Our guest this week is guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson. One of the founding fathers of British folk rock, he’s the author of a new book, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice (1967-1975). It chronicles the early days of his band, Fairport Convention, the launch of his solo career, run-ins with Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, a lost jam session with Led Zeppelin, and his collaborations with Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, and John Martyn. He joins Jason P. Woodbury to discuss it all and more this week on Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions.
Transmissions :: Richard Thompson
Episode playlist: Richard and Linda Thompson, “When I Get to the Border” ++ Fairport Convention, “Tale In Hard Time”
Hope you enjoy this episode. We rely on word of mouth, so please spread the word. If you’d like to leave a review, like Timmyqbush did—they called the show “real talk for unreal times”—please head over to Apple Podcasts and do so. Our guest next week is legendary jazz composer and theorist Wadada Leo Smith. His new album Sacred Ceremonies, with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell, is out May 21st.
Transmissions is written, produced, and hosted by Jason P. Woodbury. Audio is edited by Andrew Horton. Sarah Goldstein and Johnathan Mark Walls provide visuals. Our executive producer, top of the show announcer, and main man is Justin Gage.
Aquarium Drunkard: Richard it’s a true honor to have you here on Transmissions. Thanks so much for joining us.
Richard Thompson: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
AD: I finished Beeswing this morning actually. It’s an incredible book. Thank you for putting it out. I’m curious, did you enjoy writing it overall?
Richard Thompson: I did. I mean I really enjoyed writing the anecdotal stuff, you know, writing about old friend situations. What I found hard was putting it into chronological order because I didn’t keep diaries, so placing things in a timeframe was very difficult. I had to rely on websites where they have every gig since 1967. That was the hard bit, but the actual writing was a pleasure.
AD: In the back, there’s an appendix with some dreams that you reference throughout the book. You mentioned you didn’t keep a diary or anything like that. Do you typically have a pretty good memory of your dreams?
Richard Thompson: Well, I find memories of dreams from that period are quite vivid. Perhaps it was the drugs, I don’t know, but I remember subjects really clearly, in fact more clearly than I remember day to day stuff, just because I, for instance, it kind of stood out in my memory. At a certain point I started writing dreams down. I think I wrote those down about twenty years ago, just so I wouldn’t forget them and now if I have an interesting dream, I will write it down somewhere. I think dreams are interesting, especially because they’re very close to the creative process, you know. It’s a short step from the unconscious to the semi-conscious, which is the kind of state that I think you write, or you know, that you create anything in. It’s not exactly a fully conscious state that there’s other elements in play there. So, I put the dreams in just to give some notion of my inner life, if you like.
AD: I especially like the Jesus dream. That’s a very interesting one. Quite funny.
Richard Thompson: It’s quite funny. I’m letting myself open here to some psychologist having serious insight into my world, but I’m sure it’s all very symbolic and it means I’m crazy or something, but yeah. I mean, you can’t control your dreams; you’re not responsible for your dreams either, but they are funny, and in the cases of the ones in the book, they’re just surreal, they’re just so weird.
AD: Well, you open yourself up a lot in the book. One of my favorite parts comes kind of early, which is where you’re talking about hearing, I believe over the radio, or maybe it was a record, but Les Paul playing “Caravan,” the Duke Ellington song, and you talk about your father’s Django Reinhardt records as well, and the fondness with which you write about that stuff really moved me. I’m curious, what was the first music that made you yourself want to play guitar? Was it some of that stuff?
Richard Thompson: It was probably more the rock and roll stuff, which is more of my generation, or certainly my sister’s generation, my older sister’s, with buying the records, and it sort of filtering down to me through the bedroom wall, but that seemed to speak much more, that had the energy, and the kind of rebellion in it that as a kid you thought, yes this is for me, this is my kind of stuff, and of course everyone would play the guitar, you know, people you heard on TV were playing guitars, people you heard on records were playing guitars. Buddy Holly played a guitar, so it must be cool. So, that was probably more, you know, what really moved me to want to play, and Django and Les Paul was coming in the background, but probably, I absorbed it without really thinking about it.
AD: Yeah. When you all started Fairport Convention, there was sort of a concept in place, basically, which was that you would sort of, or eventually you seized on the concept—maybe it wasn’t there right at the very beginning, but this idea of sort of combining traditional music with sort of that rock and roll energy. One of the things that I thought was so interesting was listening to…I listen to like [the Emitt Rhodes-penned] “Time Will Show The Wiser,” which has long been one of my favorite Fairport songs, and that’s from the first record, and right away, you hear your voice, you’re one of the harmonies in the chorus right? And then obviously you’re playing guitar. I was struck by the fact that it sounds fully formed to me. It sounds like you right away, but you write a lot in the book about sort of trying to find your musical voice and how you weren’t always sure that you had a lock on it, but it sounds to me like it was there right away.
