Masculine, Nurturing: Ben Harper’s Both Sides of the Gun

In a song co-written with Danny Kalb, “More Than Sorry,” Ben Harper sings “Goodbye hasn’t been so good to me” and “We all think that we’re right” and “Too many people say goodbye before they say hello,” and concludes, “What more than sorry do you want from me?” Harper sings the song in a high lonely voice, and the words admit things that sound true.

By Daniel Garrett

Ben Harper
Both Sides of the Gun
Produced by Ben Harper
Virgin, 2006

Ben Harper begins his two-part (two-disk) album collection Both Sides of the Gun with a poetic reverie: “A finger’s touch upon my lips./ It’s a morning yearning” and “The world awakens on the run/ and will soon be earning/ with hopes of better days to come./ It’s a morning yearning.” Intimacy, work, family, nature and weather, and “Your love’s the warmest place the sun ever shines.” The light ballad is sung in a quiet but strong voice—masculine, nurturing. Solemn and pretty, it is a lovely beginning to an ambitious effort.

“I’ve been hoping for you./ What else can I do,/ but keep hoping for you?” Ben Harper (or the song’s narrator) asks in “Waiting for You,” before admitting the kind of time that can be wasted in cultivating an unlikely hope. Harper sings the song in a bewildered, bereft tone. Lost hopes recur: “You can sell your soul, but you can’t buy it back” and “I wish you were here so we could walk and talk in the soft rain” and “all that’s left of us is a picture sitting in a frame” are three lines Ben Harper sings in “Picture in A Frame,” a song he wrote with Michael Ward, Juan Nelson, Oliver Francis Charles, Jason Yates, and Leon Mobley. Harper’s tone conveys a depth and wisdom that make histrionics unnecessary, and in “Picture in a Frame” his tone suggests a tender and yearning love, a love that does not lack for force or sensuality. In “Never Leave Lonely Alone,” a song Harper wrote by himself, he sings, “Some of us laugh even in our darkest hour” and “Unspoken rules of solitude wound without a trace” and “All that we can’t say is all we need to hear.” Hearing the individual notes of the different instruments is one of the pleasures of the composition. On the song, Harper plays guitar and piano and Matt Cory supports Harper on bass; and that is followed by a blues-inflected instrumental, “Sweet Nothing Serenade.”

I wonder if happiness comes to us by event, or in the form of a person or a kind of work, or as a result of temperament. If it is as a result of any of these, what can we do? How much force can we exert? How much patience must we have? What is the secret of good living or even of good love? I think we learn and forget what we need to know; or that we only learn what we need to know when it is too late. These are sad suppositions; and there are times when it can be very hard not to be unhappy. I tend to think that art and ideas are resources, for every day and when all else fails: but even then, when the spirit is delighted, or the mind enlightened, is a man satisfied, happy? “I can’t know the hell you love,/ but I know you’ve had enough,” sings Ben Harper in “Reason to Mourn,” before counseling, “Don’t you give me a reason to mourn./ Look into my eyes with all your hate and scorn./ I’ll remove the crown of sorrow which you have been adorned.” Could that crown of sorrow be removed? It is actually hard to share understanding with a friend or lover and have that person respect it: each of us is liberated or trapped usually by his (her) own mind. The song, beside featuring Harper’s voice and guitar and piano playing, also has violins (Alyssa Park, Patrick Rosalez), viola (Brett Banducci), and cello (Timothy Loo), among the instruments.

In a song co-written with Danny Kalb, “More Than Sorry,” Ben Harper sings “Goodbye hasn’t been so good to me” and “We all think that we’re right” and “Too many people say goodbye before they say hello,” and concludes, “What more than sorry do you want from me?” Harper sings the song in a high lonely voice, and the words admit things that sound true.

Harper seems to stumble when he writes, “Now your poets have all put down their pens./ The only songs to sing are those sung again” in the song “Cryin’ Won’t Help You Now.” Harper seems to be reaching for an idea or perception just beyond his grasp. (It is unfortunate to lack eloquence when one speaks of eloquence—or to make a mistake when criticizing others.) Sometimes old words—old poems, old songs—give us consolation; and they can only because they have: familiarity is the comfort.

