APRIL 22, 2021
WHEN RICHARD THOMPSON was 12 years old, he took classical guitar lessons from a young teacher with teddy boy sideburns and Brylcreemed hair who lived in a house of almost Dickensian decrepitude in North London. The stairs creaked. The floorboards threatened to give with every step. There was no electricity, and the heating worked only because the teacher had found a way to bypass the gas meter.
After a year of tiptoeing across the floor and working the strings and fretboard by candlelight, Thompson turned up for his usual weekly lesson to find the house bulldozed and his teacher gone without a trace. He took this setback in stride — he was beginning to tire of the lessons anyway, and his interest was gravitating from classical guitar to folk and rock, the fields where, in due time, he would make his reputation as a player and songwriter of staggering brilliance and originality.
But the experience also set a pattern: of burgeoning musical passion paired with startling material privation. Granted, growing up in England in the shadow of World War II often involved putting up with drafty, damp houses and a relentlessly drab diet that scarcely improved after the end of food rationing in the mid-1950s. But Thompson turned this tolerance of physical discomfort into a core piece of his artistic and ethical code. It wasn’t that he had to be uncomfortable or poor or under-recognized to fulfill his ambition to write and play groundbreaking music, just that the work made these privations unimportant. If his drive to pioneer new sounds and musical forms didn’t bring him money, or adulation from the masses, or even regular hot meals, then so be it.
In a new memoir, co-authored by the journalist and frequent Los Angeles Review of Books contributor Scott Timberg, Thompson details his rise to prominence in the folk-rock revolution. Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967–1975 is an absorbing, witty, often deliciously biting read, as all rock memoirs should be. But instead of the usual tale of rags to debauched fame and wealth, Thompson presents an altogether more arduous trajectory, from outward middle-class respectability (his father was a detective with London’s Metropolitan Police) to the strikingly precarious life of an itinerant young musician living hand to mouth for years and encountering more than his share of existential absurdity and loss.
Even after Thompson, at the age of 18, scored his first recording contract as a founding member of Fairport Convention; even after the band opened for Pink Floyd on the night that Syd Barrett overdosed on LSD; even after he jammed with Jimi Hendrix at the Speakeasy and watched Hendrix play one of Fairport’s guitars upside down — even then, he and his bandmates were still using a borrowed butcher’s truck with no backseats to drive to out-of-town gigs. They’d roll around with their gear, the stink of poorly hosed-down animal blood in their nostrils. The gigs themselves involved a succession of freezing dressing rooms attached to rough working-class pubs and overnight stays in terrible guesthouses, where they’d sleep in their clothes for warmth between the nylon sheets.
Fairport was soon churning out albums (three in a single year in 1969) and raking in critical accolades, but still they could barely cover their living expenses. Once, when they found themselves short of the £14 they needed to pay for milk delivery, they busked for it outside Winchester Cathedral. For a year, they based themselves at a drafty pub in the countryside just north of London, where Thompson doesn’t remember “eating much other than cereal.” That idyll ended when a drunk driver smashed his truck into the pub and destroyed the rooms where Thompson and the folk violinist Dave Swarbrick slept; it was sheer luck they weren’t both killed.
Even by the standards of an era when hippies rebelled against capitalism, and the explosion of new music was still fresh enough not to have been packaged and commodified by record executives interested only in the bottom line, Thompson and his bandmates stood out for their single-minded refusal to compromise. The way they saw it, there was no point trying to broaden their appeal to audiences who were never going to understand them anyway.
Their project, to embrace the folk traditions of the British Isles and to reflect and refract them through the lens of rock ’n’ roll, was not wildly out of step with the spirit of the times. The Band, after all, had done much the same with the roots traditions of American music and won a global audience in the process. (Fairport regarded The Band’s debut album, Music from the Big Pink, as exactly the synthesis of styles they were aiming for.) But Thompson and his friends — particularly Ashley Hutchings, the guiding force behind Fairport in its early days — took their purism to limits that few others dared to broach, much less sustain. They may have been the British answer to The Band, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and more obscure folk artists like Richard and Mimi Fariña, but, because of their interest in musical traditions far outside the normal scope of popular music, they were also crucially removed from ordinary temporal and material concerns. “I could feel the old songs reverberate through history with the echoes of the voices that had sung them down the centuries,” Thompson writes. “We were starting to connect to a lineage that was ancient, pagan and alive with the dreams of the dead.”
“Da Doo Ron Ron” this was decidedly not.