I’m curious, did you have something in your head that you were sort of going for, that you were working towards, and what sense you might have had of it when you were actually starting out, because a lot of music is just fumbling around and hearing something that your bandmate plays that inspires you to do something. So, I’m curious what that sort of felt like in the very, very, very early days.
Richard Thompson: Well, I think to begin with, we all start off copying other people. You have your heroes and you try to do what they do, and then at a certain point, you try to go beyond that, and having a range of influences means you become this kind of subtotal of all these different elements, which becomes your style. So, for me, it was the rock and roll, it was the piano, Jerry Lewis, you know, I was trying to get the kind of rhythm he plays on piano. Plus, it’s my dad’s Les Paul and Django records, plus it’s you know, James Burton playing on our Ricky Nelson record. So, all these things get the perfect mix become your style, and playing in a band, you know you learn from each other, a lot. It’s one of the great ways to develop as a musician, is just being in a band, and you all kind of push each other and drag each other forward, you know, and that’s a great thing. So, in Fairport we did, we really said okay we’re going to definitely concentrate now on playing this kind of hybrid music which is a mixture of traditional British music and rock music. We’re going to play these old ballads, in some cases, with electric instruments and with drums, and that was a new thing, in the UK, that was different. A new genre, really.
AD: You write a lot about being interested in being original and also not necessarily being a pop act, and then you have sort of these artistic ambitions, that you really wanted to create something that was new and of value, and also sort of artistically pure, you know, which I find very interesting. But, I’m curious, did you feel in those days like you were a fairly critical player, in terms of like thinking about what you were doing and sort of analyzing it and trying to push it into new directions, where does that, sort of critical faculty, come from for you? Do you have any idea?
Richard Thompson: Well, I think I had it built in somehow. I wanted to do something different, I wanted to be a pioneer in music somehow, and I fell in with other people who were really idealistic about music, and we all thought about what we did. We were all reflective about the kind of music we made. We didn’t want to be another British blues band, or another British R&B band, recycling American styles. We loved lyrics, so from the very beginning of Fairport, we were covering Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, and people like that. We wanted to be different, and I think we were different. We stood out in that way from the other people around the London psychedelic music scene at the time, you know, we were Pink Floyd, we were The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, we were something distinct, and at that time, the audience would except you, really, whoever you were, and whatever style you played. So, it was a good time to be coming up. It was a good time to ride in on that psychedelic wave of music.
AD: That’s something very, very interesting in that Fairport had sort of a strange relationship to psychedelia, right, because on one hand, you were able to focus, or sorry, rather the freedom of the psychedelic movement allowed you to be opened up to kind of do long solos, and sort of more extended improvisatory playing, which you know, obviously that had a huge impact on the sound of the group, but also like you said, you were rooted more in traditional songcraft, and all of that stuff. Groups like the Band, you know come to mind in terms of this more rustic sort of more traditional thing, but at the same time I just wonder, were audiences, did the fact that audiences were maybe a little out there and a little spaced, and perhaps very stoned, you know, make you guys feel like you had the opportunity to go new places sort of under the guides of this new movement of psychedelia while not necessarily being a part of it yourselves?
Richard Thompson: Well, the audiences were stoned, absolutely, which allowed us, as you said, a lot of freedom, and you know, Pink Floyd would be playing, they’d have the light shows and the sort of weird lighting, and that’ll be happening when we’re playing as well, so we’re playing this kind of psychedelic arena if you like. I suppose, you know, you certainly have permission at that point to play long instrumental passages, you know, some bands were 90% instrumental, like Soft Machine, were a mostly instrumental band, there wasn’t that much in the way of vocals. So, Fairport’s style really evolved that way without necessarily thinking about it too much. We were a lyric band, we love lyrics, we love to play songs, but on top of that we would also do long solo passages, not like every song, but some songs.
AD: Sure. In the early days, you’d play shows with bands like Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Social Deviants, Incredible String Band, and Pink Floyd who you’ve mentioned, you know, with your distant cousin Syd Barrett, that was very interesting. What was the mood like at shows in those days, places like the UFO Club, I mean was it a pretty exciting scene?
Richard Thompson: Yeah, it was something, for us, new anyway. As soon as we started playing around London, we became very aware of this fairly new psychedelic movement. It probably started in ’66 actually, but by ’67 it was in full flow, and we just accepted it as this is where you play, this is what you do. It was a very good, friendly scene I’d say, you know, and in those days everyone would share one dressing room, so you’d be in there with all the other bands, you know, you’d chat, you’d compare notes, you’d play each other’s guitars just to check them out. I mean, it was a kind of friendly scene, and it wasn’t bitchy or anything, it was all pretty amiable I should say, and as we said we’re kind of accepting of pretty much anything.
AD: Did you ever get the sense that other bands were especially into what you guys were doing?
Richard Thompson: I think other bands liked us because maybe we weren’t competing with them.
