Music  |  Features

Richard Thompson

Plunging the Knife in Deeper

June 9, 2003  |  12:00am
Richard Thompson

It’s a typically English tableau: On a summer afternoon, on a green field under mackerel skies, a man in white swings a cricket bat at an oncoming ball. Sometimes, missing, he runs to retrieve it, tosses it back to the bowler, then resumes his position, waiting.

Variations on the cricket-white theme pepper the sports field in Cropredy, Oxfordshire. Most are worn by the village team, which is about to play its annual match against a side made up of members and friends of the band Fairport Convention.

Few Fairporters can be found on the field. The festival commemorating the band’s 35th anniversary ran late last night, and the post-concert celebrations later still; some of the lads are probably still celebrating.

But Richard Thompson, a founding member of the group, has his eye on the ball. He hits more than he misses. If practice doesn’t make perfect, it nonetheless makes this good-natured game just a little more accomplished.

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Later on, the skies will open up. Rain attaches itself to Thompson like—well, like lazy journalists attach themselves to clichés. It’s generally in the first paragraph of a Thompson-related story that the reader encounters “doom,” “gloom” or both. The alleged darkness of his vision may be the most famous thing about this relatively fame-free artist.

But come upon him fresh, at the turn of the last century—via his last album for Capitol (1999’s Mock Tudor), his new album on Cooking Vinyl/spinART (The Old Kit Bag, released in the U.K. in February and due in the States in May), a handful of limited-release live CDs and a string of concert performances that keep him on the road over half the nights of the year—and you’ll notice more sunshine than cloud cover. His recent live concerts included songs he’d written for an upcoming children’s album. (Then again, “My Daddy Is a Mummy” kills off Pops in line three before engaging in a lively review of embalming techniques.) And the vibrant spirit of his compositions of the last several years makes it easier to get beyond the dour reputation of this man in black (it’s a stage thing, he says; dark clothes “don’t show the stains”). What with the kids’ songs, the onstage jokes and the smile-smile-smile of his new album’s title, is he whistling through the graveyard, grinning while the bombs rain down?

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“I’m just a happy person,” he says. We are in the greenroom du jour, in the basement of the McDonald Theatre in Eugene, Ore., a few hours before a January solo show. He’s a genial host and a thoughtful interviewee, courteous but exacting, and prone to slip from earnest revelation into defensive humor in an eyeblink.

He divides himself between his visitor and his guitar, playing at some old familiar tune he describes as “a Mary Lou Williams version of Dvorak.” He’s not distracted; he’s just multitasking. Happy to set the guitar down when he’s asked a question; happy to pick it up again when attention turns from him.

About his jovial stage presence, he acknowledges: “I think humor on stage is a kind of a weapon, actually.” His interviewer, who, it must be said, has seen him well over 100 times, can be glimpsed in the audience in two concert broadcasts recorded in two different countries and has Thompson trivia taking up room in the cerebellum perhaps better given to bank account numbers and children’s birth dates, says, “I’ve seen that in interviews with you before.”

Thompson goes playful—pitch raised, eyes wide. “Or it was somebody else, perhaps. Whitesnake. Or Rolf Harris!” Earnest again: “I think humor’s useful for switching—I think it’s good because it’s supposed to be entertainment, music. It’s a lot to ask people to sit through an hour and a half, two hours of music that’s all one mood, where things never get light and bubbly. So I think it just helps the audience attention span, and it helps to soften up the audience, too, in a sense. They’re more relaxed, and therefore you can kind of plunge the knife in when they’re not looking.”

To my shocked laugh, he quickly and sincerely adds: “I mean that in kind of a positive way.”

Richard John Thompson was born on April 3, 1949, and grew up in London with his parents and older sister. He was a sickly, shy child with a serious stammer. (Later, he would be quoted as saying, “I took up music so I wouldn’t have to talk to people.”) His father was a policeman—a “dour Scot,” Thompson’s mother once said, who loved music and bought his son his first guitar.

By his early teens, he was hanging around his sister’s boyfriends, getting them to teach him guitar techniques. Soon he was playing in local bands with schoolmates. One of these bands became Fairport Convention, a rock band (ca. 1967) turned folk-rock band (ca. 1969) turned musical institution/semi-dysfunctional family (after Thompson left).

