Think you’re a good interviewer? Prepared and clever and hep to the whole music life, asking questions that aren’t just bald-faced rehashes of press-kit material, and avoiding tripe like “Who are your influences” and “Which comes first, the music or the lyrics”?
OK. Why not? Sure you are.
Now, talk to a guy whose dealt with your type hundreds of times over, and was bored with the first of you, and rightly so. Then, when the whole phone confab is finished, and your face feels like you just walked out of a wind tunnel at the back-end of hell, take a look at what’s left of your angel wings. Stumps. That’s about it.
Richard Thompson always wins.
Originally published March 10, 2004 | (c) Mountain Xpress, 2004
Good King Richard
Folk-rock royalty talks candidly of clichés, crowds and unfunny Canadians
What can you say about Richard Thompson, one online fan asked recently, that hasn’t already been said? And while that’s certainly a revealing question, it’s maybe not the best thing to throw at the singer/guitarist himself, should you ever get him on the phone.
But what the hell, I figure. We’ve had a nice chat already. What’s the worst he can come back with?
“I don’t care,” Thompson declares.
Oh. OK, that’s pretty bad.
“It’s not interesting to me at all,” he elaborates.
All right, that’s worse.
And that marks the end of my phone interview with one of the seminal figures in contemporary music.
Yet with Thompson, there may be no better place to start.
Thompson, 54, doesn’t suffer foolish questions; he doesn’t have to. For that matter, he’s not big on fools either.
At a bygone Variety Playhouse show in Atlanta, some bonehead kept hollering “yee-haws” between songs. But every time the guy cut loose, Thompson rifled back with the opening riff from the Deliverance theme – duh-duh-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun! Take that, Mr. Expulsive Redneck, Mr. S••t for Brains.
This musical apothecary’s career has been one long series of such subversive jabs at the corpus ridiculoso of popular culture – blows that might register only as a tremble here, a certain soreness there, but that over time have gimped the bloated zombie but good.
Because Thompson’s influence is incalculable, both in the overt ripples he’s produced in a whole stream of contemporary music, and in the awe he continually inspires not merely in covetous fans, but also among other formidable musical talents.
“It’s somewhat satisfying he’s not yet achieved household-name status,” David Byrne once quipped about him. “It serves him right for being so good.”
Dissecting the Human Fly
In 1967, a teenage Thompson was among the founders of Fairport Convention, Britain’s finest folk-rock group ever. Besides spawning its own cottage industry of bands that championed its egalitarian folk vision (most notably Steeleye Span), Fairport also launched players who later cycled through such seminal English prog-rock groups as King Crimson and Jethro Tull.
Thompson left the hybrid outfit (folk, Celtic, blues, country, bluegrass, rock, even Cajun) after six albums, including its pinnacle achievements, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief (both Island, 1969).
His first solo effort, Henry the Human Fly (Island, 1972), included backing vocals by the lush-voiced Linda Peters, whom Thompson subsequently married. The two would put out six albums as Richard and Linda Thompson.
The releases that bookend the duo’s career – and marriage – are landmarks of the folk-rock form. Thompson tunes like “Dimming of the Day,” from I Want to See the Bright Lights (Island, 1974), and “Wall of Death,” from Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal, 1982), remain harrowing and haunting to this day.
His solo career then began in earnest with Hand of Kindness (Hannibal, 1983). It’s an album thick with the singer/guitarist’s love of tragic circumstance (“Tear Stained Letter”), and with the vitriol and caustic wit (“Two Left Feet”) that were then becoming increasingly emblematic of his style.
A new generation of fans signed on with the Grammy-nominated Rumor and Sigh (Capitol, 1991), which contains some of Thompson’s most incisive verse and blistering guitar work, as if he were trying to put out a fire raging up the neck of the instrument, one fret at a time. A highlight: the traditional-style ballad “1952 Vincent Black Lightening,” which has since become a hip-bluegrass standard, and a live staple for IBMA Award darlings the Del McCoury Band.
Thompson continues to release whatever the hell he pleases. 1,000 Years of Popular Music, among his recent string of live albums, features a tale of the French-English Battle of Agincourt in 1415, plus a straight-up reading of “Oops! … I Did It Again,” the Britney Spears hit. It’s tough to say which is more sinister.
His most recent release, The Old Kit Bag (spinART, 2003) likewise careens from aching Thompson balladry (“A Love You Can’t Survive”) to caustic broadsides (“Outside of the Inside”). It’s his best work since Rumor and Sigh.
