPECIAL KIND OF ALCHEMY: Clay Harper

Magic and mayhem coexist—not necessarily peacefully, but certainly with a purposeful deliberateness—in the Atlanta artist’s remarkable new album, bleak beauty. (Scroll to the bottom to hear three key tracks.)

BY KEITH JOYNER

Clay Harper quietly sings into a microphone in the makeshift studio on the ground floor of his Atlanta home. I follow along on an acoustic guitar, creating parts on the fly. It feels like packing up. The last time I was here I had traveled from Los Angeles to say goodbye to Stephanie, Clay’s partner of twenty years, and my best friend from high school. It was both surreal and unthinkable that someone so young and in the prime of her life would be taken so mercilessly. On this day, however, the house is for sale, and there is a noticeable sense of unease.  The question hangs heavy in the air: What now?

Clay had casually invited me to play on a new song he was recording. And so, after an impromptu and innocuous invitation to coffee, I found myself learning what would become the song “Pretty Victor,” from the new self-released album, bleak beauty. I devised an interesting, passable part, all the while formulating how I could improve upon it when it came time to record.

“That’s great! I love it,” exclaimed Clay.

It became immediately clear that there was to be no “next take.” That was it.

It is precisely this moment that speaks to a singular talent, an innate ability to recognize an opportunity, and use it, all for the sake of the art. Had it been up to me, I might have recorded multiple takes, and added additional parts. As it happens, Clay stripped away everything but one guitar—flaws and all—and his voice alone. What’s left is a tentative answer to the question hanging over the proceedings. That is, we can’t possibly prepare or know what to do when tragedy strikes. After all, the world at large is cruel and indifferent to our inner suffering. There is nothing left but to carry on.

When we lose someone, there are universal rituals and traditions to help cope with the loss. But I sense that for Clay, they are entirely insufficient. There are too many things left unsaid; sentiments that are private, painful and uncomfortable, and not suited for mixed company. Clay has gone on record to say that the album is not about Stephanie, but, instead, a recounting of his experience in steady chronological order. I wonder if this may be in deference to someone who was a very private, though selfless, person. My earliest memories of her were of someone wholly devoted to the idea of service. To a self-centered teen like myself, I was suspicious. Though Stephanie spent the next thirty years turning words into action. If bleak beauty is not about her, it is certainly for her. (Listen to tracks from the record HERE.)

Many in Atlanta and the Southeast recall Clay Harper as boss man in post-punk provocateurs The Coolies (originally called The Beatles, until receiving the expected Cease and Desist letter), and, later, The Ottoman Empire. He was not then—and still isn’t—averse to mixing combustible elements for maximum effect in both music and performance. That desire more likely stems from a genuine fascination with witnessing the inevitable explosion than it does getting a cheap rise out of people.

But don’t ask the north Georgia cloggers he invited to open the final Coolies show in 1990 about it. Of course, it could have gone either way. When the curtain rose on the unsuspecting dancers as they clogged their way through “New Sensation” by INXS, the sneering punk crowd wasn’t having it. Nor were the Todd Rundgren fans at a more recent show at The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Clay was supporting his last album, 2013’s Old Airport Road. Between each song, lurid phone sex recordings were played over the PA until the crowd demanded he leave the stage early, chanting, “Todd Rundgren Now!” Hey, they could have laughed. And really. They should have. Humorless bastards. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Andy Kaufman would’ve been proud.

Given all of this, it’s a curious thing to venture that bleak beauty may be Clay’s most audacious work to date. Its boldness can be found in its quietude and vulnerability. For sure, it is a tone poem of grief, remorse, love and hope. But strangely, there is levity and common truth throughout. Clay’s longtime friend, the artist, erstwhile Clash associate, and self-professed “cultural curator,” Kosmo Vinyl, points out, it is “that realization that the more personal something becomes, the more universal it becomes. Also the realization that there is no substitute for truth and it can rarely, if ever be faked.” From the held-breath salvo of the opening title track to the repeated closing mantra “I’m Not High,” bleak beauty reminds us to take nothing for granted, and accept the inevitable light and shade of this world with resigned grace.

Once again, Clay directs an impressive cast of musicians, including Chaz Jankel (Ian Dury and The Blockheads), Tom Gray (The Brains), and Rick Richards (The Georgia Satellites), among others with the precision of Kubrick, all without playing a single note himself. Brad Quinn (formerly of The Ottoman Empire and the Tommy Keene Band) adds “For someone who, as far as I know, doesn’t particularly play anything, he’s written more great songs and made more records than almost anyone I know.” And bleak beauty is no exception. Each track inhabits a classic space as if you’ve known it your entire life.

In May, Clay Harper and band performed the album in its entirety in an intimate setting at the Avondale Towne Cinema, near Atlanta. When asked what it’s like to revisit the songs in front of an audience, Clay responds, “I would like to do more shows. I’m not sure I would like to perform the record again. I want it to be evaluated as a piece of art. I want people to hear it and find their meaning, but I think it’s there for private consumption. I don’t think it needs to be public entertainment.”

One senses that bleak beauty is just as much about moving on as it is paying respect to a great lost love.

To my mind there are only two types of music: the self-conscious kind, which is certainly not always a pejorative; and the kind that comes from somewhere deep within—the kind that must be released, one way or the other no matter the consequences. Damn the cynics. Or more to the point, as Clay’s friend and frequent collaborator Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ n’ Cryin’) says, “I think that sometimes artists make art for the people, and sometimes artists make art for themselves. This one’s for Clay. It’s true soul music from the cosmos straight to our hearts.”

There is a special kind of alchemy at work when songs such as these, borne of despair and darkness, conspire to conjure something altogether enlivening. After all, to live is to create. And no greater tribute may be paid to a life well-lived than to “rage against the dying of the light.” No, it is not entertainment. But perhaps it’s something to be shared. There is genuine electricity when Clay sings plaintively “Are you the bird? Are you the breeze? Are you the sunshine through the trees?”

I’d like to believe that when we remember, the answer is always yes.

 

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Keith Joyner is a regular BLURT contributor. A member of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Athens pop mavens Seven Simons as well as The The, and, more recently, Twinstar and les biches, the L.A.-by-way-of-Georgia musician previously recounted a memorable evening in the company of David J and Genesis P-Orridge.

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