When Fairport’s first single went nowhere, Thompson vowed never to care about success or failure beyond his own terms. When a throwaway joke of a track, a cover of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” sung in French to a Cajun beat, slipped into the UK top 20 more or less accidentally and landed Fairport on the TV showcase Top of the Pops, the band showed up with Breton shirts, berets, and a baguette and made it their business to “confuse and annoy” as many people as possible. The frustration was understandable: a far better showcase from the same album would have been Sandy Denny’s enduringly lovely “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” with a lyrically perfect Thompson on electric guitar, but the track labored for years in the shadow of Judy Collins’s inferior version. In 1970, the band experimented briefly with natty boots and hammed-up moves in their live show, only to be appalled by how easily such gimmicks could get the crowd going. This was not who they wanted to be, they decided. So they ditched the boots and resigned themselves instead “to a lifetime of smaller but more discriminating audiences.”
Sometimes the drive for purism led Thompson and his friends down paths of willful obscurity. And sometimes it gave rise to outright snobbery. To this day, Thompson regrets ignoring an invitation to Paul McCartney’s birthday party because he didn’t rate the Beatles as highly as David Ackles, an American singer-songwriter barely better known then than he is now.
Mostly, though, the purism stands as testament to Thompson’s incorruptible artistic soul. He left Fairport in 1971 not to make his fortune but because he was writing a lot of strange new songs, and he no longer felt artistically aligned with his bandmates. He had no driver’s license or bank account at the time, much less a record deal or other promise of alternative employment. Even after he found durable recognition and a core of loyal fans in the wake of the 1982 album Shoot Out The Lights — the last of six collaborations with his wife Linda, which also proved to be a withering autopsy of their doomed marriage — it became something of a cliché to note that Thompson could never find his way to bona fide mainstream success. He never had a hit album the way Bonnie Raitt or Lucinda Williams did after their own long years in the commercial wilderness. Not for him, the Grammy accolades or stadium gigs or full-length profiles in The New Yorker. If he was famous, it was for not being famous at all, the “greatest guitarist you’ve never heard of,” as a CNN headline once put it — in a calculated play for the attention of readers who loved and revered him plenty already.
Thompson, whose talents include a wicked line in self-deprecation, has frequently allowed himself to be in on the joke. At a concert a few years ago, before a typically packed house, he introduced an upcoming number from his most recent album as “a medley of my greatest hit.”
By the mid-1970s, Richard and Linda Thompson were building a reputation for songs of aching beauty shot through with a bone-chilling, otherworldly darkness. In concert and in occasional television appearances, they appeared as starving waifs: wide-eyed, pale, and gaunt, their heads and bodies wrapped in scarves and woolens as though nothing, not even the studio lights, would ever make them fully warm. They would not look at each other or at the audience, only at some indeterminate point beyond. For long stretches, Richard’s eyes would close altogether as their voices blended and his fingers found their way to strange and complex harmonies.
The couple sang unrelentingly and beautifully about dreams that have withered and died, about lonely people desperate for a connection they can never find, about love as a last redoubt against a crumbling world, about the unreliable temptations of earthly delights, about poverty, cruelty, selfishness, lurking violence, and death’s haunting presence. Fans of the 2003 Christopher Guest movie, A Mighty Wind, will remember the folk duo played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, whose goofy humor stems largely from being everything Richard and Linda Thompson were not: saccharine, vacuous, primly dressed, and adoringly doe-eyed. Their hit song, about “a kiss at the end of the rainbow, more precious than a pot of gold” (culminating in an actual onstage kiss), is a sly inversion of one of the Thompson’s most somber compositions, an admonition delivered to a newborn baby in words inspired by traditional murder ballads and overlaid for good measure with an extra dose of existential despair:
Life seems so rosy in the cradle
I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore.
Where did so much darkness come from, a darkness even beyond the gloomy musical traditions in which Thompson was steeped?
His memoir provides a number of answers, starting with the horrifying night in May 1969 when Fairport’s roadie fell asleep on the way back from a gig, causing the van to somersault off the road and killing two of the passengers: Fairport’s drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson’s new girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn. Thompson describes the sensation of taking leave of his body and floating above the scene before hurtling back to earth. Although he escaped with just a couple of broken ribs, the emotional scars were deep and long-lasting.
At first, the band wasn’t sure how to continue. When they did, they abandoned much of their existing repertoire and started in a new direction in deference to Lamble’s legacy. That, in turn, created multiple fault lines and led, in time, to the departure of Fairport’s brightest talents — first Denny, whose attention drifted so badly that her bandmates asked her to leave before she could quit; then Hutchings, who chose a more rigorously traditional direction for his new band Steeleye Span; and finally, Thompson himself.
The depth of the loss is reflected in Thompson’s song “Never Again,” written within a few months of the crash but left unrecorded until 1975, in which he mourns “the salt tears of lovers and the whispers of friends” against a melody more haunting than any he’d come up with to that point. Losing Franklyn just two weeks into their courtship appears to have given him a unique and enduringly deep perspective on the age-old songwriting staples of love and heartbreak. Their romance was easy to idealize, he writes, “because it had no end.”