But feel free to disagree. Thompson fanatics will tell you, without blinking, that there are no lapses in the master’s catalog; everything is worthy. This much is unarguable: The beret-wearing artist’s peaks are dizzying, and he has no competition other than himself.
A new acoustic album is now in the works.
Still, this is all old news; little with Thompson is not. He’s among the most poked, prodded, dissected and discussed performers alive, his every career move exhaustingly licked over by a legion of fans who are typically of an age not associated with such teenlike adoration, but with mortgages and middle-age spread.
Kneeling on the misericord
Thompson is not an easy sell – his darkness, his lacerating wit, his easily tapped vitriol. But fans are happy keeping him to themselves.
To be so smitten with the iconic song-master is like being a member of some cool club – it’s like listening to serious jazz and knowing when to smile after a solo. You get him; others don’t.
A snippet of verse from “Outside of the Inside,” from The Old Kit Bag (note the British spellings; Thompson, though a Southern Californian for many years now, remains Anglo to the core):
Van gogh, Boticelli
Scraping paint onto a board
Colour is the fuel of madness
That’s no way to praise the Lord
Grey’s the colour of the pious
Knelt upon the misericord
Feel smart yet?
One online fan, under the guise of praise, wrote that Kit Bag contained his favorite “Thompson clichés.”
“I prefer to think of them as style points,” Thompson responds during our interview. “To call it a cliché is being slightly mean and crass, I think.
“If you have a style, then you have a musical language that is uniquely yours – you hope it’s uniquely yours,” he continues. “Every now and then, you refer to that. If that’s a cliché, then it’s a necessary thing.”
While Thompson die-hards are typically swept up most by his poetic brand of pathos, I’ve always been a sucker for his wit, which surfaces in select songs, and in between-song banter at live shows. (Alas, it’s no joke that Thompson’s Asheville stop at The Grey Eagle on Saturday, March 13 has now sold out.)
Rumor and Sigh’s “I Feel So Good” and “Mother Knows Best,” for instance, have more wicked bite than a swarm of Carolina beach flies.
“I don’t think of myself as witty,” confesses Thompson.
“There’s a kind of built-in British thing,” he continues, after giving it more thought. “I notice it as I step off the plane at Heathrow. The British can’t really go two sentences without making a joke; they just can’t do it.
“In Britain, everybody understands irony somehow, through their mother’s milk or something. I think in America, perhaps you have to acquire it as an individual a bit more.”
So it isn’t only that Americans are a bunch of humorless simpletons?
“I’d say a sense of irony is lacking in immigration and customs officials,” Thompson allows. “It’s also lacking almost completely north of the 48th parallel.”
It’s a joke, Canada. A joke.
Thompson’s delivery can be as dry as these very words in front of you, so the mere act of finding him funny puts one more bit of spit-shine on fans’ egos.
Thompson alternates between solo shows and those with his stellar band; the former a bit more spontaneity, as set lists can change drastically from night to night.
If someone should shout out a request, then at least there’s a chance I can do it – if I can remember it!” he says. “There are requests that people shout where I know I’ll get through half a verse and then fall flat on my face.”
Yet he routinely gives it a game go anyway.
“People come to be entertained,” he observes. “I have to play stuff that they want to hear, stuff that’s going to amuse or move them, whatever.
“However great an artist you think you are, you have to communicate your ideas to this audience sitting in front of you. Rock ’n’ roll music does not belong in a museum; you really have to do something that’s accessible to people now.”
Yet at times – when he’s singing a medley of Dylan songs, for instance – Thompson will change the words simply because he’s forgotten the real ones.
“There is creativity to forgetfulness,” he allows. “And dyslexia as well.”
And to remembering, for that matter.
“It’s almost a unique thing about being a singer/songwriter,” muses Thompson. “You keep revisiting your old work all the time. Y’know, if you’re a painter you’re gonna paint something and sell it, and you might never see it again; it’s gone.
“It’s kind of nice, kind of a unique thing, but you go out there and someone says, ‘Could you sing this song from 1967?’ and you know you’ve outgrown it, and you know it’s an immature song, but you still find a pleasure in singing it, in some sort of twisted way.
“People have given this old song some worth, and it means something to them,” he continues. “Therefore, it has a different kind of importance, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to sing it.
“Does that make sense?” he asks.
But of course it does. I am, after all, a Richard Thompson fan. We get these things.