I used to listen to Billie Holiday when I was young. I thought that I understood something about bitterness and grief, emotions and experiences to which she was a witness. I had seen the lives of my elders, and I had seen the portion allotted to me, and what I saw was wanting (and what I wanted was to escape and transcend and then to transform). Billie Holiday knew the truth, I thought. One could hear it in the lyrics she sang: and, more truly, one could hear it in her voice, in her breath, her tone, her phrasing. Few singers come close to suggesting how hopeless life can seem. To hear the sad songs of a comfortable, healthy young man as Ben Harper is to hear more imagination than fact, more empathy than dejection. Does he really know—has he ever really known—despair? The first half of Both Sides of the Gun begins with small, fragile pleasures and hopes, and moves to consider conflict and pain, and ends with the song “Happy Everafter in Your Eyes,” which Harper alone wrote, and in which he sings, “I carry you in my smile./ For the first time I see my true reflection./ I see happy everafter in your eyes” and “All that I can give you is forever yours to keep./ Wake up every day with a dream/ and happy everafter in your eyes.”

“I’m a living sunset, lightning in my bones./ Push me to the edge, but my will is stone,” Ben Harper sings in “Better Way,” the song that begins the second half of Both Sides of the Gun. There are aspects both Eastern (Indian) and Caribbean in the music (David Lindley plays tambura, a classical Indian string instrument, while Harper plays percussion, keyboards, and bass as well as sings—and shouts). In the song, Harper asks, “What good is a cynic with no better plan?” and that is certainly a very good question: a question one must answer or be reduced to silence. “You have a right to your dreams,” he sings.

In the song that gives the two-part album its collective title, “Both Sides of the Gun,” a funk-rock piece that may have roots in an older music, Harper sings, “Archaic doctrine no longer serve us./ Now we are left as silent witnesses./ We don’t know quite what this is/ other than a war that can’t be won.” Current events seem to have given him pause, as he seems to note a troublesome leader, a “one dimensional fool in a three-dimensional world,” and Harper adds, “Young and old deserve much more/ than struggling every day until you’re done” before acknowledging “Tension./ Too much to mention/ living on both sides of the gun.”

“I wish I was a thought./ I’d run all through your mind/ and come out being everything/ you ever tried to find,” Harper sings in “Engraved Invitation,” which recalls for me, though Harper is more romantic, some words written by Adrienne Rich, in which she wanted her words and spirit to be like a leaflet someone read and absorbed (many things remind me of Rich, as I used to read her constantly). The song’s music is more straight-ahead ranting rock than Ben Harper usually does. Harper (or the narrator in his song) acknowledges his divided acts and impulses when he says, “I wish I could yell sorry louder than I screamed/ all of those other things I said but didn’t mean” and “Some days I’m the Lord’s servant./ Some day’s I’m Satan’s pawn.”

Current events—the middle eastern war across the ocean, and the Louisiana hurricane that exposed many poor people to indifferent natural and institutional forces—are subjects, yes elements, in some of Harper’s new work: inspiration, inspiring anger and sadness; inspiration, inspiring lyrics and their themes. “You left them swimming for their lives/ down in New Orleans,” Harper sings in “Black Rain,” naming the unnamed leader’s “useless degrees” and “contrary statistics” and stating “this government business is straight up sadistic.” (“Black Rain” has soulful bass and percussion—full, rounded, eccentric grooves, balancing sensuality and tension.) Harper draws attention to the one-sided social contract, and asserts that revolutionaries can be killed but not the revolution. He says, “This generation is beyond your command,” and predicts, “A black rain is gonna fall.”

