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 Rumour 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):