Arts Alive - July 2020
- story by Steve Barney
Steven Harper speaks in jazz idioms, in a vernacular of Duke Ellington in a 1940s smoke-filled dance hall.
“Getting his groove on to blue notes and bebops, and honing his chops on the six-string, that’s the cat’s meow, baby.” It’s not an act for Fez-wearing, handlebar-mustached Steven Harper, it’s as authentic as it gets. Up-tempos, downbeats…. everything has a musical corollary for Harper.
Born in Indiana, Harper’s musical influences are as varied as they are deep. Harper’s father, Dr. Andrew Harper, was a well-known orchestra conductor and inductee in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. The acclaimed music scholar has chaired departments in South Alabama and Oklahoma State University. From a young age, the senior Harper immersed his children in the music of Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms – all the great classical composers, spanning hundreds of years of music.
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Harper never lived in a house without a piano. Musical instruments of every type were always readily available to learn about major keys and chord progressions – guitar, dobro, cello, banjo, ukulele, recorder, drum, you name it. Not surprisingly, Steven, his two brothers and sister are all very accomplished musicians.
Harper recalls, “It was never a question of if I would play music, but what instrument I would play.”
Complementing dad’s classical influence, Harper’s mother, Mary Lena, a lifelong Elvis fanatic, was more into rock 'n' roll, sitting in the balcony at Little Richard concerts during the segregationist early 50s.
Steven grew up on the Beatles, listening to tracks endlessly through his brother’s bedroom wall. In high school, he got into early rock and roll: Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets. The Stray Cats led him from rockabilly to early punk, the sounds of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.
In the heyday of MTV music videos, the second British invasion of punk/ new wave bands caught Steven’s ear. He became particularly enamored with the early work of Liverpool’s ska/punk breakout band, The Police. Harper recognized how advanced the trio’s music was in comparison with the solitary chords driving popular punk songs. Sting’s ethereal songwriting coupled with Andy Summers’ heavily distorted and complex chord riffs made a deep impression on Harper.
Art and music are intertwined like woven strands in Steven’s creative DNA. The Harper household was also filled with art history books and a plethora of art supplies in every room. An endless supply of music programs could be used for impromptu canvas. Harper, whose formal background is in fine art, has a degree in painting. After college, he continued graduate work, painting downtown scenes in Mobile, Alabama.
In Mobile, he was delivering a painting commissioned for a friend’s wedding. With his usual tenacity, he invited himself to the wedding. It’s there that Steven met Heather, his life partner and music collaborator.
Heather and the Monkey King have been entertaining audiences along the Gulf Coast and in Europe for over two decades. As a music critic explains, “With their unique blend of Uptown Blues, Swing, and Rockabilly they can make those toes start tapping, and get those feet out on the dance floor! Their stage show brings back some long-lost glamour to the world of live music.”
The roots of Heather and the Monkey King go back to college, when Steven talked with his dad about how to become a better guitar player. “Dad pushed me to join the college jazz band, and it was amazing stuff,” Harper says. “You dig on one cat, and before you know it, you’ve learned a lot of the big band standards.”
When Steven and Heather first started dating she wasn’t a musician at all. “I explained to her,” Steven recalls, “a musician is kind of like a fireman. If there is a fire, you drop everything and just go. If a gig comes up, our date is cancelled. That’s what I do.”
At the time, Harper was a full-time musician playing with a number of bands and leading a punk/surf outfit called Fez. Steven realized that they really needed a female presence on stage. “The problem with having a young woman in a band is the boyfriend; they are always a jerk,” Harper confides. He taught Heather some one finger licks on the keyboard, instructing her, “If you get lost, just turn off the keyboard and fake it.”
It was one fateful evening at a late-night performance in Montgomery, Alabama, when someone in the audience yelled, ‘Hey, let the girl sing one!’ “I knew Heather could sing in the shower and has a beautiful voice,” explains Harper, “so I taught her how to control it.” A month later, she debuted “Fever” by Peggy Lee, and to Steven’s amazement as a lifelong musician, she received a standing ovation.
