If you don’t know the name Richard Thompson, there’s a good chance you love an artist who was influenced by him.
Ever since the late 1960s, Thompson has been one of the world’s most accomplished folk musicians and songwriters. A co-founder of the pioneering British rock band Fairport Convention when he was still a teenager, Thompson subsequently put out a series of acclaimed albums in the ’70s and early ’80s with his then-wife Linda Thompson, culminating with the searing 1982 classic Shoot Out The Lights, which coincided with the couple’s divorce. Thompson commenced an acclaimed solo career not long after, and his songs have since been covered by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., and many others.
Thompson is revered because he can seemingly do everything extremely well — he’s an incisive and bitingly honest lyricist, a natural with melody, a stirring singer, and a virtuoso guitarist. But he’s never been all that famous, though it seems that the unassuming 72-year-old prefers it that way.
Thompson has, however, interacted with some of the world’s biggest rock stars, which he writes about in his warm and witty new memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice, 1967-1975. The book chronicles the creatively fertile but often turbulent early years of Thompson’s career, when he came into contact with various music legends — including members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin — all while changing the course of British rock with his band’s innovative reinventions of ancient European folk styles. (What The Band was to North American music, Fairport Convention was to the U.K.)
As a young man barely out of school, Thompson saw the world and collaborated with future icons. But he also struggled to overcome incredible tragedy, including a tragic van accident in 1969 that killed one of his bandmates and his girlfriend. While Thompson was able to survive this period, many of his contemporaries — like Sandy Denny and Nick Drake — did not.
Thompson discussed his book and career last week in a phone interview from his current home in New Jersey.
Beeswing focuses on a very intense and momentous eight-year period. Why did you choose to write just about that time between 1967 and 1975?
A lot of people ask me about that time period. They seem to love the music that came out of that time. They still listen to Dark Side Of The Moon, they still listen to Led Zeppelin records. The Stones are still one of the most famous bands on the planet. It’s a strange thing, maybe, just numerically, because of the baby boom. But that generation had such a big influence subsequently. So I thought I would like to write something about that time period, when I was young and things were very, very alive for me. Rather than writing about when I was 60 and doing things for the 20th time. It’s a lot more interesting when you see things through a young person’s eyes.
A lot of famous people show up in the book, but only in brief cameos and usually on the periphery. If you were, say, a less principled man, could you have written a much more gossipy book about British rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s?
The simple answer is yes. I was trying to be musically focused. I left out a lot of the debauchery, which is probably libelous anyway. But I was trying to strike a particular balance between being very musically focused, but also mentioning, “Oh, there’s Jimi Hendrix” or “There’s Graham Nash,” because I think people are interested in that.
The impression that you get from your book of the late ’60s British rock scene is that in spite of having all of these icons rubbing shoulders, it was actually quite small and intimate. For instance, you mention The Beatles and The Stones sending you flowers after the 1969 van accident.
Absolutely. It was probably 1/10th of the size of the music business now. Literally a 10th. We knew everybody in London because we played shows with them, and we probably knew everybody in Britain sooner or later. The Beatles and the Stones were part of a slightly older generation so we didn’t really run into them very much. But everybody else — Pink Floyd and Zeppelin and all these people — before they became legends, they were just people that you played with and maybe you hung out with backstage. Maybe you shared a meal with them. I mean, it was truly an intimate scene. How many bands were in London at that time? Maybe 30? Not so many.
I have to ask you about 1969, because Fairport Convention had one of the greatest years for any rock band that year. You put out three albums — What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief — that all are excellent and also significantly differ from each other. Looking back, what do you think accounts from these successive creative leaps the band was making at that time? It’s like you had three years in one in 1969.
Well, it’s a year that really got kind of chopped into pieces. At some point our producer Joe Boyd would have us in the studio really all the time. We didn’t say we’re going into make a record this week or anything like that. We’d just do tracks as they became recordable, as we rehearsed them, like, “Let’s do those two songs.” Sometimes even after a show, we would go to the studio at midnight and record. So we recorded pretty much every week, and that was our work regimen. We had the Unhalfbricking album in the can when we had the accident, and then at that point we said, “We don’t want to do those songs anymore. Let’s work on a whole new project that will be the idea that we had, playing traditional music with a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section.” That was the Liege & Lief album. In retrospect, it does seem like an awful lot of work to get through, but we were young. Somehow we managed it.
