04/20/2003 3:00 AM, LAUNCH
Not to get all theological on you, but this must be said: If one is to believe that God puts people on this planet for specific reasons, then we might as well assume that one day some 28 years ago God looked down on a working-class couple in the brown-skied Southern California periphery known as the Inland Empire and commanded, "You will have a son, you will name him Ben, he will learn slide guitar, and he will explore a musical mix of spiritually-tinged blues, folk, and soul with a touch of rock, stoner-style." (God, I will assume, has quite the in-depth knowledge of pop music colloquialisms.) At least that's how Ben Harper likely sees it. "I write songs because I need to write songs," he says. "That's what I'm supposed to do, that's what I have to do, and that's what I'm here to do."
No, this is not an article on Christian rock you're reading, this is about a musician like no other on currently on the rock landscape. For
instance, Harper wears a bushy head of hair left over from a Mod Squad rerun, lives and breathes a brand of lap-steel guitar (the Weissenborn) left for dead some 60 years ago, and has created five studio albums, including his recent Diamonds On The Inside, that focus unabashedly on themes of personal freedom, social injustice, and the challenge of the human spirit. (Oh, and for the record, Harper thinks that God is the Almighty but says that the overall concept of organized religion "insults our intelligence and insults the integrity of what God is supposed to mean.") He speaks of writing songs out of necessity rather than by choice, how the Weissenborn is "always saying something new" to him, and how, as one with a calling might deduce, he is doubtless in his belief that his music will be heard all across the globe, by all races. "I'm not even in a rush for that to happen, because I know time will take care of it," he says. In fact, sitting on a grassy knoll in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, Harper--words rolling calmly off his tongue, his big hair lilting in the slight summer breeze, his Lion Of Judah ring shining in the brilliant daylight--appears as a musical prophet-in-training, caught under the spell of, say, the late, great Bob Marley.
Mention Marley and Harper's dark eyes light up. "I saw him, I saw him," he whispers, nearly breathless, referring to a Marley live performance Harper witnessed at age 9, a performance at which Peter Tosh joined Bob for an encore version of the their classic anthem "Get Up, Stand Up." "It was so heavy, because it was like he was singing for everyone. Like, there's some of Bob's music, whether you know it or not, in your heart. It was almost like watching a crucifixion. He sung with just this look on his face...it was the real deal. It was the real sh-t. That guy, he was another coming of something. To me, he's proof of divinity.
"He just kept getting better, all the time," Harper continues, his voice simmering like a preacher warming up to a rhetorical fury. "He was always pushing, I've never seen anyone with such self-discipline and commitment to what they do than Bob. His life was music. A lot of these cats, they want to be famous. They'd rather be famous than write good songs. And to see that, it puts a really bad taste in your mouth. But Bob was always Bob. Humbleness and humility were the foundation of his person, which always kept the music close to the root. And the closer to the root, the sweeter the fruit. Just an eternal sense of inspiration."
You can hear Marley's imprint throughout Harper's work. Not that Diamonds is a Rastafari-rich reggae record by any means. No, this is Marley as understood through the eyes of an urban American, a twentysomething disciple, built on a flower-child-like exuberance for peace, love, and freedom, a free-flowing sense of morality, and the occasional punk-like tones of disillusionment. And as one had grown to expect from Harper, omnipresent on this are the buzzy, slippery tones of the Weissenborn--tones that propel a concoction of blues (as learned from the recordings of Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Elizabeth Cotten, among others), folk, soul, some funk, and psychedelia. Mostly, Marley's ghost is there in Harper's own sense of devotion and pure, naked passion. The sober, introspective themes might wear you out (lighten up once in a while, Ben, won'tcha?), but when Harper ekes out such words with his wispy, heartrending voice, it's as if they are the most important thoughts that have ever been uttered. And to Harper, these are the most important thoughts ever uttered.
If one were to able to sneak a peak inside Harper's brain, he or she might conclude that the well is quite deep, maybe even bottomless. "Some people think in terms of numbers, some people think in terms of shapes," he says. "My head works in music, so there's always music there." A gift, indeed, although once, during a business meeting, a song kept rattling around so much that he thought to himself, "I wish I could just turn this off sometimes." But then, he says, catching himself, "Wait a minute! No I don't!" He smiles, feigning panic, brings his hands together as if praying and looks to the sky. "I didn't say that," he says. "I'm just kidding."