Inspired by the music of Bob Dylan and The Byrds, by his father’s record collection and by his own muse, the teenage Thompson began writing songs and also creating many of the group’s musical arrangements. He has been credited with Fairport’s unusual setting of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and with the jazzy 5/4 arrangement of bandmate Sandy Denny’s “Autopsy.” His interest in Cajun music led to the song “Cajun Woman”; across the ocean, a kid named Michael Doucet listened in wonderment to this group of Brits reinterpreting his heritage for youth-culture consumption and started pondering ways to start his own folk revival, which would eventually lead to BeauSoleil.

Fairport, too, moved further into reclaiming its British roots, particularly after folksinger Denny joined after the group’s first album. The young band took up the traditional song “A Sailor’s Life” for its 1969 album Unhalfbricking, with Thompson and fiddler Dave Swarbrick creating waves of electric tumult.

Just before the release of Unhalfbricking, on the road to promote the upcoming album, the band suffered a tragedy. In the early hours of May 12, 1969, while driving back from a gig with most of Fairport in the van, the driver began to doze off. Thompson was sitting up front with his girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. The van left the M1 motorway and tumbled over an embankment to land on a golf course. Nearly everyone was thrown from the vehicle. Franklyn and drummer Martin Lamble were killed.

The members of Fairport recovered as well as could be expected; some wounds ran deep. Denny, who was not in the van at the time, became even more skittish about traveling than before. She left the group within a year, along with bassist Ashley Hutchings, who suffered severe facial injuries. But while pulling themselves together that summer, the Fairporters created the landmark folk-rock album Liege and Lief. Among a bounty of electrified ballads, mostly culled from the Cecil Sharp House folk archives, is a melancholy Thompson/Swarbrick number, “Crazy Man Michael.” In Thompson’s lyrics, a raven taunts Michael that “your true love will die by your own right hand”; when Michael, angered, kills the bird, he finds that it was his lover, transformed. The final stanza shows him as “keeper of the garden” where he has lost his love, limited to whistling “the simplest of tunes.”

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Thompson’s music, actually, is quite simple—in the way that, say, Citizen Kane and La Gioconda are simple and Ulysses and Two Virgins are not. There are take-home tunes, clever but understated lyrics, and a surprising lack of self-indulgent wankage for someone so often deemed a guitar god.

But subtlety doesn’t necessitate impotence. Getting back to knifing one’s audiences, Thompson clarifies: “I think you almost want people’s defenses to be down, so that they’ll let you wash over them with whatever the subject matter is. And because as a songwriter you’re trying to really hit the audience just below the conscious level.”

In a concert setting, Thompson says, the jokes and lighter songs serve a purpose: “You want [the audience] to not have preconceived notions. And if the mood switches a lot, then that breaks up their preconceptions. But you can’t do that with an album. Not as much, anyway.”

A song called “God Loves a Drunk” appeared on his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, but I first heard it in an August 1990 performance at Bumbershoot, a Seattle arts festival. Thompson, alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, called out: “Do we have any drunks in the audience this evening?” To scattered laughter and cheers, he continued: “This one’s for all the drunks!” The first line, “Will there be any bartenders up there in heaven?” was met with giggles, claps and one cry of “You rock!” By the end of the song—which knocks propriety (“Does crawling and wage-slaving win you God’s love?”) in favor of inebriation (“God loves a drunk, although he’s a fool, oh he wets in his pants and he falls off his stool”)—the audience was stunned into near-silence.

“It’s a slightly worrying song, ’cause it kind of attacks the audience,” Thompson, a longtime teetotaler, muses. “Attacks audience values. Which I think is good. ‘Cold Kisses’ is another one.” In that song, from 1996’s you?me?us?, the narrator digs around in his girlfriend’s underwear drawer for photos of her old lovers (“got to see how I measure up to them all.”). “People don’t really talk about it, but it’s a thing that people do quite a lot that they would never admit to. So if you put that into a song, it kind of unsettles the audience—but in a good way—but then the story goes in.”

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When Thompson, in 1986’s “Long Dead Love,” wrote: “Somebody's walking, oh somebody's walking / There on the grave of our love …Why don't they just let it die and fade and grow cold again?” he protested the muckraking of his 10-year marriage to Linda Thompson, which ended in 1982. People are still getting out the shovels, particularly in light of Linda’s 2002 release Fashionably Late, her first album in almost two decades.