You referred to the van accident that occurred in the middle of 1969, which killed drummer Martin Lamble and your girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, along with severely injuring the rest of the band. You write about the accident vividly in the book. I imagine that must have been horrible to revisit.
It was very difficult to write it, and it was even harder to read the audiobook. I had to really stop and get myself together a few times during the audiobook. I think I had to write it as if it was about somebody else. It was too painful to relive it sometimes. But I knew I had to get through it and I had to get past it. And I suppose in doing that, maybe I laid some demons to rest.
I think we didn’t grieve properly. In those days, no one said, “Oh, you guys should go to therapy.”
You write that Sandy Denny was fired after Liege & Lief, which I don’t think was widely known before. And yet you stayed friends and even worked together after that. You also maintained friendly relationships with the people in Fairport after you quit the band. How was that possible? It seems pretty unusual.
I suppose we were always a friendly band. We started out as a group of friends, interested in music and we probably didn’t hire people that we thought would be a lot of trouble. We didn’t hire assholes. We really tried to hire nice people with a sense of humor that we could get along with. When I left the band, I didn’t even move out [of their communal house]. I mean, I was still there, co-habitating with the band. Sandy left the band and I was working with Sandy a year later.
The British folk-rock world was quite small. You did inevitably find yourself working with the same people over and over again in slightly different formats because there are only three or four bands on that scene and a certain number of musicians that could play a style of music. So there were only three guitar players and two drummers, three fiddlers, et cetera. It was small and friendly.
You write later in the book about how a truck crashed into the Fairport house. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but it does seem like you were close to death a lot in those days. This is a heavy question, but do you ever wonder how you survived those years?
Yes. I definitely have had some survivor’s guilt, particularly about the van accident, in that that was something where you think, “Why me? Why us?” We could have all been killed. It was that bad. Somehow a lot of us survived.
Every band has got stories — road accidents, drug overdoses, jealous boyfriends, jealous husbands. There’s a lot of things that can happen to you on the road. And there’s a lot of self-destruction in creative people. And you have to sit back and watch that happen. It’s a terrible thing, but people choose to do that to themselves until they hit the bottom and bounce back up, or they kill themselves. I don’t think Fairport’s story is that unusual really. We definitely had some tragedy and we had some joy as well. And I think that’s par for the course.
Does it just boil down to luck? Or did you have something inside of you that kept you out of the abyss?
I feel like I was lucky. I didn’t get into drugs that heavily, so that’s one way of preserving myself, I suppose. I didn’t always like the effect it had on me. But I used to drink. I used to drink a lot. And I think at some point I really saw the fork in the road, where you go down one road and you’re not going to survive. I think again, a lot of musicians have got to that point. And most of the musicians that I knew who got past about 35 years old had basically quit everything and the others were dead. It’s as simple as that.
At one point you write about how by 1976, you were wondering if you were still going to have a career. Interest in British folk had faded, and it was the dawn of disco and punk. You’ve had such a long career, obviously, but were there other moments where you doubted if you were still professionally viable?
I think there were moments where I doubted the kind of music I could play. But I figured that I could always be employed as a musician somehow. So if I wasn’t playing my music, I could be in a band. I could be planning the pit in Las Vegas. I could be doing something.
For me the back half of the ’70s was, in a sense, the worst time because our audience seemed to have been eroded. It wasn’t until the ’80s that I felt I was building a new audience, really. And I thought, “Well okay, this is good. I can keep playing solo.” But in the ’70s I was thinking, “Well, what am I going to do? If I can’t be a band leader, then Linda and I will get back into the folk clubs and we’ll earn a living that way.” That’s not a terrible thing, but it’s not like a career choice. It’s not going to take you anywhere else. It’s going to keep you in the folk clubs.