Many people acted as if New Orleans was their first view of poverty, something that seems ingenuous or damn lucky. The contempt, incomprehension, and pity that afflicts the poor is hard to describe and a burden to bear. Poverty is made possible by social relations, by various economic exploitations and political dominance, and even those who say they want to help the poor—such as activists and social workers—make money off the poor. To get rid of poverty, there would have to be equal educational and employment opportunities for all and a decent guaranteed income. That is prohibited by blind puritanism—the sense that the good gain wealth, and the flawed suffer poverty—and prohibited also by selfishness, as hardly anyone is willing to fund other people’s happiness or health: and thus, the poor are always with us.

War is the subject of “Gather ‘Round the Stone,” in which Harper writes and sings, “You whip the back of freedom till it bleeds an oil stream” and speaks of old men sending children to die. The musical piece is melodious, with a chanting chorus that reminds me of both African-American gospel music and some Native American chants I have heard. In a song that seems to target social difference and moral hypocrisy, Harper sings, “You’re the first one to chuckle, but the last one to grieve” and” Your life is marked by numbers and symbols,/ excessive drinking from out of golden thimbles” and “You’re dressed for summer in the middle of December./ What you’ve all but forgotten, I painfully remember” (the song is called “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating”). I had a memory of Jimi Hendrix while listening to the loud chaos and blunt wit of the song: the sound really undercuts the righteous sanctimony of the lyrics, and the song becomes an expression of social pressure and personal passion. Harper sees class, one of the neglected and misunderstood American subjects. How wealth is made and handed down is a mystery. How all have the opportunity at fortune a myth. Hardly anyone questions success, no matter how vile the method of its achievement, and no matter how stupid or useless the success is, but failure—even the failure of an intelligent and well-intentioned effort—is often damning: and a person can find himself (herself) not existing in several worlds—the worlds of his (her) birth, and struggle, and aspirations.

Although I have heard Ben Harper’s recordings Welcome to the Cruel World (1994), The Will to Live (1997), Live from Mars (2001), Diamonds on the Inside (2003) , and There Will Be a Light (2004) , I had not expected Ben Harper’s shouts in “Better Way,” nor had I anticipated his outspoken and persistent attention to social issues in other songs on Both Sides of the Gun. Harper’s rage is surprising, the kind of thing that is often disfiguring, frightening, impolitic—and understandable. Whatever the reason for or justification of rage, it alienates many people in the world, and that may be another need for the freedom of art, which allows us to hear what we might refuse otherwise. There must be a place for the impolitic, as the impolitic is sometimes a necessary truth, an irresolvable fact. I can think of my own moments of impolitic rage—they were destructive, foolish, and I felt as if my whole life made them inevitable, with history at the root of every mistake, the present moment the torturing crucible, and the preferable future its ironic and unfortunate victim. Rage at circumstances is often used by official power as evidence that one is unworthy to have one’s circumstances changed, though what rage does is to deny official power its intellectual and moral authority, leaving power’s force undisguised: and power moves the brutally articulate witness or the pathetically inarticulate witness out of its sight and hearing, the witness whose rage itself is a proof.

Ben Harper offers a flippant effrontery that might be apt: “wrong is the new right,” before adding an irreverence, “They keep telling me Jesus walked on water./ He shoulda surfed” in “Get It Like You Like It.” I’m not entirely sure what the song—which also mentions the year 1918 and a piano shoved into a pond, a grand slam of a bat, and an eighty-six year-old curse, while advising “Don’t become what you hate”—is finally about. However its chorus and front-loaded guitars—featuring the guitars of Harper, Michael Ward, and Marc Ford—call to mind the Rolling Stones. Then again, in the next song, “The Way You Found Me,” Harper (as a faltering and farcical man) admits, “The more I talk, the less I think,” a song that might be about accepting reality or about accepting a bad attitude.

The second half of Both Sides of the Gun closes with “Serve Your Soul”: and in it, Harper sings, “I look into the mirror,/ and I see someone there I used to know./ They all want you to serve them,/ but the only one you got to serve is your soul.” Is that so? After the pressures he has suggested—economic, political, social—one might think otherwise. Is resistance possible, or ultimately futile? Harper ends the collection with sentimentality: “Every setting sun gently weeps./ You can always hear it,/ ‘cause trust never sleeps.”

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages ofThe Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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