The madness of love

Richard Thompson's songs reflect the dark passion of an unclassifiable musical genius.

Published March 16, 1999 9:33AM (EST)

Five years ago I saw Richard Thompson performing at St. Ann's church in
Brooklyn Heights on a double bill with David Byrne. Each artist performed
solo in a benefit for the perennially struggling cultural center
(performance venue on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning). I'd seen
Byrne a few weeks before doing the same schtick he did that night --
guitar, boombox, semi-samba pop pastiche -- and in the past had only seen
Thompson supported by big bands (saxophone, piano, accordion, bass, all
driven by his silvery electric guitar). Seeing him alone, accompanying
himself on acoustic guitar, was a revelation, one that put the fanaticism
of his fans (and the fatalism of his songs) in perspective.

Sure, the setting had something to do with it: Framed by stained-glass
windows depicting biblical scenes in this Gothic-style cathedral, the
audience shifting uncomfortably on hard church pews, Thompson cut a
prophetic figure up there onstage. In his cloth cap and beard he looked
like some pilgrim called upon to preach. And the acoustics helped: Each
note of the opener, "I Ride in Your Slipstream," hung in the cavernous air
like the autumn leaves outside, poised to fall. But it was the mystery of
his lyrics that made the moment so ineffable. The words could be sung to a
remote mate ("You think you don't know me/But you're wearing my ring"), but
they could also be sung to an unattainable and unknowable God: "I ride in
your slipstream/I wear your reflection/I echo your heartbeat/In the wind."
Either way, the song, sung in his smoky baritone, seemed almost sacrilegious
in this setting -- was marriage or devotion to God an endless pas de deux
with one party retreating, the other advancing, ad infinitum? "I ride in
your slipstream/But don't try to touch me/Just trust me to love you/I love
you." It seemed, as another Thompson title has it, "The Madness of Love."

The clash (or confusion) of the secular and the religious predates rock
music. Fairport Convention, the British folk-rock outfit Thompson fronted
as a teenager, walked the line on its second LP as vocalist Sandy Denny
sang an ancient ode titled "My Lord Is in This Place, How Dreadful Is
This Place." God was spooky and so was life; and love, with all its
dangers, was just a reminder of the no-win proposition. But what was
winning? Thompson (along with his then-wife and singing partner, Linda)
converted to Sufism in the early '70s, and that mystical sect of Islam
believes in separateness as our condition. Rumi, the founder of the
Mawlawiyyah order ("whirling dervishes"), wrote of
the search for an absent God as a separation from a loved one. For
Thompson, love songs were always devotional, and songs of separation -- the
best of which he wrote during and after his painful divorce from Linda --
are the stuff of tragedy.

But tragedy is not Thompson's stock in trade, and neither, necessarily,
is love. Drawing on musical influences from the Middle Eastern to the
Celtic to classical, swing and country (with a few stops for oompah
bands and Cajun music along the way), he has penned hundreds of tunes about
love, yes, and death and betrayal -- but also about ice cream and alcohol
and '52 Vincents and old 78s and MGB sports cars, Maggie Thatcher, fast
food, you name it. And he has written them in a variety of styles, evoking
(sometimes in a single album) Yip Harburg, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Randy
Newman, Elvis Costello and countless English dance hall plunkers. He
is, in short, a master songwriter and a motherfucker of a guitarist, if a
vocalist of only limited range. (For years he didn't need a voice: He had
Linda.) Listening to "Watching the Dark" (Hannibal), a nonchronological
compendium of Thompson's works from 1969 to 1993, is like hearing a
musician's life on shuffle. He comes at you from so many places in so many
styles that you finally feel surrounded. What strikes you most of all,
though, are the images. It's like flipping through a deck of tarot cards,
with pictures almost medieval: spinning wheels, fallen soldiers, darkened
plains and weeping maidens. He even wrote a song called "Poor Will and the
Jolly Hangman" ("Here's a toast to the jolly hangman/He'll hang you the
best that he can"). What you do not see is the hanged man, for that is the
singer himself.

There's a lot of rope in Thompson's songs but not much slack. "There's a
rope that binds us," he sang on the desperate "Don't Renege on Our Love,"
"and I don't want to break it/If love is a healing/Why should we forsake
it?" "The Great Valerio" (1973), from the first Richard-and-Linda album,
became a signature song for the couple, reinforcing the artistic ties that
bound them: The imagery (a performing tightrope walker, a wondering
audience, "acrobats of love") was his, as was the challenging score (with a
coda from Satie). But Richard couldn't sing the mesmerizing minor-key
melody, with its quick shifts in octave, and dropped it when he went solo.
By the time of their divorce, 10 years later, the tightrope came back to
haunt him. "Walking on a Wire" from the celebrated 1983 album "Shoot Out
the Lights," had moments of rock-star indulgence ("I wish I could please you
tonight/But my medicine won't come right") and sweaty-palmed terror ("I'm
walking on a wire/And I'm falling"), all given voice, again, by Linda.