I’m struck by the pragmatism and professionalism of that answer. “If I can’t do this, I’ll find a gig in Las Vegas.” Is that the key to longevity, that ability to ride out the wave as it rises and falls?
Yeah, absolutely. Flexibility. If all you can do is be a star in the front of a rock band, and that goes away, I don’t know what you’re going to do, really. You’re going to be washing dishes or something. There are many, many short careers in music. People who go in and believe the press about themselves and become egotistical can crash, very, very abruptly.
You write in the book that songwriting is something you do “to understand and to decode life.” Did writing this book perform a similar function?
I think writing songs is a fairly naked thing. You do expose yourself and you give emotionally of yourself in the songwriting process and in the performing process. I think in a book, if anything, you have to be even more honest. If you put something obscure in a song, people aren’t going to hold you to task for it. They’re going to think that you’re a tortured genius or something. But if you write a book, you have editors and editors say, “Well, you have to explain what you mean by this.” So to me that was a bit of a shock, having actually to explain things.
There are instances in the book where you write about events that you’ve already written songs about. For instance, the song “Broken Doll” is about this encounter you had with a mentally ill fan in the late 1960s.
In a song you’re entering a formulated world. There’s a verse structure. Words have to be singable. The rhythm is important. So in a sense, you’re limiting the possibilities for meaning in the song. I think in this particular song, the meaning comes across fairly well. But if you didn’t know the back story, you could make up all kinds of hypotheses about what the song was about. You wouldn’t necessarily know, you kind of speculate. Writing the story down is much more of a linear experience. I’m giving a lot more detail and there shouldn’t be any ambiguity there really at all. I always think a song exists in the mind of the listener and every listener has their own, slightly different version of what’s going on.
Some of your most famous songs are informed by public knowledge of your personal life. I’m thinking specifically of Shoot Out The Lights, your final album with your ex-wife Linda Thompson, from 1982. It’s considered one of the great “divorce” records of all time. But is it ever difficult for you that so many people know so much about this really dark period of your life?
Well, it is difficult. But I always think songs are a bit more veiled than that. The Shoot Out The Lights album was written a couple of years before we ever got divorced. Sometimes, who was going to sing a song would change. A song I was going to sing, I’d say, “This is the wrong key for me. You should sing it.” And vice versa. So psychologically you can interpret those songs that are saying, “Oh, this is the end of the marriage.” But at the time, they were just songs. People could layer their interpretation onto it, when maybe that wasn’t our intention at all. We were just writing songs as stories. We’re happy to sing it and leave it to other people to decide what it means.
A box set of your work with Linda called Hard Luck Stories came out in 2020. What did you think about that?
I’m not sure I’m comfortable with everything that’s on there. They scraped fairly low down the barrel. You’ve got things that were intended to be B-sides, or were never intended to be released. And sometimes there is a reason for that. There is a reason that stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. I think Linda and I bit our lips a lot and said, “Okay, you can have that track.” But we were a little uncomfortable being exposed in that way.
You’ve lived in America since the early 1980s, which is interesting to me, because Fairport Convention was at the forefront of bringing British roots music into rock ‘n’ roll. At that time, it seemed like having a British identity was really important to you. How connected do you still feel to your home country?
Before I spent more time in the States, I was a bit bored with Britain. America seemed more optimistic and outgoing and a place that was more welcoming in many ways. So, I was kind of glad to spend less time there, but now I really miss it. It’s strange. I haven’t been there for six months right now and I’m looking forward to heading over. It’ll be nice to be there, lockdown permitting.
You’ve been on the road for most of your life. How hard has the last year been?
It’s been very difficult. I’ve been on the road since I was a teenager. And I calculate I’ve done at least 10,000 shows and so that’s a big gap in my life. I mean, everyone is in the same boat. We all love playing. We love being out there. And for me, anyway, that connection to the audience is very, very important. I love to do that. That’s the best part of music for me, to play to people. So it’s been a tough time. It’s been a good time for writing. I’ve written a couple of albums, so I’ve got all that in the bank. But I’ll be very happy to get back on the road. And some bookings are coming in now, stuff in the summer, which is fantastic.