Richard Thompson: ‘I had this real problem with authority’

Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson published his autobiography, written largely on the road before Covid, in May. Photo: Tom Bejgrowicz

There is a large constituency who consider Richard Thompson to be Britain’s great musical all-rounder. Born on 3 April 1949 in north London, he is a guitarist’s guitarist who leaves the greatest guitarists in awe and audiences speechless and enthralled.

He is a songwriter – words and music – of consummate power and originality. He has attracted plaudits and encomia from the great and good including David Byrne, David Lindley, John Mellencamp and Lou Reed.

Yet somehow, now into interviewing him into a fifth decade, it seems to this writer that he reserves his quiet approval for such as Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and June Tabor. They are the real stuff of dreams for him.

When we speak in May 2021, the end of Ramadan is nearing and he is in London to promote his newly published autobiography.

The title of the Faber UK edition is Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75. The subtitle gives away the terrain and terroir. He was spurred to write his autobiography by the Los Angeles-based writer Scott Timberg (1969-2019). Honourably, Beeswing comes with his co-credit.

“Scott was at the Los Angeles Times for a long time,” Thompson explains. “He also wrote for the Los Angeles Book Review, and wrote a very good book about art in the 21st century [Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015)]. He was someone I’d see around and about the Los Angeles music scene for many years, maybe 20, 30 years. He’d interviewed me a few times over that time span. He was a face, someone I knew fairly well and, I think, a very respected journalist.”

Pre-Covid, Thompson wrote on the road, grabbing time, for example, between soundcheck and showtime or, after he moved coasts, in New Jersey. The core text was done before Covid struck. Next came the nitty-grittiness of the editorial process.

One can write to a deadline, to a word count or whatever the equivalent is. For example, in the case of a song for a verse structure of four verses or seven verses or whatever the set goal in mind is. Once done, generally speaking though, does he have any problems about letting go and saying something’s finished, finito?

“I think I do,” he replies in a blink. “Let’s say with a song. I think with a song as soon as you start singing it in public – maybe it’s not even on a record – it’s out there and it gets harder to change.

‘With a song as soon as you start singing it in public, the audience gets used to it. They claim it somehow as their own’

“I mean, I have changed songs … But you almost get used to it and the audience gets used to it. They claim it somehow as their own. It becomes public property after a few years maybe. They’d get upset if I rewrote the song 20 years later, if I changed something around. They’d always prefer the older version because it’s what they’re used to.” Do they get proprietorial? “Yeah, I guess so.”

Writing his memoir introduced him to a whole new set of writing disciplines – putting in the hours plus something else. “In terms of a book there are so many more words that it’s hard to be satisfied that you’ve finally got the version that’s definitive. Having finished it, I thought: ‘Well, I just want to start again. Really … ’

“But your publication date is already booked, your promotion’s already booked, and you can’t do that. Editors whittle it down; it’s probably a lot longer than the final version. Editors will improve the flowing more than anything else. That was great to have that extra intellect at work behind the book to get it shaped.”

While the Faber edition’s subtitle is “Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75”, the US Algonquin edition has “Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975.” Who decided?

“The subtitles are not mine. This is totally at the whim of the different publishers. I think Algonquin went first with theirs and I said OK. Then Faber said they wanted something different apparently because Fairport was better known in the UK than in the US so they thought they wanted to get Fairport into the subtitle. That was totally at the whim of the publisher and nothing to do with me, ha, ha, ha.”

He is set up for a Covid quip. So, he can wash his hands? “I do. Frequently.” And a small Basil Brush Boom-boom moment occurs…
Although it plays merry havoc with the subtitle’s timeframe, because he can – if you make the rules, you can break them – Thompson includes Beeswing. One of the most evocative multiple-strand songs he ever wrote, it is anachronistic on one count because the song appeared on his 1994 solo album, Mirror Blue. Yet then again, it evokes the 1967 Summer of Love. Plus, he named these memoirs after it. (Note, no hostage-to-fortune “Volume 1” in the title.)

He lays to rest much of the speculation that the folk singer Anne Briggs is its subject. (Spoiler alert: Annie does have a cameo part.) Other examples of songs he discusses in greater detail include Josef Locke and Turning Of The Tide.

Another is the anthemic Meet On The Ledge, which appeared, imago-like, on Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, released in December 1968. An anthem in the modern sense of the word, it was a precocious portent of great things to come. In its passage down the decades arguably it accrued different meanings and nuances.

“It’s a more modern song than a ballad,” he begins. “With a [traditional] ballad the meaning is fairly clear all the way through and if there are verses that don’t carry the story forward they tend to get not sung, they tend to get left out in the passage of time.

Richard Thompson performing
Richard at Leeds Folk Festival in 1982. Photo: Tony Rees/CC-BY-SA-4.0

“If you were writing a contemporary song, especially in the 1960s/70s, thanks probably to Bob Dylan, you could be vaguer about a song’s meaning and that would be acceptable to the audience at the time. It could be vague. It could mean different things to different people. As apparently [Meet On The Ledge] still does.