That Thompson's life had become a sort of high-wire act by then,
complete with a gasping public of die-hard fans and rock critic detectives,
pained him to no end. He denounced Time magazine's speculation about the
couple's demise as "baloney, National Enquirer" stuff. A private, even shy
person, he has worked hard to build a devil-may-care persona for his live
shows. And you would think by now that armor would be pretty well oiled.
Born in North London on April 3, 1949, Thompson had music in his family. His
father, a policeman, played big-band guitar while uncles performed in
Scottish dance bands. As a teenager he learned the basics of rock 'n' roll
in fledgling outfits with names like Emil and the Detectives; American music
was all the go, and sound checks still find him running through surf
instrumentals such as "Pipeline."

He began playing with Fairport Convention (co-founding the band with
longtime collaborator Simon Nicol) in 1967, when he was 17. Within two
years the group had built an international following as a sort of English
Jefferson Airplane -- more Celtic in its influences but with the same
propensity for ragas and other hippie shite. What saved them from becoming
another twee Renaissance Faire band was Denny's worldly-wise vocals and
Thompson's world-weary songs. Beginning with "Genesis Hall" (on 1969's
"Halfbricking"), Thompson showed a great affection for the grave and its
promise ("Gloom and Doom From the Tomb" was the title of a tape provided by
one fan newsletter; "Celtschmerz" is Thompson's own punning description of
his condition). Less than a year later, death came knocking for real.
Returning from a gig in Birmingham, their driver fell asleep at the wheel,
killing drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend, Genie Franklin.

The band continued, though, and flourished, heartened in part by the
example of Bob Dylan and the Band, who were bringing traditional forms of
American music to rock to create something fresh. "A lot of mythology is
imported into England from America these days, because of popular songs,"
he said years later. "I'd like to try and validate the use of British
mythology in British songs." Though not a pure traditionalist, Thompson's
playing was never simply blues-based (like that of almost every one of his
British guitar-hero contemporaries), and for a time, deep in his Sufi
studies, he dropped the electric guitar altogether. But he was too
all-over-the-map to be purely proscriptive: In
1972, after the demise of Fairport, he released his first solo album,
"Henry the Human Fly," a sampler of mad (and sometimes sublime) musical
experiments. It was, his fans will proudly tell you, the worst-selling
album in Reprise Records' history.

But by the next year he had hooked up with Linda Peters (in every
sense), a folk-singing friend of Sandy Denny's. The couple's first
co-branded album, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," was a feast,
though few were partaking. It was not released in the United States until a year later, and Thompson's future as a succes d'estime -- beloved by critics, ignored by record buyers -- seemed guaranteed. Was it the songs? Though more poetic than your average rock tripe, they have an emotional truth and immediacy that doesn't require study (less obscure than Elvis Costello's,
for instance, less mannered than Tom Waits'.) It could have had more to do with
the shifting beats, the eclectic use of, say, hammer dulcimers and
accordions. "I suppose there's music that I want to hear that I don't hear
other people doing," Thompson has said of his trademark sound, "and because
it doesn't exist, I have to do it. Or else become a seething psychopath."

The songs of "Bright Lights" had a weight, and a variety, that stood
out. Love and religion -- and perhaps a little time -- had focused
Thompson's vision, and the great
songs held depths, reflected in Linda's aching voice and his supple playing,
that most rock songs never touched. "When I Get to the Border" was no
drug-dealing Eagles riff (as Robert Christgau noted); it was a song about
dying and looking forward to it. That outlook was essentially unchanged
over the next five albums. "Wall of Death" (1983) compared the last hurrah
to an amusement park ride of incomparable thrill: "You can waste your time
on the other rides/But this is the nearest to being alive." In its cover of
"Wall of Death" on the 1993 tribute album "Beat the Retreat," R.E.M. reduced it
to pop jangle, all hooks and chorus. Richard and Linda's version is stately
and somehow patient, like lovers in a suicide pact. In reality they were
just getting a divorce.

Touring the states solo in 1981 (Thompson has always had a number of
side projects going and has appeared on more than 50 albums in the last 30
years), Richard met and fell in love with concert promoter Nancy Covey. The
Thompsons had known rifts before; Linda had left him twice when they were
living on the Sufi commune, the second time when she was pregnant with
their second child. "I really wanted to stay away that time but I worried
about being a single mother with two children. Three people from the
commune came to my parents' house to tell me that Richard had returned home
from a trip to the Middle East and had sat down crying, 'Where's my
family?' Well, that did it for me. Back I went." But this time he was the

