Just five words — “I believe this is home.”
The title track that opens Clay Harper’s latest album, Dirt Yard Street, culminates with an intimate mantra repeated over and over again. The song is a quiet salvo that brings a lifelong journey for the beloved singer and songwriter to a place of peaceful acceptance. It’s also the beginning of a new chapter for Harper. Every lingering note and every story told throughout Dirt Yard Street feels like a snapshot capturing a night-in-the-life from long ago, when desperate and beautiful characters wandered hopelessly into the blackness of night on the unforgiving streets of Atlanta, GA, New York City, and Paris, France—all cities where Harper has lived and struggled, but never felt settled.
Forever searching for a place to call home, Harper has navigated a long career championing the underdog with bittersweet songs filled with lyrical dramatics that exist outside the realm of punk, new wave, and rock ‘n’ roll. Over the years, he has teamed up with countless gifted musicians, who’ve helped him bestow his words with colorful musical arrangements—each performer leaving a lasting impression on him. The characters that live in Harper’s songs have always been a world-weary bunch. With Dirt Yard Street, their broken spirits ascend to a higher level; the dark horses become vessels for reconciliation. As the album proves, though, when finding resolve in life, the only way out is through.
Dirt Yard Street is also a companion, of sorts, pushing beyond his 2018 CD, Bleak Beauty. If that album is taken as a meditation on death and losing the love of his life to cancer, leaving an awful lot of unfinished business behind, Dirt Yard Street is about finding new balance in life and moving forward. Each song takes a lingering and glassy-eyed look back at characters with whom he has crossed paths over the years, who now personify abstract emotional states—grief, wonder, strength, and defeat. For as rich as this all sounds, Harper seems reluctant to spell out the haunting nuances and thick atmosphere of Dirt Yard Street using such simple terms.
“The theme of the album, if you want to boil it down to that, is about trying to find your place in this world, where you are at home,” Harper says. “How do you accept that instead of continually plotting to change it?”
Harper’s songwriting has never shied away from the dark side of the human condition. In 1988, his band the Coolies released Doug, a bombastic rock opera that tells a tale about a skinhead who murders a transvestite who works as a cook. As the story unfolds, the antihero finds a life of fame and riches after selling his victim’s cookbook, only to fall victim himself to the indulgences that fame brings. Doug was the follow-up to the Coolies’ 1986 debut album, Dig ..?, a 10-song LP featuring nihilistic punk covers of Simon & Garfunkel songs, released by DB Recs, early home to Pylon, the B-52’s, Kevin Dunn, and more.
Other albums are steeped in broad strokes of off-the-wall themes that extend beyond the music. His 1998 collaboration with brother Mark Harper, titled Not Dogs…Too Simple (A Tale Of Two Kitties), falls somewhere between a children’s album and a rock opera and features contributions from Ian Dury, Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground, Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, and illustrations by cartoonist Jack Logan. A 2000 collaboration with Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin titled Main Street is a soundtrack to a film that does not exist, complete with vignettes of turbulent dialogue piecing a story together.
“Clay can delve into extremely dark material while maintaining a sense of sweetness and innocence,” Kinney says. “He is cinematic in how he writes songs that tell stories, and he’s not afraid to try radically different things! There have been times when he played a song for me, something he’d played for me before, but as a reggae song. Now it’s played with a harp, or in a totally different way. He has an ability to see how multifaceted a song is, and how its meaning can become something totally different.”
Kinney and Harper have been friends since they met in the Atlanta music scene circa 1985. They’ve worked together on many releases. Kinney is credited as a co-writer of the song “Come To My House,” on Dirt Yard Street. The song, which is built around the structure of Zen philosopher Alan Watts reciting the words “I love you.” Taken at face value, “Come To My House” exposes Harper’s desire for a lasting connection with others, while pushing away from superficial relationships.
Harper’s 2013 CD Old Airport Road builds story elements based on recordings he made from a telepersonals phone number—prostitution ads. In the album’s opener, “Ole Ray,” Atlanta’s Empress of the Blues, Sandra Hall, blurts out, “Hey motherfucker!” over and over again. From there, the album hangs in a balance of absurd hilarity and utter tragedy
“I have always looked at things in multidimensional ways,” Harper says. “I used to listen to movie soundtracks when I was a kid. Often, there were little clips from the actual movie between songs. I always loved that.”
The goal for many of his recording projects was to introduce additional forms of art—layers of entertainment—under the guise of a simple record. Bleak Beauty marked a sea change, taking shape as a truly identifiable work of art. On the surface,the album functions like a straight-ahead song-to-song listening experience. But the honesty and eloquence poured into each number is palpable. Songs such as “The Kindness Of Strangers,” “Let Me Sleep, I’m So Tired,” and “I’m Not High” embrace a real-time exploration of personal heartache to a degree that reaches deeper and higher than most contemporary musical experiences.