“It means different things to me as well. It’s like a written stream of consciousness or semi-consciousness. I had to look at it afterwards and say: ‘Well, I’m not sure what this means [to the cadence of It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It)] but I like it.’ Sometimes songs will last longer if they’re ambiguous, if they mean different things to different people.”

Asked whether in the process of writing Beeswing he came up with any discoveries about himself in articulating what happened, as writers say in clicheworld, he waxes lyrical. “I think I did. I got more perspective about that time period. Because you think back sometimes and you think: ‘Wasn’t that fun?’ or ‘Wasn’t that terrible!’ But you don’t think about it as a lump, as this or that time period. I was shocked in a sense of how much happened in such a short space of time.”

He pauses. “About myself?” Again he pauses but takes longer gathering his thoughts. “I’d forgotten how optimistic I was when I was a teenager. Thinking back, I’d thought I’d had a terrible time at school and I thought I was depressed as teenagers usually are. But I really wasn’t.

“I was very upbeat – and that really surprised me to think about that discovery. I found an old diary from when I was at school. It was amazing. This was like somebody else writing this diary because it was so positive. I think I just shoved the world aside in a sense – the world of school, of homework, and the burden that’s on you as a teenager – and lived in my fantasy world and had a great time.” He smiles. Then serious again, he stops. “I think I also realised that my father really was an alcoholic, which hadn’t occurred to me. I knew he was a heavy drinker and that was a problem in the house. But I hadn’t quite realised the effect that had on me. To an extent …

“Somebody said to me the other day: ‘You know, you’re the typical son of an alcoholic.’ I asked: ‘Well, how’d you mean?’ ‘Well, you don’t like confrontation.’ And I said: ‘Oh, that’s it! That’s the reason.’ I’d never quite figured it out. Confrontation, authority – I had this real problem with authority – and it comes from that. It never really occurred to me until I started digging back into the past.”

The Amazon and marketing gods being willing, might there be another volume in him? I apologise for the question, betting he’s been asked that a few times already. He does a trademark guffaw. “I have already, amazingly enough. I would say maybe.

“I wouldn’t want to pick it up in 77 because I really didn’t like the next few years enough to write about them. I didn’t think the records we [Richard and Linda Thompson] made were particularly good. I didn’t think we were having such a great time in our marriage. I thought if I were going to start again it would be in 81, the so-called Tour from Hell, but I don’t know if I’d have the stomach to write about that. Maybe someone else should do that one?” He laughs. “I could skip straight to Volume 7 – you know, last week or something?

‘Somebody said to me the other day: “You know, you’re the typical son of an alcoholic. You don’t like confrontation”’

“I think the problem is that that period – the 60s and 70s – was very intense and a lot happened in a very dense amount of time. Volume 2, to write the same length of book, would be twice the time span. It would be, like, 20 years; and then after that it would be the next 30 years. I could do that. I mean I could grab things, incidents, anecdotes from a wider time period. I’d have to think about that and see if it would be something I’d enjoy.

“I might write a different kind of book. I might write a book more about music and less a memoir. I teach a music camp every summer [Frets & Refrains, west of Woodstock in upstate New York]. I teach guitar and songwriting, so it might be good to do something along those lines.”

In which case I posit he’d have feedback from people gained from working with at the song camp, people who ask questions: “Why this?”, “How did you decide that?”

“It’s like any creative camp. There’s a to-and-fro with the attendees. That also provokes you to go further, to go deeper, and to find new avenues of instruction. Perhaps that’s the next project?”

A wet-finger plea in the breeze for whatever the next book’s focus is. Illuminating The Calvary Cross would be welcome. Only if he wanted to, mind. It was his first vehicle, his first original song which enabled him to don wings, let rip and fly on electric guitar and improvise. Then there is its exercise in cryptic: “I was under the Calvary Cross/The pale-faced lady, she said to me/‘I’ve watched you with my one green eye/And I’ll hurt you till you need me…’” No wonder music director John Tams made it the climax of Tony Harrison’s The Mysteries at the National Theatre and on it the Home Service unmuzzled and unleashed Graeme Taylor’s electric guitar.

For decades Thompson has had the advantage of people interviewing him. That process can create accretions of memory by repetition to some extent. “To some extent,” he agrees. “But I can compare notes on something with [fellow Fairport founder] Simon Nicol.

“He’ll say: ‘Do you remember doing this?’ I say: ‘Nope.’ And I’ll say: ‘Do you remember that time when you did…?’ ‘No. Really?’ I think all of our memories tend to be selective. We tend to remember the bits we want to and a lot of other stuff goes by the wayside. And drink and drugs don’t help with that stuff either.”

Times change. Richard is drinking water and because of Ramadan I’m feeling slightly semi-guilty even about drinking Assam tea in a Zoom interview.

Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75 is available from faber.co.uk. This article appeared in Folk London 314, August-September 2021