Thompson and Linda (née Peters) met through mutual friend Sandy Denny, before first Denny and then Thompson (in 1971) left Fairport Convention for solo careers. Linda had a career of her own—jingles, Elton John demos, the folk circuit—but now she would give voice to Richard’s words. And it was a superb voice. Mellow, capable of snowy obliqueness or passionate warmth at turns, it sounded even better when paired with her husband’s rough-hewn baritone. The couple recorded six albums together—most critical successes, all commercial flops—before their breakup.

Two extramusical elements of that time—the Muslim Thing and the Divorce Thing—get rehashed more often than the Thompsons’ creations get played. The couple’s adoption of Sufism—which Richard has described as less a conversion than a recognition (he told biographer Patrick Humphries, “I just thought, ‘Oh, this is actually who I’ve always been’”) took them out of the musical world for a time, in part because Richard was unsure how to reconcile his art with his faith. (He attempted to become an antiques dealer.)

Linda had other problems, as the primary caretaker of their eventual three children. The couple’s marriage was stormy. Their return to the music business after two years lessened some of the pressures, but Richard’s announcement that he had fallen in love with an American woman was the final blow to the marriage—but not the career.

It was 1982. The Thompsons’ third child had been born; Richard had told Linda that the marriage was over—and the couple, incredibly, followed through on an engagement to tour the States behind their album Shoot Out the Lights. The tour cemented their reputations among American fans, many of whom had sought out Fairport and Thompson albums with bloodhound tenacity in those pre-Internet times. Ilana Pelzig Cellum, a New York-based freelance recording engineer who got to know Richard around that time, recalls: “When I recorded him at Folk City in ’82 [for Small Town Romance], he was astonished at how many people knew his songs.”

He eventually married his newfound love, Nancy Covey, but he spent a lot of time in New York after the breakup, dropping in on shows by his ex-Fairport bandmates Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick. Cellum says she and fellow engineer Ed Haber “got to know him pretty well. It was a hard time for him.”

Simon Tassano came on board as tour manager and soundman during what became known as “the divorce tour.” He’s been Thompson’s right-hand man ever since. “When I first knew Richard, he wouldn’t say boo to a goose onstage, and now he’s the consummate entertainer and has the audience exactly where he wants them virtually 99 percent of the time. And it still grows, in my opinion.”

Time, work and solitude have shaped the onstage Thompson, says Tassano. “When you’re out there doing it all that time, especially when you’re by yourself up there and it’s not a band, you’ve really got to connect with the audience in between as well. And I think necessity has brought about [the naturally shy Thompson’s ease on stage]. When it was Richard and Linda, obviously he was going through a tough time in his life, with emotions and all that kind of stuff, but then as he became just Richard and moved on, he just became stronger, I guess.”

In Eugene, I joke that I won’t ask him what his latest songs are about because I know he won’t tell me anyway. I’m surprised when he goes on to discuss what they mean to him.

Take, for example, The Old Kit Bag’s opening track, “Gethsemane,” a song named for a town named for a place of betrayal: “It’s the story of a person, a relative of mine, who grew up in a very idyllic childhood—tremendous freedom, what you want for children, that sense of freedom, running through the woods, sailboats out on the river. That thing where as a kid you just disappear for the whole of a summer’s day and come back at evening and your parents know you’re OK. So he had a great childhood, but as he got older, life became more disappointing. Nothing quite lived up to that. And parental expectations—he could never live up to parental expectations. So life became harder, and he began to drink a lot, and he got really ill. …So it’s a boy’s song, about the responsibility of maleness.”

Coming from a man whose 1982 “A Man in Need” took an upbeat approach to familial desertion, that might be hard for some to swallow. There are women who knew him during his first marriage who won’t listen to his music now, who can’t forgive what he did to Linda, even though he and Linda seem to have made their own peace with matters.

Asked about the treatment of her gender in his songs, colleague Cellum allows: “There always seems to be a distrustful, misogynistic element there.” She admits that it makes her uncomfortable before quickly stressing that it’s not at all evident in the way he behaves toward her. When she says, “You wish Richard was better about women,” she means as a songwriter.

Thompson, a 53-year-old white, heterosexual Englishman, writes what he knows. “Everybody has a hard time, be you male or female,” he says. “There are problems, crises and rites of passage.”