AD: Well yeah. That’s the sense I get listening to some of the stuff, especially those early records, is that it’s a nice complement, like I could see it sounding very good to have you on the same bill as Pink Floyd, but then it’s its own thing, it’s not necessarily the same. You’re not after the same, you’re not going the same place necessarily which is just interesting.
Richard Thompson: No, I don’t think so. I mean the bands that were going the same place, there’s a band called Eclection that we’re kind of, almost like a Fairport spin off, and Trevor Lucas eventually ended up in Fairport at one point, but mostly other bands emerged a little bit later, but still the Steeleye Span band and The Albion Band were early into the ‘70s, they were that much later. So, we were always on bills with record Family, who were a great band, kind of an R&B band, but they wrote very good songs, and a band called The Blossom Toes. Again, they were kind of, you know, a band that wrote their own material, and in their own way were trying to be original. Jim Cregan from that band went on to play with Rod Stewart and people, so, yeah. Hopefully we were nonthreatening.
AD: You encountered Jimi Hendrix kind of early on. What was it like as a guitarist when Hendrix showed up on the scene?
Richard Thompson: Well, interesting. I think I saw him quite early on when he had just about formed the Experience. I saw him in a little club, maybe 300 people, and it was different, you know. I mean, I had seen The Who, who did a lot of the sort of stage act. Hendrix took a lot from The Who, actually I think, but Pete Townshend was much more of a rhythm guitarist, you know, like a punchy, you know, feedback type of guitar player. Hendrix took a lot of skill, and Hendrix clearly had a lot of chops, he was a lot more adventurous then the British blues players, a lot like Eric Clapton or Peter green at that time. So, he was clearly something else. He was a seriously good showman who could always upstage you, you know he could always do something else, you know, he could play with his teeth, he could play behind his back, he could do all kinds of tricks that he learned on the ?? in the states.
AD: Yeah, playing with James Brown and stuff, right?
Richard Thompson: Yeah. He played with Little Richard.
AD: Oh Little Richard, yes.
Richard Thompson: So, Hendrix was intimidating, intimidating to all those British guitar players, but also intimidating to me, and it’s one of the reasons I probably thought well, I’m not gonna compete here. I’m gonna try and evolve my own style just a little bit different.
AD: Yeah, yeah. You talk at one point about Mott the Hoople, playing a show with them, and they had the stage acts down. They’re doing these sort of choreographed moves and they were really whipping the audience up into a frenzy, and Fairport decided, you were gonna give that a shot too, but sort of, perhaps more cynically than they did, but you were shocked that it worked. Although John Peel at that show, apparently, wasn’t a big fan of what you all had done, which must’ve stung a little bit—but I’m curious, did you feel, at the time, how comfortable did you feel on stage, generally speaking, in the early days of Fairport Convention?
Richard Thompson: Okay, speaking about me personally, I was always a bit shy on stage. I didn’t want to be the center of attention. I reluctantly took vocals. I loved to sing, I just didn’t like being at the front of the stage. I preferred to be at the back somewhere. So, the stage for me was a mixed blessing for a while around that time. I think it got easier. I think when I started working with Linda in the early ‘70s, playing at folk clubs mostly, I developed more confidence at that point.
AD: Sure, yeah. It’s kind of interesting to me the way, Fairport’s lineup was fairly fluid for those early years, you know, there were sort of people in and out. Judy [Dyble] obviously, your first singer Iain Matthews, and it just sort of seemed like as the band evolved, there was a willingness to say so and so’s style doesn’t necessarily fit what we do anymore, and that is understandable and pretty typical for rock bands, but what’s less typical is that you all stayed, seemingly very amiable and close and continued to collaborate in various ways. You’re all over Iain Matthews’ early records, obviously with Sandy Denny, produced some incredible records, and I think things were even pretty good with Judy. So, I’m curious, where did that sense of camaraderie come from that allowed you guys to remain collaborators even as you were dealing with the ups and downs of being a rock band and somebody who had been booted out of the band or whatever?
Richard Thompson: Yeah, I suppose in some ways I don’t understand it. I think we started out as a bunch of friends. We were never one of those bands that was, you know, snarky with each other, or you know, got together for the music but didn’t really like each other. We were always a friendly band and we didn’t hire obnoxious people, you know, we really tried to hire people that we thought we would get along with, like I think really, and for the most part that worked. You know, Judy clearly didn’t have a strong enough voice to be singing over a band that was getting louder. So, that was a factor. Iain clearly was much more interested in country rock than he was in traditional rock that we were going towards, and he was finding himself on a loose end. He didn’t know what to do on particular songs, so you know, there was obviously a parting of ways there, but for instance, Iain and I are still sharing a flat a year later after he left the band.
