This is probably the most inopportune time to be thinking about birds and bees, but lately I found myself listening in my mp3 player over and over to Ben Harper’s wonderful cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” a song not so much about sex as about healing that serious relationships offer.
His cover of the soul legend’s classic song is probably Harper’s most accessible song, rivalling most R&B ditties out there (Craig David sans the irritating vanity?). But even so, I found myself admiring Harper’s emotional rendition, and led me to examine some of his music, spanning 1992’s Pleasure and Pain to the recently released Both Sides of the Gun (terrific title, by the way). This led me to his political involvement. The last album’s song “Better Way” is a perfectly-timed song for Americans of today’s Bush era, a call for activism:
“What good is a man / Who won’t take a stand / What good is a cynic / With no better plan…Take your face out of your hands / And clear your eyes / You have a right to your dreams / And don’t be denied…I believe in a better way…”
Of course, there is also the sex appeal (so they say, not that I would notice hahah), a mysteriousness and brooding seriousness, like you know Harper’s bound to do great things. Too often his singing has been compared to Lenny Kravitz (puhlease!) and “of the people” demeanor to Bruce Springsteen/Bob Dylan, but really he’s so much more. Some of his songs are really soulful and well-written, and his approach to songwriting harking back to the folksy 60s era. For this he is often referred to as a “male Joni Mitchell”.
Yet beyond the superficial comparisons, Harper is one of the conscientious few musicians (often singer-songwriters) today who do not fit into the ready-made categories of mainstream music, straddling between pop music genres (folk, hard rock, jazz, reggae, ska…), and speaking out about the inequities of our time. My mp3 player now is crowded with music from this strand, from Nina Simone to the Indigo Girls to Jeff Buckley to Ani Difranco. (More on them later…)