Dirt Yard Street picks up where Bleak Beauty left off; the music is set in motion by sparse and lilting dulcimer strings picked by Tom Gray, who is best known for fronting ’80s new wave band the Brains and the alternative Americana act Delta Moon. Harper and Gray have been friends since the ’80s, and Gray has played on several of Harper’s projects over the years, including many released throughout the ’90s on Harper’s Casino Music, which was owned and operated by Harper and producer, cover artist, and former road manager of the Clash, Kosmo Vinyl. Casino Royale was a vinyl offshoot label used primarily as a vehicle for the “Clay Harper 45 of the month club” subscription series, featuring mostly singles by Harper, along with one-off 7-inches by Drivin N Cryin and the New York City band Jack Black.
Over the years, Tom Gray’s band Delta Moon has also cut several tracks as Harper’s rhythm section. With “Dirt Yard Street,” the two artists keep the song bare-bones and ease their way into a spacious and warm resonance. Harper’s voice drifts over Gray’s bronze dulcimer and Dobro strings, opening the door for songs with titles such as “All the Mail Comes To Neighbor,” “Life On a Windowsill,” and “Somewhere There’s a Fire Waiting.” Each one moves with a ghostly traipse, carved out of heavy emotional atmosphere and texture.
Every song tells its own story, but when taken in as a whole, the album undulates with memories and ideas drifting in and out of focus, like a soft, poetic dreamscape echoing Harper’s life. It’s not nostalgia he’s after. But from the first few notes of “Dirt Yard Street,” Harper revels in his powerful and evocative reminiscence before moving on.
“Clay knew precisely what he wanted on the dulcimer, and I stuck to that,” Gray says. “Then he turned around and gave me free rein on the Dobro. I had no clue about what he had in mind for the album’s bigger picture. We focused on the song.”
As the album unfolds, different configurations of musicians, including Gray, pianist Chris Case, saxophone player Eric Fontaine, bass player Jordan Dayan, guitar players Mark Harper and Keith Joyner, backing vocalist Marshall Ruffin, banjo player Rick Taylor, and violin player Ana Balka fill out the arrangements for each number.
The basic idea for each song is formed before other musicians come in to help bring the material to life. Lyrics are Harper’s forte, and there’s a deliberate sound that he wants to achieve with each piece of music. “He is a fan of slow and sparse, slower than some folks are comfortable with,” says Chris Case, who plays on many songs throughout Bleak Beauty and Dirt Yard Street. “The arrangements are simple, but they require a lot of restraint to play well. I try to always keep in mind the characters he is describing—his directions are mostly about the story,” he adds.
Case goes on to say that Harper represents the best parts of this city. “He is fiercely independent, and not afraid to mix it up with the unsung and unwashed. His lyrics tend to be little character studies of people on the edge, homeless drunken sunrises, down-on-their-luck lovers. I’m always like, ‘Oh yeah, I know these people.’”
In May of 2018, Case joined Harper, guitar player Marshall Ruffin, and bass player Jordan Dayan for a month-long residency at Avondale Towne Cinema. “My favorite time was when we were working up a track for those Avondale shows and he was like, ‘Hmmm … It’s too happy right now. I need it to sound like somebody who’s drunk outside the liquor store in the morning waiting to open so they can buy a rope.’ That’s direction I can work with!”
Another player on the album, Ana Balka, moved to Atlanta from San Francisco in May of 1993. She met Clay and Mark, who needed a violin player for their band, the Ottoman Empire. The band’s album Lester Square had already been recorded with Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl playing violin, and Pearl had recently left town for work. Balka took up violin in the group and played several shows throughout the winter and spring, and then she left town as well.
The Ottoman Empire’s 2004 album, Ottoman Gold, was produced by Eric Goulden, aka Wreckless Eric, who scored his most famous hit with the 1977 single “Whole Wide World” for Stiff Records. Wreckless Eric played throughout Ottoman Gold and took the lead vocal on the song “Stages.” He and Harper continued working together over the years on several albums, including Harper’s 1997 CD, East of Easter.
In his impressionistic way, Harper relives the story of traveling to Paris and getting to know Wreckless Eric in the early ’90s in the song called “Life on a Windowsill.”
“I had always been a fan of Wreckless Eric,” Harper says. “I got to see him play at the Agora in ’78, when he came through with the Stiffs. I loved those records; they really made an impression on me, but then he disappeared. At some point I went into Wax N Facts in Little Five Points and I found his Le Beat Group Électrique LP, which had just come out, and it was mind-blowing. It was low-fi, nothing like I was expecting, and I wouldn’t stop listening to it. I thought, ‘Okay, I gotta go find him!’”