He has five children, four now grown: a son from an early relationship, two daughters and a son (musician Teddy Thompson) with Linda, and another son with Nancy Covey. How does he feel he’s done in preparing his sons for the responsibility of maleness? “Having what I would consider to be a difficult and traumatic childhood doesn't automatically make me a great father who knows how to bring up boys. With my two oldest [sons], I've had a lot of catching up to do, because I wasn't there enough in the early years. I probably try too hard to do the right thing, and that doesn't work very well … it's been easier with my youngest, and I've been able to be more consistent.

“But the songs are a different world, and I don't know how they relate to the real world. They are probably closer to the demons of my youth than anything to do with my kids.”

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Thompson has fought those demons by devoting himself to his music. By 1982, he began more solo touring and recording. By the ’90s, he had taken solo and band tours all over the world, and he was as well-known in the States—which has been his primary home for some time now—as in his native England.

Says avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser, who has worked with Thompson numerous times: “An amazing thing about RT that I get to see offstage, that most fans would not get to see, is how hard he works. He works hard at songwriting. He works hard at conceiving new things on guitar and new ways to play. RT never rests on his laurels. He is never lazy. He works hard at growth and pushes himself to try new things. He does not choose the easiest paths.”

Thompson certainly didn’t choose an easy path when he identified himself as a Muslim. He remains a deeply spiritual man, though after a fairly intense discussion of some Islamic themes, he murmurs, “I’d rather people didn’t know about my religious beliefs, ‘cause I think it gets in the way. I’d rather that wasn’t a barrier. If I could start again, I would never say anything about it.”

Because it’s already out on the table, he’s had some heavy responsibilities since Sept. 11. “I got hate mail. But most people that I knew were bending over backwards to try and be understanding. My experience was mostly that people were aware that Islam was something that they really didn’t know much about, and they wanted to find out.”

He is especially quick to rail against fundamentalism of all stripes, notably in the Taliban’s dismissal of Western civilization, which Thompson touches on in The Old Kit Bag’s “Outside of the Inside”: “God never listened to Charlie Parker / Charlie Parker lived in vain …Wash away his monkey music / Damn his demons, damn his pain.”

“I certainly don’t like Christian fundamentalists, and I certainly don’t like Muslim fundamentalists. Probably the worst scenario is where the two collide. Which is a possibility, right? But I think of fundamentalists as basically ignorant. They have their small amount of knowledge which gives them a very superior attitude to other people. And it gives them their little bit of power.

“The person in the song is not someone who listens to their conscience. [It’s] someone who does it by the book. It’s the accountant mindset toward the spiritual. And the end of the song says, ‘when I get to heaven, I won’t know I’m there.’ If you can’t see paradise in this world, how will you see it in the next world?”

For Thompson, “the idea is that you worship God; you’re not worshipping religion. There’s no compulsion in Islam. In what’s called the din”—a sort of contract between the individual and God—“it’s like the life transaction. There’s no compulsion to anybody else.

“The Saudis have prayer police who go out and hit you over the head if you’re aren’t doing the prayer at prayer time and this kind of stuff. This is real Spanish inquisition stuff. It’s the imposition of religion.”

That said, he’s adamantly opposed to the military action that was looming on the horizon when we last spoke. In fall 2002, at several solo shows in the Northeast, he sang Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” along with a new verse about the folly of going to war for oil. A number of audience members tried to shout him down, argued among themselves during and after the show, or stormed out—“which is all good,” Thompson avows. “That’s all I was trying to do, was to get people to talk! Get people to debate, instead of this idea that it’s unpatriotic to challenge the White House at the moment.”

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It might be easy to think that today’s Thompson is streamlined, serene. His live sound is slicker: Tassano, who has worked with him for 21 years, mans the soundboard with an eagle eye. Thompson handles his fans, many of them almost terrifyingly worshipful, with ease—maybe because they’re his bread and butter, but also because, Thompson says, “I’m glad to have people listen to me.” He’s less fazed than he used to be by the Thompson-is-God types: “It’s only strange if you invest in it. Which I’ve never done.”

