I came late to an appreciation for the British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, and I’ve never been sure why it took me so long. His 1991 song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is so well-crafted that it stands among the best story songs of all time. I’ve heard it — and loved it — for years. And he’s considered one of the best, and most influential rock guitar players of all time. But sometimes I suspect that your mind is elsewhere in your formative years when a musician is making their initial mark on the world, and he or she just slips past your consciousness. We’re lucky, as I have been in recent years, to discover true genius that has been there all along. Richard Thompson is that person for me.
Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967 – 1975 (2021) is Richard Thompson’s witty, moving, and un-ponderous (to use one reviewer’s description) memoir of his early musical career.
It is, to put it simply, a delight to read.
There are unforgettable lines, as when he talks of his band, Fairport Convention, deepening their love of British folk music. “We were starting to connect to a lineage that was ancient, pagan and alive with the dreams of the dead.” There are thoughtful passages about working through tragedy, such as with the 1969 crash of their van which killed Thompson’s girlfriend and the band’s drummer. There are throwaway bits of humor, such as Thompson’s note that when both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sent flowers to the hospital after that crash, “it impressed the nurses.”
And there are laugh-out-loud stories, such the one of sitting in a coffee shop in the Detroit airport and hearing the men in the next booth cursing about the “hippies” under their breath. Thompson carefully looks around and is shocked to see that it is county music star Buck Owens and his band the Buckaroos. As Thompson and his mates get up to leave, Thompson — who had one of his albums — goes back and shocks Owens by complimenting him on his most recent record and asking for his autograph. Then he recognizes the good work of the guitar player and the pedal steel player, calling them by their names, and he has them in the palm of his hands. He notes that he lost the signatures somewhere soon afterwards, “but that really wasn’t the point.”
My favorite of these vignettes of life on the road is when the band — living in a dump of a house named “The Angel” — went to see the local vicar and offered to do a concert to support the church’s organ restoration fund as a way of pacifying the locals who were concerned about a bunch of dirty hippies showing up in their rural community. All went well, and a couple of days later a policeman knocked on the door. Thompson, whose father was a policeman, describes band members frantically hiding drugs under the table when the superintendent of police said, “Stand easy, lads. … I’m here on unofficial business.”
It turns out the local police were impressed with the concert for the church organ fund and wanted to know if the band would do something similar for the police orphan fund.
This did not seem like an offer you turned down, just as you would probably not turn down the offer to play at Al Capone’s wedding. These were people you did not want to piss off, so we readily agreed. If we could do organs, we could do orphans.”
The concert was a huge hit, and when the superintendent came by the next morning to thank them for the significant lift to the orphan’s fund, he asked if there was anything they needed. “Well — we could use a dishwasher.” Later that afternoon a brand-new dishwasher showed up, and the band also noticed that there were no more parking tickets!
This is a wonderful read, full of details about life in London in the 60s, rock stars, and the writing life. Midway through Thompson leaves the band, works some as a session guitarist for hire, and goes on the road as a duo with his wife.
But the singer who really changed the course of his life and helped put the stamp on English folk-rock music was Sandy Denny, heard here with Fairport from the Unhalfbricking album with her Who Knows Where the Time Goes? Thompson plays lovely guitar on this classic.
“Genesis Hall” was an abandoned hotel in London’s Drury Lane, originally the Bell Hotel. It had been occupied by hippie squatters. The London police had evicted the squatters, and eventually caused the building to be razed. Thompson’s father was a member of the London police force at the time, and the lyrics — which Thompson wrote — refer to the incident.
Thompson writes about how much Fairport Convention was influenced by The Band, and especially their album Music from Big Pink. Upon hearing that album, Fairport realized that they needed to stop trying to mimic American roots music and focus instead on their British roots…leading to their move toward creating English folk rock. There is a terrific all-star version of the song online put together by Elvis Costello that features Band founder Levon Helm along with Nick Lowe, Ray Lamontaigne, Allen Toussaunt and Richard Thompson. It is magical.
One of the loveliest of Thompson’s tunes came from the time when he and Linda were singing as a duo. Dimming of the Day is simply sublime, with Linda’s haunting vocals and their exquisite harmony. It is an unforgettable piece, and their original is better than almost every single one of the many covers. (Bonnie Raitt and Alison Krauss both have wonderful versions that are beautiful interpretations.) The tune Dargai which follows is Richard’s take of a J. Scott Skinner fiddle piece of the same name.
I also enjoy this lovely version of Thompson’s 1994 tune Beeswing with Richard and Northumbrian concertina player Alistair Anderson at Alistair’s ‘Diamond Dazzler’ 60th Birthday celebration concert at The Sage Gateshead, in 2008.
In the summer of love, the song’s narrator comes to Dundee and falls in love with a laundry worker, as “fine as a bee’s wing”. They go on the road, busking and fruit picking and tinkering. He wants to settle down and have a family; she refuses. “As long as there’s no price on love I’ll stay.” After a drunken quarrel she leaves. Now he hears only rumours of her, sleeping rough; once marrying but finding “even a gypsy caravan was too much settling down”. Free-spiritedness shades into solipsism. And yet he remains obsessed.
Thompson’s writing skills are amazing here, with the equisite line, “And maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.”
Thompson, who is still going strong in his 70s, has a wonderfully playful side, which comes through in his memoir and in this cover of the Britney Spears pop hit Oops I Did It Again. And I haven’t really mentioned that he’s one of the top guitarists in rock music. You can hear that here. Stay with it all the way to the end!
And finally, one of the best versions I’ve heard of Thompson performing his classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightening came in 2012 at the Americana Music Awards at the Grand Old Opry House in Nashville.
“Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” One of the all-time great lyrics.
Thank you, Richard Thompson, for finding your voice and sharing it with us for so many years.
More to come…
Image: Richard Thompson (credit: RichardThompson-music.com)