You know, I was still living with Fairport in the communal house when I left the band for another few months, so it’s just a strange thing. I don’t fully understand it. Maybe also because, you know, the British folk-rock scene was a small scene, so you couldn’t just, you know, disappear into another realm, you know, and not play with the people who you’ve been playing with. You’d end up on sessions with the same people, you know, sometimes someone would leave a band and just migrate to the next band and then migrate to another band, and so you’d keep running into the same people. You know, it was a small scene, 20-25 people that just kept fairly tight and friendly. I don’t, I can’t think of anyone I didn’t get along with on that particular scene.
AD: Yeah, that is, that’s interesting and very beautiful in a way because it’s like, it produced all these great records obviously. Sandy Denny’s early records, her first one I mean, you express some ambivalence about the way the strings are mixed on it, and I can certainly hear your point because it does kind of shadow some of the underplay, but none the less, what an incredible record, and your work with her is incredible. When you first encountered Sandy, I loved the description of you all auditioning her, but quickly realizing she was auditioning you, more or less. What did you think when you first heard Sandy’s voice? What was your sense of her as an artist?
Richard Thompson: Well, she seemed really accomplished as a singer. She showed a big range as a singer. She had a big dynamic range as a singer. She could go from a whisper to full volume without any loss, or any stage, you know, a lot like a good opera singer can do that. Emotionally, there’s something about her voice that’s elusive, but she could put this certain kind of emotion into a song that often made her the definitive interpreter of that song, but all the songs that I wrote for the band that she sang, I mean, I can’t think of a better version of those songs. She would just kill it, I mean without even talking about it she’d just sing it perfectly, you know. I mean absolutely one of the best singers I’ve ever heard in my life, and it was a short life sadly. I wish her legacy was more songs, you know, more albums that we could appreciate, but I think people are slowly catching up with Sandy. It’s taken a long time, but people are realizing how good she was.
AD: I went back and listened to the Top Gear version of “You Never Wanted Me”, the Jackson C. Frank song that she played when you all first played together, and wow, its mind blowing. It’s a mind-blowing arrangement. I’ve listened to the solo versions of her do it, but then to hear you all accompany her and do so with such sympathetic arrangements, it feels so, so sophisticated, and so nuanced for such a young band. It’s like there really was a sense that there was some sort of magic thing happening between you all when I listen to that early stuff.
Richard Thompson: Yeah, I mean I think it was magic. Maybe it’s a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, I mean we really had to throw Sandy into the band as we’re working, you know, we just add a song by song by song, you know, into the repertoire, and in the case of some of Sandy’s songs that she brought with her to the band, it was us just kind of molding around her really, it was like how can we be sympathetic in this situation. So, on a song like that, I think it worked very well.
AD: She obviously went on to sing with, you know, she had a lot of different projects before her untimely passing. She of course recorded the “Battle of Evermore” with Led Zeppelin. I didn’t ever realize that Fairport and the members of Led Zeppelin had jammed, in, was it 1970 or so?
Richard Thompson: Yeah, yeah. Well, that was, our bass player, Dave Pegg, was from Birmingham, and he had been in bands with John Bonham and Robert Plant, you know, around the Birmingham scene. That didn’t ever break out. They were in a band called The Uglies that were in a bigger chart band from Birmingham. So, there was already that connection, you know they were people that we would run into, you know, thanks to Peggy. At some point I think we wrote the Troubadour at Los Angeles and there was this sort of jam session on stage, which was legendary, and it was all recorded but no one could find the recording of it unfortunately, but we’ll, one day, one day we’ll discover. [Laughs]
AD: Do you think that it’s out there somewhere, that somewhere in some box or whatever it may, maybe it exists?
Richard Thompson: Well, I think somebody took it because it was seen in the vaults up until a certain year, and then it disappeared, and I have my suspicions of who might have taken it, but somebody basically just took it out the vault and they’ve probably still got it.
AD: Well, I hope that they decide to put it out, you know, because I want to hear it.
Richard Thompson: Yeah, me too.
AD: I was thinking about how 1969 saw the release of, was it three Fairport records? One that had been recorded in ’68 but was released in ’69. Three albums, I mean that’s, even by those standards when records would come out fairly quickly, or fairly often rather, with a working band, that’s still pretty, that’s an intense run for a band, to put out all that stuff. Was it just a deep enthusiasm for what you were doing that was sort of motivating this drive, this push, or did you think that, did you all feel like you had something to prove? What was sort of the behind that drive?
Richard Thompson: I think, probably Joe Boyd just wanted to keep us recording, really. We didn’t say okay we’re going to go into the studio now and make a record. We would just record tracks as they came up really, as they were rehearsed we’d say okay let’s record this one, or these two, you know, let’s try two or three songs, and we would really start recording in any way that we could, and in some cases it was after a show where we drove back from London, you know, a couple of hours or something out of town and drive to the studio and record all night, and then do a show the next day. I think when you’re young you can do that kind of crazy stuff, you know, I couldn’t do it now, that’s for sure. Yeah, we just constantly were recording. We didn’t ever stop, and I suppose, you know, we’d accumulate enough songs and that’d be an album, and then we’d accumulate more, that was a different album. Yeah, I think it was probably every six months really, and it didn’t seem like hard work. It didn’t seem like we were, you know, killing ourselves to meet a deadline or anything. So, yeah, it was just a thing that we did.