“It was a natural fit,” Steven says. “In some ways, I regret teaching her to sing because she’s spoiled a lot of recordings for me. I’d rather hear Heather sing; it’s a vintage voice, like a small jazz combo from the 1950s.”
Heather’s musical talents and stage presence have come a long way since then. Music critics note Heather’s “smooth-like-butter voice… and moves that mesmerize you into a trance as she performs.”
Harper’s interest in the music of bygone eras and its influences on culture extends to films and art as well. His obsession with the film Star Wars goes back to earlier days growing up in the college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Harper recalls, “When I was a kid in 1977 Star Wars came out, and it completely blew my mind. I thought this was the coolest thing I ever saw.”
It was a different era back then, and the blockbuster movie played continuously at major theatres for years. Harper recalls, “I would ride my bike up to the theatre and see it every week.” Discussing the movie with his mom, Harper was introduced to other literature that sparked deep philosophical inquiry about the archetypal heros, villains and antiheros in Star Wars.
Deconstructing George Lucas’s epic quest of good and evil led Harper to eastern religion, particularly Taoism. “’May the Force Be With You,’” Harper explains, is identical to the concept of the ‘tao,’ the spiritual ‘flow of the universe’ that all things are a part of, and vice-versa. Indeed, according to Taoist metaphysics, the dichotomy of good and evil is, in fact, nonexistent, as the dichotomy itself is one whole.” This construct fit right into Harper’s liberal Presbyterian upbringing.
Harper has meticulously deconstructed George Lucas’s early influences, from Akira Kurosawa to Fritz Lang and Buck Rogers. Harper identifies how the same archetypes and scenes of hero, villain and antihero are embedded in seminal films from the 1920s through ‘50s including Casablanca, High Noon and Metropolis.
“Rick’s Café in Casablanca and the Star Wars ‘Creature Cantina’ are the same thing in different times and different places,” Harper explains, “And the resemblance between Han Solo and the Marshal played by Gary Cooper in High Noon is not coincidental.”
Harper started doing collages to explore and visualize these connections. “Collages have taken me into another world,” he exclaims. Through the technique, Harper brings his deconstruction of George Lucas’s brain to life. His work was featured at a recent solo show, “Archetypes from a Galaxy Far Away” at Smith and Lens Gallery in Bay St. Louis.
Smith and Lens co-owner Ann Madden said, “Steven's show of Star Wars-inspired mixed-media pieces was a super-geek gathering of art unlike anything we'd ever seen. It was really fun to watch the diehard fans feast on them.”
Madden adds, “Is there anything Steven Harper can't do? He's a master musician, an amazing dad, an incredible teacher and artist and he does it all with exceptional wit, humor and grace. A musician friend of mine once told me he considers Steven to be the best guitar player on the coast, maybe in Mississippi.”
More recently, Harper unexpectedly entered the world of Comicon gatherings and graphic novels. At a Coastcon, some kids noticed a random drawing in one of Steven’s sketchbooks. It was a doodle featuring a jungle adventurer with butterfly on his helmet guiding a young lady through the forest.
“Kids wanted to know about the character and the story,” explains Harper. “At least 30 kids asked me the same question. So I went home and wrote a graphic novel, The Quest for the Golden Butterfly, about this character.”
Five episodes have been written, with the first in print. Harper is now fully immersed in the art of contemporary graphic novels. Unlike most artists working in the genre, Harper laboriously produces his graphic novels “old school” – by hand, without the assistance of a computer. His latest project is a comic book based on Heather and the Monkey King.
Such is the continuing and always adventurous journey of a real life antihero.
Some links to follow what Steven Harper’s up to:
Tiki Fez Comics: https://www.facebook.com/Tikifez-Comics-2268219573244930/
Heather and the Monkey King: https://www.facebook.com/Heather-and-the-Monkey-King-92811164322/
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKGyFsDcVrYt8n-3P3-Y5Zg