The Twisted Talent Of Guitar Great Richard Thompson Inevitably Raises Questions About His Sanity.
By Dave McElfresh
NEARLY EVERY RICHARD Thompson interview raises a question that refuses to die: Just how many of his twisted lyrics are autobiographical? It's not an unusual interview question, except that in Thompson's case the shy and terminally friendly Brit is inclined to populate his songs with characters who are the stuff of nightmares--which more or less means many wonder if he's a pathological wreck, a serious danger to himself or others.
Check out his cast of characters. The recent You? Me? Us? continues his tradition of first-person songs that hand the microphone to psychopaths ("No's Not A Word We Use Around Here"), bitter losers who missed their big chance ("Put It There Pal"), boldfaced shysters ("Bank Vault In Heaven") and creepy lovers who either can't forget ("The Ghost Of You Walks") or goddamn refuse to ("Business Of You"). All that, by the way, can be found on the first of the new release's two discs.
And once again, a very believable Thompson is spending his interview time denying the lyrics suggest anything resembling a Mr. Hyde side. Unquestionably, the press is oddly attracted to his personal life, considering that journalists en masse do not assume that Tom Waits, John Prine, Leonard Cohen or any other wacko-fixated songwriter is using your CD player as a confessional booth. Very possibly even Thompson himself doesn't understand the routine grilling regarding his sanity. So what gives?
For starters, he's just too damned colorful a writer. As morose and cynical as some songwriters can be, Thompson knows better than most how to newly script dark feelings and cradle them in entirely believable stories. Add to this the fact that some of Thompson's personal experiences may have fueled the flames of the voyeuristic journalists. Since first becoming known as a founding member of the English folk group Fairport Convention, the guitarist has been associated with his fair share of bleak and bizarre events.
He recorded with the late Nick Drake, an exceptionally morose young songwriter who committed suicide at 27 with an overdose of antidepressants; and the late Sandy Denny, an ex-Fairporter who died of a brain hemorrhage after falling down a staircase. Thompson's decade-long marriage to wife Linda, his partner on many '70s albums, ended when he left her for Linda Covey, a concert promoter now known for her tours of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the yearly Fairport Convention reunions. It was an openly nasty period of transition for Richard and Linda, particularly since they remained on the road together to promote the highly regarded Shoot Out The Lights album, which just prior to release had been entirely re-recorded with his rather than her vocals in prominence. (The album photo unsubtly has a swinging light bulb positioned directly in front of Linda's head.)
The two had previously taken a three-year sabbatical from the music scene to establish a Sufi community as proof of their dedication to the ascetic religion. The seek-no-pleasure philosophy certainly helped cement Richard's eccentric reputation. So dreary was the mood associated with him that his fan club released a members-only compilation entitled Doom And Gloom From The Tomb. Later to appear were two bizarre albums with the guitarist as a member of French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson. French had been the drummer behind the maniacal Captain Beefheart, and Frith and Kaiser were (and still are) the reigning psycho guitar experimentalists. The quartet's repertoire ranged from "March Of The Cosmetic Surgeons" to "Surfin' USA," and as the musical equivalent of four schizos deep in a streetcorner rant, they made even the wildest Zappa fare sound naive by comparison.
But what continues most to validate Thompson's alleged strangeness, oddly enough, relates not to his lyrics but to his stunning guitar work. Many consider him the instrument's most expressive player, bar none. He has a terminally romantic side that fashions delicate solos destined to sink deep into the listener's gut. The acoustic half of You? Me? Us? is surprisingly successful in conveying sentimentality without veering into excess, and it's done as much by his guitar playing as it is by his lyrics. New Agers--excuse me, the Adult Contemporary Instrumentalists--fall all over themselves attempting to wring a fraction of such emotional expressiveness from their chosen instruments. What they are far less inclined to pursue, however, is his sentimental longing for either Dead Chicks I Killed or Women From Hell.
But it's the electric guitar work that most makes the listener wonder what warped moods dominate Thompson's skullbone. Here Thompson purposely reaches for those notes that are supposed to be avoided, the ones that will sound dreadfully wrong. As with his lyrical choices, Thompson is undaunted by the threat of going too far and sounding bonkers. He stretches a handful of strings into a pedal steel guitar scream, unscrews the tension to grab low sounds the instrument is not meant to play, and precariously stacks the weirdest possible tones on top of each other, always with success.
Across A Crowded Room, unfortunately now an out-of-print 1985 video, shows Thompson churning out one bizarre solo after another, pulling the conservative audience into musical terrain they sure as hell hadn't encountered with any other artist falling under the rock category. Thompson's solos are, more often than not, the equivalent of a psychotic allowing brief glimpses of his disintegration. Couple that with his spooky lyrics, and fans are likely to question the safety of waiting to meet him in the alley behind the club. But it would be worth the risk. He is considered to be the artist's artist, having been honored with two tribute albums comprised mostly of stars more popular than himself, one cynically entitled The World Is A Wonderful Place.
That leaves the under-appreciated Thompson relegated to the shadows, like his parade of misfit lovers and killers. But maybe all the verbal frisking, album after album, is complimentary in an off-handed way: The old storyteller remains a threat.
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