AD: You also write in the book about, like Sandy, somebody who’s life was very short, but who’s legacy is pretty monumental, was Nick Drake, who you play on his work as well. You write about listening to Pink Moon, his final record, and sort of being almost spooked by it. What did you think when you heard that for the first time?
Richard Thompson: When I heard Pink Moon, I was concerned for Nick’s mental health, I think more than anything else. He sounds so fragile on that record and so broken, and it sounds to me almost like a cry for help. I know that Joe Boyd and John Wood—the producer of that record—you know, liked it because it was so naked, but to me, it was far more disturbing than that, and I thought oh shit, you know, Nick’s in trouble, but you know we were working all the time, you know, I never saw him after that record came out, I don’t think I saw Nick again, and he went back to live with his parents at the end of his life, and he had probably an accidental overdose or something. I don’t think it was a suicide, and that seemed tragic, and it seemed tragic that people hadn’t really heard him, you know. Did he sell a couple thousand of records in his lifetime? Maybe. It took a VW commercial, you know, for people to think it was this guy, and slowly, slowly, took a kind of ground swell interest in Nick, and so many people ask me now about Nick, which is interesting. I think he’s had an influence, even after his death, actually, people have found him and realized how great he is.
AD: I was one of the many people who first heard him on the Volkswagen commercial, absolutely.
Richard Thompson: There you go.
AD: Oh yeah, yeah. I heard it and just, it’s funny that that commercial is, a previous guest on our show here, Amanda Petrusich, wrote a great book about Pink Moon and talked about the resurgence of interest in his music, but yeah, hearing that on a commercial, the way that guitar sounds, it was just like I gotta figure out who this is, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard, you know.
Richard Thompson: Yeah.
AD: It’s interesting, 1969 obviously, it marked a turning point in the band as well, because of this tragic car accident that you write about in the book, in which, you know, Fairport’s drummer Martin Lamble and your girlfriend at the time, Jeannie Franklyn [were killed]. I’m curious, how difficult was it to revisit that experience? Did it still feel fresh, or had that strange thing happened where the longer you are removed from something, it almost feels like it happened to someone else or something? I’m curious what it was like for you.
Richard Thompson: I think to get through writing it, sometimes I thought that you know that I’ve got to pretend that this is about someone else, you know, it didn’t really feel like that. It’s not something that I want to look at all the time. For the sake of the book and telling the story, and maybe for the sake of Martin and Jeannie’s families as well, I wanted to really remember as clearly as possible everything that happened. So, it was a process I kind of had to grit my teeth and get through, but you know, the hardest part of the book to write for sure. In doing the audiobook, which I just did, and that was really, really tough, to read it out loud, but maybe in revisiting it there was some catharsis in that for me, and I hope it gives people a better understanding of Fairport, and what we went through as a band, and how we memorialized those people in songs sometimes, and you know, I hope people go back to the old records and listen to Martin’s drumming, which was fabulous, and really great. Jeannie was a really talented designer, dress designer, you know, and I think her family never really knew what happened to us, and perhaps they’ll get to read the book and that’ll be something for them too.
AD: Yeah. Well, I didn’t realize that you had recorded the audiobook yourself. I’m excited to revisit it. Did you enjoy that process? Was that, how long does it take to record an audiobook?
Richard Thompson: Well, yeah, it is curious. The audio company said we’ll put you in a studio for three days, you know, that’ll be plenty of time to get through it, and I’m thinking I’m not sure I could take three days. So, I do it in my home studio, I’ll send it to my sound engineer to clean it up, you know, just another big, big thing with audiobooks is cutting out all the mouse noise, all that kind of stuff. It probably took me two weeks, actually. I’d do an hour a day, sometimes two hours a day, and that was plenty for me at a time. So, I think, yeah, it takes a while. The other thing is, you have to really keep the same tone of voice the whole time, so you have to keep referring back to what you did the day before, or at the beginning, and keep that consistent so you don’t start the book down here and go an octave higher.
AD: Yeah, yeah. One of the other things I really, really liked about the book is well, was in addition to, you know, you keeping track of these great stories, and sharing all these wonderful anecdotes, you write a lot about the things you were interested in at various times, especially literary wise, you talk about being a big fan of Philip K. Dick, and liking science fiction, and write about being in San Francisco and going to city lights, you know, reading Richard Brautigan, and Thomas Pynchon, and all these people. Have you always been a pretty big reader?