And his latest album could be called simpler than some of its predecessors. The Old Kit Bag was recorded with a trio consisting of Thompson, bassist Danny Thompson, and percussionist Michael Jerome, with occasional backing vocals from Judith Owen. “That was one of the manifesto decrees of the album,” he says; “we’ll do it as a three-piece, and we’ll use everybody on every track. So we’ll pick tracks that, regardless of how quiet they get and how acoustic they are, everyone’s still gonna be playing on something. Just to give it a kind of unity.” There are a few overdubs—Thompson plays accordion, dulcimer, harmonium and mandolin as well as the expected guitars. “That doesn’t imply a lot of skill!” he laughs. “It just implies convenient things lying around that any fool can have a go at.”

This self-deprecation, like his music, like his humor, is a tool he wields to unsettle. In speaking with him over the years, in settings formal and otherwise, I’ve experienced three or four moments when it seems I've been let in on an intimate revelation, an unguarded comment. But later the happy man with the quick knife appears again. The more I talk with him, the more I learn about him—and the more I realize I don’t really know him at all.

As he picks through shards of memory, images of passersby, hidden photographs, for the elements of his musical alchemy, he uses himself in strange ways: appearing with startling honesty, then disappearing in a puff of smoke.

In Eugene, as my recorder clicked off, he commented: “The tape always ends on the truth.” But whatever truth he’d claimed was on the tape leader, words lost forever.

If there is an archetypal Richard Thompson character, it’s a man who can’t clear his throat to speak, who stands poised for a great leap, toes tightening, heart beating.

He makes his leaps in those rare extended electric solos, seldom captured on tape. His playing, whether acoustic or electric, is exploratory; you experience him listening to himself. When soloing, he travels the strings, setting up initially dissonant series of notes that resolve themselves, over and over, in unexpected ways. The tension builds, sexually, spiritually—a delicious, disturbing anticipation, ecstatic release, a peaceful return to earth with eyes yet on the sky.

This divine music is among the risks that Thompson forsook for that brief period in the ’70s when he thought it more holy to sell antiques.

He knows the power of what he does: “Music’s something that brings people together. Music’s a great force for good. You could set out to play dark, evil music, but mostly it’s various versions of bringing light from dark. People go away from a concert happy, usually. That’s because it removes the barriers.

“People tell me my songs are sensual, or that they put you in the there and then, but I think that's as often untrue as it is true—because there are different intentions in the writing.”

He knows what his songs mean to him, and he’s open to them being heard differently, though he still thrives on the connection: “Sometimes someone will come up after a concert and they’ll say, ‘I really get that song, I really understand that, that means a lot to me,’ and that’s fantastic. For me that’s the best feeling … the idea that you’ve communicated something to somebody else and they’ve got it, they’ve got through whatever the language is, whatever the medium, they’ve managed to decode it.”

To him, many of his songs are about taking risks. About longtime favorite “Wall of Death,” he says, “I suppose that song is a memo to self. It’s a song to me—it’s just to remind me how I should live, that I should take risks, that I should be on the edge. That I should be the guy who walks down the street muttering to himself, that that’s OK.”

The intoxicating “First Breath,” on The Old Kit Bag, serves a similar purpose: “Another memo to self: Grasp with both hands what’s left of your life.”

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When Michael Jerome was hired to play drums on the tour supporting the 1999 release Mock Tudor, he’d never heard of Richard Thompson. A friend told him: “He pushes the boundaries enough to make it interesting.”

Part of the success of Thompson’s music, says Jerome, is that it’s “all the mind of Richard. He can give direction if he needs to, but the fun of it is he hardly does it.” “I think Richard absolutely knows his own mind and he is unswayable,” says Cellum. “I’m sure he’ll listen to all the comments, but it’s his own vision. And that’s why he makes things that last … I would hate to have to try to change his mind! It’s not that he’s rigid, so much—it’s that he has his own path.”

“Let the man get out there and do exactly what he wants, as far as I’m concerned,” says Tassano. “That’s the best way.”

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He likes sport, this typically British man. He coaches his youngest son’s soccer team. He suffers occasional pain from tennis elbow—brought on by guitar work, yes, but also by pounding the courts. A few years ago, at the Cropredy reunion festival, he didn’t play any music but dutifully showed up for the post-festival cricket, helping the musicians’ team finally win a game against the villagers.

And in his youth, he studied archery. I know a little about that sport as well. And I know that Richard Thompson knows that when you're aiming at a target, you don't look at the arrow.

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