Thompson is not easily inclined to draw a straight line between his life experiences and his work — he insists that songwriting is a largely impenetrable and mysterious process — but it doesn’t seem too great a leap to hear traces of Franklyn in songs like “The Ghost of You Walks” and “That’s All, Amen, Close the Door,” both written decades after her death, both among the finest he’s written.
The crash also exacerbated a spiritual restlessness in Thompson, one that broadened his reading habit into ever more esoteric areas and led him to question the mechanistic tenets of Cartesian science. After he attended a Sufi Muslim meeting in North London in the early 1970s, he felt he was coming home from a long journey. “There was no conversion, as you would change your dollars into euros,” he writes, “just affirmation that this was who I had always been, and this was the relationship with the universe I had always had.”
On a dime, Thompson gave up drinking, the one appreciable vice of his early musical career, and began praying five times a day. A few years in, shortly after recording his overtly spiritual, Middle Eastern–influenced third album with Linda, Pour Down Like Silver, he went on a less-than-comfortable pilgrimage to Mecca. He was dry-shaved along with his fellow pilgrims, dodged a cholera outbreak, ate very little, and washed even less. When he returned, he decided he was done with the music business and moved with Linda and their two young children to a ramshackle thatched cottage in East Anglia, where they attempted, none too successfully, to live off the land in close proximity to a community of fellow Sufis.
The project was ostensibly one of spiritual fulfillment, but it comes across in the retelling as the opposite, an expression of deep spiritual crisis. One of the songs Thompson wrote shortly before this break was “Old Man Inside a Young Man,” which included these lines:
There’s no one thing on earth
That I’m not through with
What can I do with
The rest of my life?
Like so many other talented musicians who’d flourished young, Thompson felt, at the age of 27, that he’d been consigned to the scrap heap. He stopped playing the guitar and allowed himself to be lulled instead by the romance of building wattle-and-daub houses, eating the vegetables he and Linda grew in their garden, and living by candlelight, like his old classical guitar teacher. The problem was, Thompson had no talent for farming or building, and after several months of selling surplus eggs to the village store to scrape by, he and the family returned to London and entered the antiques trade as a more viable alternative.
The wonder of it is that by the time Thompson returned to the recording studio after a three-year break, he had somehow managed to broaden his range and his virtuosic ability to synthesize disparate styles and musical traditions. Even his voice, which comes across as thin and uncertain on many of the early albums, returned with a new depth and confidence. He could wield a Fender like a pair of bagpipes, giving both the high and low ends of his solos the quality of a snarling Gaelic drone; he could blend the exuberance of a modern rock solo with the more tempered major-to-minor modulations of a John Dowland or a Cole Porter; he could blow through Cajun sounds, rockabilly, jazz, honky-tonk, or refashioned madrigals and English rounds. He could be aggressively metallic or gorgeously tender and sometimes both within the space of a single performance. On the acoustic guitar, he could produce layers of sound with the richness of an entire band — bass line, rhythm section, and solo riffs on top — that would routinely leave audiences in awe that he didn’t run out of fingers.
It helped that Thompson had friends in the business who provided him with steady session work and offered, in the face of all commercial rationality, to help him continue to make records of his own. One such offer, from the Scottish rocker Gerry Rafferty fresh off the success of his hit song “Baker Street,” almost broke Thompson all over again. The two men did not see eye to eye musically and soon were not talking at all. Rafferty was reliably drunk and, according to Thompson, appeared more interested in laying his hands on Linda than in doing justice to the music.
The record might never have come out at all, but for a Hail Mary from Joe Boyd, the American producer who had given Fairport Convention their first break and now offered to put out a guerrilla-style version of the same set of songs on his new indie label. The Thompsons and a tight band of trusted fellow musicians rerecorded everything with minimal overdubs in just four days, and the result was a classic. Shoot Out the Lights proved to be an extraordinary showcase for Thompson’s guitar-playing, ranging in mood from the title track’s near-apocalyptic despair to the deep spiritual meditation of “Just the Motion.” The songs that addressed marital discord (in particular, “Don’t Renege on Our Love” and “Walking on a Wire”) were written long before Richard announced to Linda that he had fallen in love with someone else. But that did nothing to diminish their power, as the freshly broken couple went out on tour — the Tour from Hell, as it rapidly became known. Richard sang as though he had a gun to his head (Linda’s later description), and a furious, full-throated Linda, who had recently given birth to their third child, flung lyrics at Richard like thunderbolts from the mountaintop.