Richard Thompson: I have, yes, and I suppose I put those references in just to give people insight and background into the creative process, and you know, how songs are involved, you know, this is what you’re reading at the time, this is what comes out. There’s frequently a connection between input and output, really. So, yeah, I’m still a reader, I love to read. Is that old fashioned these days? I don’t know.
AD: Maybe a little bit. I know for me at the start of quarantine, I read a lot. I read so much. It was like I was a kid again, you know, because when I was a teenager and younger, I would read nonstop, and then at some point in quarantine, my brain switched and I was just like I can hardly keep my eyes focused on a page. I don’t know what happened, you know, but hopefully I’m getting back into it. Your book was remarkably easy to read, and I mean that in the best way, not that it was lacking in any substance, but rather just that you’re so clear, and so, your sentences are very wonderfully constructed and very propulsive. I felt like the book just sort of moved along. I imagine, as somebody who’s read so much, you probably had some sense that, if you were going to write a book, you wanted to make sure that it was very good.
Richard Thompson: Well, I think, you know, they say if you read, then you can write.
AD: That’s true, yeah.
Richard Thompson: You don’t have to think about it, you learn how to spell by reading, you learn grammar by reading, you learn sentence structure by reading. Also, I think as a songwriter, there’s a certain rhythm you write lyrics to, and I think that spills over into whatever prose you write as well. So, you want to hear music in your sentences, you know in the sentences, a certain cadence, when you write. Certainly the best prose writers have that, you know, quote someone like Dickens or Lord Byron or whoever you want to quote, that’s great prose writers, and they’ve got a distinctive rhythm that runs all through their work. So, that’s probably something I aim for.
AD: Yeah. In addition to some of the literature, you write about being very interested in like esoteric stuff, being interested in the writing of, you know, Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, the occult, astrology, zen. Did you, as a very young person, as a kid, did you feel at all like a spiritual seeker? Or, when did that rather enter into your life, this sort of desire to find something, that it seems like you eventually did find in Sufism, but it took a little while to get there? What was that journey?
Richard Thompson: It probably started as early as, I was a fifteen or sixteen-year-old. I think I had been put off by Christianity by being dragged to church when I was a kid and not really understanding what was going on. So, I couldn’t connect that with spiritual quest, if you like. When I was sixteen, I had just started to read, you know I’d go to the bookshelves in the West end of London and pick out interesting books I was into and check out. There was this great bookshelf called Watkins in London, which was very Harry Potter-ish, it had all the esoteric stuff, you know. So, I just got fascinated by that, and I would read about astrology, and I would read about anthroposophy, and I’d read about Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, all these people, and I sort of stumbled on the Sufis, they were kind of courted by the people to some extent, and I thought wow, this is kind of interesting, like this is the type of thing that I’m really looking for, and almost as I’m framing that thought, the real Sufis almost literally turn up on my doorstep, and I think I recognized in that something that I really wanted for myself, you know, they seem to have a knowledge and a kind of way of being that was very attractive to me. So, that’s who I fell in with and I’m still there, really, in a spiritual sense.
AD: Was the music associated with the religion, was that also a big part of it? You talk about being in these meetings and singing unaccompanied, you know. Was there a musical attraction to you as well?
Richard Thompson: Well, yeah, I think there really is. At various places around the world there are sciences of music. Indian ragas is a science of music. And in Andalusian, Spain, from 800-1400—whatever it was—when the Moors were in Spain, there was a science of music, which is called Andalusian music, and when the Moors left Spain, that became the classical music of Africa, of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and it still is, it’s like their classical music, it’s their traditional music. So, I got exposed to a lot of that style of music, and it sounds kind of Western, it doesn’t sound particularly oriented or anything, you know, it’s really the Western end of Islam if you want. So, I got interested in the science, and I tried to understand the science, and it probably effected the music that I write, really, and the music I try to play. So, it’s in the mix now.
AD: Eventually, you struck out on your own, away from Fairport, and you did your first record, and then you met Linda Peters, you know, who became your wife, and you two recorded I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which to my ears, is one of the finest albums ever released. You get two spots on that list because you also did Shoot Out the Lights, which we’ll get to in just a second probably, but when I listen to that record, I hear an intense spiritual longing in I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, and I wondered, what kind of conversations would maybe. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. What was encountering Linda and her voice like? What did hearing her voice bring out in your own music when you first met each other?
Richard Thompson: Well, she’s a very different singer from Sandy, but you know her voice is much straighter, her voice is like a laser beam, it kind of just cuts straight through to your heart. So, she has that quality. Again, it’s a different kind of emotion, but it’s an extraordinary voice, a very beautiful voice, and because we were dating anyway, you know she was doing her career stuff which was a bit more poppy, and she was singing like commercials and stuff, and I was doing session work really, and I was playing, Sandy’s band was playing with Iain’s band. We said, you know, at least if we work together, we’ll see each other, because we would spend months not seeing each other. So, we decided to team up musically, and that worked very well from the beginning, we’d play in folk clubs, we’d have a repertoire of original songs, we’d do covers, we’d do traditional songs, we’d do country songs, we would do all kinds of stuff, and that was comfortable.