Harper made a pilgrimage to Paris, where he met guitar player Martin Stone. The late guitarist Stone had played in the Pink Fairies, Savoy Brown, and alongside the Residents’ guitarist Snakefinger in the bands Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. He was on a shortlist to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones, and as it turns out, Wreckless Eric had been playing guitar with him. Harper and Stone became friends, but he did not meet Eric on that trip.
Later, he found out that Stone and Eric were playing a show together at a club near the Bastille called Au Père Tranquille. So he made a second trek to Paris, and they became friends. “‘Life On A Windowsill’ is all me and Eric walking down the Rue Saint-Denis, which used to be the hooker track in Paris,” Harper says. “It’s all changed now.”
Harper’s residency at Avondale Towne Cinema coincided with the release of Bleak Beauty and brought together people from all areas and eras of his life. “I think on the second Tuesday of that run Clay introduced me to Murray Attaway of Guadalcanal Diary and suggested we work something up for the final Tuesday, when people were covering some of Clay’s songs from throughout the years,” Ana Balka says.
Attaway and Balka hit it off immediately and shared in the chemistry that the weekly mix of themed music and spoken word performances conjured up. Their contribution to the final night of the residency included a take on “Train” from the Ottoman Empire’s Lester Square and a mashup of “Poverty” and “Coke Light Ice” from the Coolies’ Doug.
“It’s important to make events reflect, pay respect, and bring together the art community of Atlanta,” Harper says. “That was the goal. Not, ‘I like that band … I hate that band,’ but more like, ‘Let’s see what’s happening’ and then maybe … let’s do something!’”
Each night, the program began with conversations between people who’ve been a part of Harper’s life: Kosmo Vinyl told stories about his work as an artist before, during, and after his time with the Clash. Lawyer Daniel Kane hosted a talk called “Meet the Convicts,” examining life in and out of the American prison system. Author Anthony DeCurtis read from and discussed his recent biography, Lou Reed: A Life. He also performed a live set, singing Lou Reed songs with Andy Browne of the band Lynx Deluxe and formerly of the Nightporters. Ponce De Leon Ave. impresario Tom Zarrilli explored the city’s art and performance scene from the late ’70s with a talk titled “So you think you know Atlanta,” with guests including Clare Butler of the Now Explosion. Other artists such as Evereman, The Real Frank Tee, Sad Stove, and more were also featured throughout the month.
“The whole month was a great example of the way he connects people and ideas, and isn’t afraid to go out on a limb to make things happen,” Balka adds.
For Dirt Yard Street, Balka was enlisted to play strings on two deep cuts on the B-side, “All the Mail Comes to Neighbor” and “Somewhere There’s a Fire Waiting.”
“Clay had a clear idea of the kind of sound he was looking for on ‘All the Mail …,’” Balka says. “An unembellished, straightforward and minimal tone. Which was what the song needed, and what seemed true, so that was easy. These songs aren’t looking for backflips or ornate flourishes. He wants textures to create an atmosphere and to hold up a narrative woven from some pretty heavy emotions.”
After they whittled down a few ideas together, Balka’s part in “Somewhere There’s a Fire Waiting” took shape in a simple line. “We work well together because, while I love sussing out whatever it is that a song I didn’t write needs from me—if anything—it’s also great when the writer has a clear idea of what they’re looking for,” Balka says. “When you hear it the same way they do and can make the right thing happen, that’s the best.”
For Harper, Atlanta is home for all intents and purposes. He co-founded the La Fonda Latina and Fellini’s Pizza restaurant chains with business partner Mike Nelson. When not writing and recording music he’s also involved in various other endeavors. In May of 2019, he partnered with Tom Zarrilli to open Gallery 378, a low-key art gallery and performance space in Candler Park around the corner from The Flying Biscuit Café. The gallery was established as a pop-up space for underdog artists, and has hosted openings by Avondale Estates painter Jim Wakeman, titled “A Slice of the Pop Culture Pie,” as well as openings by The Real Frank Tee, Lisa Shinault Fratesi, Rose M. Barron, Atlanta rock photographer Rick Diamond, and more. Drivin N Cryin played a full band set there. Kevn Kinney and Tim Nielsen, and Harper himself have performed live acoustic performances there as well.
The cover art for Dirt Yard Street features a photograph of a half-cluttered, half-bucolic neighborhood scene taken in Carrollton, Georgia. One of the houses in the background is where Harper’s family lived after moving there from Philadelphia when he was just a kid. “That’s where the album’s title comes from,” Harper says. “It was such a rough transitional period, you know? You look at these houses and you understand that whatever it was that happened in your life could have easily led you there. I was led there beyond my control, and I could be there. It’s not like it’s the worst place in the world to be, but that ain’t where I want to be.”
With two masterfully created albums behind him — Bleak Beauty and Dirt Yard Street — Harper is at home in the world.
— Chad Radford