The unique, instantly recognizable sonic landscape of Richard Thompson’s music is notoriously difficult for other artists to handle. Whether he’s diving into one of his gravity-defying electric solos, or providing a single acoustic line to underscore a vocal harmony, Thompson has an uncanny gift, in song after song, for hitting exactly the right notes with a tonal precision that can penetrate to the marrow. His arrangements may vary from performance to performance, sometimes drastically, but they are almost always diminished when anyone else tries. The exceptions can be counted on one hand: Bonnie Raitt’s soul-blues rendering of “When The Spell Is Broken,” backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama; Emmylou Harris’s spectral “How Will I Ever Be Simple Again”; Alison Krauss’s “Dimming of the Day”; a spirited, tongue-in-cheek cover of Thompson’s most reliable showstopper, “Tear-Stained Letter,” in Norwegian; or Norma Waterson’s “God Loves a Drunk,” a rare instance of a great song Thompson didn’t quite nail the first time. He later helped Waterson rework it with members of his own band.
The idiosyncratic nature of Thompson’s work might have denied him entry to the pop stardom pantheon, but it has also guaranteed his longevity. He’s one of the rare artists who has not only continued to be prolific and original into what is now his seventh decade in show business but has also done so with his powers undiminished and, in some respects, improved. “I’m excited by the idea of what remains unwritten,” he said in 2013, a glorious statement of intent for any artist.
He is now a young man inside an old man, and the two albums he produced over the latter half of the last decade prove it. Still (2015), recorded at Wilco’s Chicago rehearsal space and produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and 13 Rivers (2018), a quieter affair made in the wake of Thompson’s second marriage breakup, are among the strongest entries in his catalog. “No Peace No End,” from the earlier album, is a blistering and, arguably, prescient indictment of a world sleepwalking to disaster, an anthem for our times if ever there was one:
Where were you when the walls were crumbling
Where were you when the guns were rumbling
Where were you when the hounds of hell
Took sisters and lovers away?
And it might not even be the best song on the album.
Thompson is an engaging prose stylist, as observant and wide-ranging on the page as he is in his songs, and he graces his stories with a sparkling wit familiar to audiences from his stage banter. The book shares its title with a bittersweet song from the 1990s about young love and the headiness of being a lost child running free. Thompson looks back at his own younger self in much the same spirit. The past, for him, is a place of tenderness more than regret.
He certainly doesn’t shy away from the dark corners and lurking demons, but he does so with the lightest of touches. It seems he decided a long time ago to leave the full-on heaviness to his songs, and he goes out of his way in these pages to avoid any hint of ponderousness or self-importance. Mostly, this works. He gives just enough hints about his father’s drinking and volatile temper for us to understand why he’d want to find refuge in music and why, too, he developed a lifelong contempt for “proper” middle-class suburban living. We can intuit things about Thompson’s own relationship to alcohol in his late teens and early 20s and why, on occasion, his behavior would veer so far out of control that he’d alienate friends and get flung horizontally out of nightclubs.
Some of the silences, though, are frustrating. I would have welcomed much more on his spiritual crisis and how he pulled himself out of it. I also would have liked to read a lot more about his relationship with the guitar and how he expanded his range and technique. Like a guest at an English dinner party, Thompson appears at times to be overly anxious not to bore the assembled company and stops short when he should have more faith that we are in fact hanging on his every word.
No doubt there are things he would prefer not to explore or reveal. The inner workings of his large and complicated family are seemingly off-limits, and fair enough. Where he does offer big revelations — for example about the child he fathered in an arrangement with an occasional American girlfriend and, to his regret, failed to recognize for more than 20 years — they are not necessarily as affecting as the smaller, quieter moments. He has a delicious story about running into Nick Drake on an underground station platform and failing to strike up a conversation (they were both painfully shy) until he asks the ultimate music nerd question about the early 20th-century English composer Frederick Delius. He paints a vivid portrait of Sandy Denny as she laughs and rages on the road, cheats at Scrabble, and offers him tea and pot in the rich pre-Raphaelite decor of her Fulham flat.
Thompson begins this foray into the past with images of dust, and part of what he is invoking here are the souls of those lost to him too soon. Franklyn and Lamble loom large, of course, but so do Drake, whose suicide in 1974 shook Thompson badly, and Denny, who struggled with alcoholism and many other demons and died of a brain hemorrhage in 1978 after falling down a staircase. The book itself is marked by the untimely death of Scott Timberg, who struck up a long friendship with Thompson and wrote about him frequently in articles and books before talking him into writing this memoir. Timberg’s suicide in December 2019 did not only interrupt the project in midstream; Thompson describes the loss as “devastating.” Under the circumstances, a little lightness of touch may not be the worst thing.
Andrew Gumbel first encountered Richard Thompson’s music on a battered home-made cassette in southern Europe in 1989. It was enough. He is now a Los Angeles–based author and journalist and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.