We wrote our songs to make the Bright Lights album, which again was a very, I almost want to say lucky, like a lucky record, because nothing really slowed it down. We recorded it in three days I think, for very little money, and everything worked, you know, what we try, and we don’t know works. The rhythm tracks went down seamlessly. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t, but that was an easy record to make, and then I look back and listen to it now and it still sounds good, I mean I’d say that’s one of my favorite records that we ever did. It holds up really well, there’s no gimmicks on it, there’s no psychedelics on it, there’s no flanging or phasing or anything. It’s just very straight down, straight recorded, very naturalistic recorded, which means that it doesn’t sound dated necessarily. So, I’m quite proud of that record.
AD: Did you know even then, like upon finishing it, did you both have a pretty good sense like hey I think we nailed it with this one?
Richard Thompson: Well, I think that about every record. [Laughs] Sometimes I’m wrong, for sure. Yeah, I think we liked it at the time. I think we always had high hopes for the record, you know, it never sold as well as we thought it would. We had a very minor hit, as a single, you know, the “Bright Lights” song.
AD: The title track, yeah.
Richard Thompson: Yeah, the title track scraped out the UK top 40 I think, but the album really didn’t sell very well. So, when that happens, we shrug our shoulders and say okay next record we’ll do better, but the next record we were much more compromised, I think.
AD: Yeah. Well, as time went on obviously, the record has gained more and more esteem, you know, people look back on it. Your conversion to Sufism happened, not while you were, shortly after that record, right?
Richard Thompson: Yeah.
AD: I’m curious, you know, you write a little bit about Linda’s own experience with Sufism, and I certainly don’t want to ask you to sum up how she felt about stuff, because that’s not fair to her, she should be able to speak about that, but I’m curious if for you, I mean, did you have any sort of doubts as you had converted and were sort of maybe leading the charge a little bit in that regard. Did you feel any tension between the two of you at the time, regarding that sort of journey that you were both on spiritually?
Richard Thompson: Well, it was tricky, you know, it was a time where I was turning my life upside down, really, you know. I stopped drinking, some of my old friends’ kind of kept away.
AD: Sandy didn’t like that you at all stopped drinking, you write about.
Richard Thompson: Yeah, she didn’t, and she wasn’t the only one really. Sometimes, you know, if you have a drinking problem, which I think I did, and I chose to hang out with other people who drank too much, really, you want other people to reinforce your viewpoint about whatever you’re consuming, you know, and when you don’t do that, people get very upset. So, that’s a tough time for me, because I’m kind of in turmoil, you know, to try and change my life up, and I determined, actually, not to influence Linda too much. I didn’t want her to follow me down that particular path. I really wanted her to have her own mind and make her mind up, but I think she, well, I think she was attracted to it as well, and I think everyone kind of got into it, which was probably a good thing. We could still be one mind; we could still understand each other’s point of view.
AD: Yeah. I mean not only did you have your musical relationship and your musical partnership, but you had a family, you had all this going on, so it makes sense that there was this, that connection. I want to jump back just a little bit to the psychedelic thing that we had talked about, touched on. You mentioned that, although it was unavoidable, you didn’t really like acid very much, and you talk about how you didn’t like the sense of oneness that it sort of, or rather maybe were uncomfortable with that sense of oneness. I’m curious if as you got deeper into Sufism, did you ever come around to anything that was maybe related to those acid ideas, but in a more holistic way for you personally? I mean, I guess asking did you ever transcend feels kind of gauche, but I guess I’ll ask it anyway.
Richard Thompson: Yes, ask it anyway, that’s good. Let me think. Well, I mean the problem that I had with acid was that I didn’t want to be like everybody else on that scene, you know, I didn’t want to be all peace and love, you know. So, I said well I’m not taking acid, forget it, but then people would just slip it to you. It was actually unavoidable, and the problem I had really was that I felt out of control, you know, if I wanted to do it then I was going to do it in my own terms of it, own my own timeframe, but here I was being spiked before a gig or something, you know, I’m thinking shit I really, I don’t want to be in this state because I know I’m playing shit. So, that was one of the problems, I mean the feeling of oneness I liked, that was the good thing, was that feeling that you were part of this, of everything really. That felt really good, and I wanted to feel that again, but in a more spiritual way, and as I evolved as a human being, I did feel that, and I still feel it, I mean not permanently, but from time to time I still get that state of being where you feel connected to the rest of the universe and to the great spirit, or whatever you want to call it, you know. It’s hard to talk about that stuff after a certain point, but yes.