The Thompsons' demise fueled the rumor mills and was evidenced with the
release of their masterpiece, "Shoot Out the Lights." If this were just
Richard's saga of marriage and divorce it would rank with such tear-stained
as "Blood on the Tracks" or Willie Nelson's "Phases and Stages." But by
giving Linda -- the object of his devotion, the victim of his betrayal --
these songs to sing, he lent his lyrics a special poignancy. It seemed like the fulfillment of a prophecy: It had been six years earlier
she had sung her husband's words on "Shame of Doing Wrong": "Please don't make me
pay for my deceiving heart/Just hold up your lamp and let me in." The song
crescendos with the ultimate lover's lament, "I wish I was a fool for you
again," sung over and over, a call and response in hell. The album won
countless accolades, made myriad 10-best lists (including those for the
decade) and spawned one of the strangest tours of all time. "On that tour
was the best she's ever sung," recalls longtime Thompson producer and
Hannibal record chief Joe Boyd. "It was so intense. It was as if Richard
had spent six or seven years writing songs for Linda to sing when he left
her." Determined to soldier on, Richard and Linda played legendary dates,
as emotional and tumultuous as a pro wrestling match. She hit him over the
head with a Coke bottle in Toronto, stole a car in New York, smashed all
the mirrors in the dressing room of one dive. "The promoter said, 'We had
the Sex Pistols here and they weren't half as destructive as you,'" Linda
recalled. "I was thrilled of course. I'd been so well behaved in marriage
that it was a real catharsis."

In the aftermath, Richard has recorded some great love songs, running
the gamut from comic ("Two Left Feet") to the confessional ("When the Spell
Is Broken"). Some say that he lost his best instrument when he lost Linda,
and it's true he is no nightingale ("a good half-octave" is what he calls
his singing range), though he can be quite expressive within his limitations. And though it would be unfair to say that without him she is nothing
(she has since recorded solo), singing other people's songs
she is rather unremarkable. Remarried now, Linda runs an antique jewelry
shop on Bond Street. She has given up singing and has been diagnosed with a
condition called hysterical dysphonia: "You open your mouth," she says,
"and nothing happens." It is as though they fulfilled each other for a
time, two halves of a broken whole.

His output since their divorce has been nothing short of remarkable, a
few brilliant albums ("Hand of Kindness," "Rumor and Sigh"), most of the
rest just great. He married Covey (who runs a travel business now),
with whom he has a son, Jack (his son Teddy, the second of three children
with Linda, is grown now and has toured with his father). He divides his
time between Los Angeles and England. His fans, though smaller in number
than, say, the Dead's or Dylan's, are no less rabid. There are Web sites
devoted to his every move, filled with transcriptions of his songs, set
lists, tunings, musings over each line and its significance. "They're worse
than real critics, they're amateur critics!" he has complained of them (one
group now calls itself the Amateur Critics) and offered an object lesson in
idolatry with the photo shoot for the 1994 album "Mirror Blue." After
commissioning a series of plaster statues of himself for the shoot (they
appear in cars, on lawns, in boxes) he smashed every one, recalling Abraham,
who, according to the Koran, sneaked into the temple to break the idols
there. And though he protested the "gold-watch" treatment afforded him by
tributes (and would probably hate the summing-up implied in a "Brilliant
Career"), he seems to be accepting his lot.

"It's a multimedia world," he said recently. "You have to be on a
bookshelf or you have to be on a CD-ROM or on the Web. These are the places
people are looking. So for people like me, one has to troll a little wider
to find one's audience." There is a CD-ROM available, of course
("Richard Thompson Teaches Traditional Guitar"), and a bio by tireless British
rock biographer Patrick Humphries. None of the attention (however
subterranean) seems to have gone to his head; he tours quietly, playing big
clubs and small halls, and is circumspect about his faith, having abandoned
the robes he and Linda affected in their commune days. "I don't
practice religion," he has said. "It's just a way of life."

And while some fans decry the influence of producer Mitchell Froom (R.E.M.
et al.) and Thompson's use of studio musicians, living in America has had a
liberating effect on his music. There's a loose, rollicking sound to the
up-tempo rockers he's done stateside ("Crash the Party," "Little Blue
Number"). And though his last studio album -- the 1996 "You? Me? Us?" -- seemed
a bit saturnine, there is no sign he is mellowing. "Mock
Tudor," due to be released next month, was produced by Rob Shnapf and Tom
Rothrock; the erstwhile Beck producers and Bong Load co-founders may bring
out Thompson's humorous side. For who cannot love a man who rhymes "playing
to the gallery" with his lover's name, Valerie, or who sang, on the
oft-covered "Tear Stained Letter," "My head was beating like a song by the
Clash/Writing checks that my body couldn't cash"?

And always there's the playing. Close your eyes, fans will tell you when
seeing him live, and you'll swear there are two guitarists up there, and it's
true. With a guitar pick held between the thumb and forefinger of his right
hand, Thompson drives the rhythm as the three free fingers pick a myriad of
notes, while high atop the neck his spidery left hand bends the strings to
alarming effect, seeking (as Lesley Berman wrote) the connection between
James Burton and John Coltrane. Thompson's music is polar, rock and
jazz, traditional and modern, just as his songs embrace the tragic
and comic, sometimes in a single line. That night at St. Ann's he shattered
the church air with his solo on "Slipstream," his strings at once sounding
taut and slack, the moving web of a dangling man. Before the song reached
its irredeemable conclusion -- the object of his love just out of reach --
Thompson picked the dimensions of his dilemma. Jazz chords and sharp notes
ran past in a rapid rush that echoed the roar of white water, the melody
slipping and straining like a runaway raft with the guitarist the boatman,
pulling you along on a dangerous ride until you emerged on the other side,
frightened, soaking, glad to be alive.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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