AD: Of course. I mean, and I understand why it is hard to talk about it, because you’re describing something so immense. I wondered does it ever happen on stage for you, when you’re in the midst of playing something musically, is there some similar connection to that feeling that comes about as, you know, playing musically?
Richard Thompson: I think it is similar, yeah. It’s similar I think because when you play music there is an alteration to your consciousness. This is hard to describe, I’ve never heard a psychologist or a brain specialist describe exactly what’s going on in that case, but what they call the zone, and if you get into that frame of mind where you are immersed in music, then what you think of is you does kind of go to the background, and you do feel connected to other musicians, you feel connected to the audience, you feel an insight to the music as it’s playing, which is another way of losing yourself, you know, it’s all about losing yourself I think, losing that conscious you, just becoming a conjugate, becoming something that music flows through, but it does get harder and harder to talk about, so there’s no vocabulary.
AD: Well yeah, yeah. It’s something you feel more than something you can say. Well, obviously, you know, your marriage to Linda ended. You did produce another classic, which I already referenced, Shoot Out the Lights. You don’t get extremely deep into that one, or really anything else. This books scope is fairly limited. It only describes, what it’s a, you know, we’re talking seven or eight years, really, not a full rundown. So, I wondered, do you think, and I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a million times, but do you think you want to write more books? Do you have more stories that you want to tell, or do you feel like this is sort of, this is the one you wanted to do and who knows what comes next?
Richard Thompson: Well, I think this is an intense time period. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write about it, because I could write about every year in detail, and I wanted to stop where I stopped because the next few years, I wasn’t too fond of in many ways. I don’t think I made good music. I think it wasn’t until ’81, when we made Shoot Out the Lights that we kind of got back in the saddle almost, really. So, I didn’t want to kind of skip years, or write about years that I thought were, you know, disappointing for me, anyway. So, volume two, it could pick up in ’81, or something, but then, in some ways life was less intense, you know, ’81, ’82, ’83, you know, I was just touring a lot. It became repetitive, and you know, you play in, you play Philadelphia for the tenth time, what are you going to write about? The first time you go, it’s all new, and you say, oh look at that, look at that, look at that, that’s fantastic, that’s fantastic, you know the tenth time, and you’re staying at the same hotel, you’re playing the same gig, you’re eating the same food. So, you know, it gets harder to write interesting things, and I could say the same about the next forty years almost, that stuff just gets more spread out. There are great things to write about, but they really are much more spread out, and I get bored with those rock biographies where, you know, those doorstops, like the Keith Richards one, where about two thirds through I’m thinking I’m done with this, you know it’s getting, it’s not as interesting as it was when he’s writing about the ‘70’s or the ‘60’s, you know. So, I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I didn’t want to taper off. I just thought, I’ll come to a dead stop. If I write again, then great. Maybe I’ll skip straight to volume six.
AD: Yeah, yeah. You’ll pick up farther down the road.
Richard Thompson: Yeah, exactly.
AD: Well, you’ve maintained an intense work schedule, it feels like to me. There are always great new records coming out, you’ve done a really, like a very, your most recent stuff has all been really, really interesting and fascinating, and you work with great people, people like Jeff Tweedy, and others. I wonder if over the course of the quarantine, were you mostly finished with this book, or were you working on the book during 2020?
Richard Thompson: It was pretty much done before COVID hit, but with books you know, there’s a long lead time, there are lots of set up things, there’s a lot of editing that goes on too. So, the editing process was still going on, you know, we were getting publishing clearances and all that kind of stuff before we actually released it. So, that takes a while, but lockdown was good for writing. I got lots of writing done, lots of songwriting, so I’m ahead. I’m two years ahead on my songwriting which is great, you know, but at the same time very frustrated, and I really want to get out there and play to an audience, and I think every musician on the planet is feeling the same, and perhaps our audience is feeling the same too. I’m sure a lot of people want to get back to a festival, or a show of some description, maybe not the mosh pit this year, but you know something.
AD: I know that mosh pits have historically been a big problem at your shows, and you’ve always struggled with moshing audiences.
Richard Thompson: Yes.
AD: Well you’re right though. Some of the stuff, you write a little bit about punk rock at the end of the book, and although you weren’t a punk guitarist I do hear some of that intensity that that early punk stuff had, it felt tied to that early rock and roll that you heard, and I think that courses through your whole discography, and some of your playing on your most recent stuff is just about as intense as anything you’ve ever played. To me that’s such a mark of that spirit that you hear on these early records, it seems like it’s just carried right on through to now, and I think that’s such an incredible thing, and this book offers a lot of insight into that. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me about it, and to be so open about this stuff. I really enjoyed reading this, and it was a genuine pleasure to speak with you.
Richard Thompson: Well thanks so much for having me. Thanks for plowing through the book. I always appreciate that. Thanks for your time. It’s been great, thank you.
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