Review by George Yatchisin
When my physical therapist saw the book I brought to PT, asked what I was reading, and looked totally nonplussed, I have to admit it hurt more than what he would soon do manipulating my balky shoulder. No matter how I tried to describe Richard Thompson to him—brilliant guitarist, musician’s musician, started in the 1960s with Fairport Convention, great run of albums with his then-wife Linda Thompson in the 1970s-early 1980s, witty raconteur during his live shows—it all rolled right off him. But my therapist’s reaction, alas, has been much of the world’s.
Thompson’s memoir won’t do much to convert the uninitiated, I’m afraid. Beeswing has an index, but no discography of his 26+ albums, for instance, as if that might be too much self-promotion. And unless he’s setting himself up for a multi-volume project ala Barack Obama, it’s a bit odd that this memoir written by a 72-year-old focuses solely on his life as an 18- to 26-year-old. That means what is arguably his peak as an artist—1982’s triumphant Shoot Out the Lights with Linda—is given a mere couple of lines in the Afterword. (To be fair, he asserts much of the impetus for the project came from journalist Scott Timberg insisting he write about his life during the ’60s and ’70s. Alas, Timberg passed away before Thompson finished the project.)
But maybe it’s more a study in how the British really are more reserved than us soul-baring Americans. Emotions are underplayed, dots are left for the reader to do the connecting. For instance, he openly but quickly explains the demise of his relationship with Linda in a mere paragraph. He does take the blame.
Still, the book can be oblique in other ways, too. It offers only seven full lyrics of his well-crafted songs, but at best only two of those are canonical ones* if you’re an RT aficionado. And by now he’s got that status, beloved by a too-small coterie of folks, as is the case with Aimee Mann or The Mekons, Jonathan Richman or Yo La Tengo.
*For me, there’s “Walking on a Wire, “When the Spell is Broken,” “When I Get to the Border,” “Wall of Death,” “For Shame of Doing Wrong,” “A Heart Needs a Home,” “Dimming of the Day,” “Shoot Out the Lights,” the included “Beeswing,” and, of course, his bandit ballad to end all bandit ballads, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” That’s not in order and I could easily list more.
One of the wonders of Thompson live, just him and his Lowden acoustic guitar, is that he can sound like a whole band, that’s how talented his playing is. And the memoir operates similarly, ending up not only a rollicking tale chronicling a crazy music life (John Bonham passed out naked by an LA hotel pool!), but also a moving spiritual journey of someone somehow both skeptical and faithful—Thompson has been a practicing Sufi since 1974. Some of his most revealing moments in the book deal with his finding faith. He puts us this way: “Someone said that water takes on the color of the glass into which it is poured; a Christian glass, a Buddhist glass, a Muslim glass—the same water, just the outside trappings and methods are different. This all seemed to me like coming home after a long journey.”
He also, unsurprisingly, has great insight into his songwriting, but he lets on more about his lyrics than the music itself. He’s quick and generous in praise for players he admires, and that list is long, from Fleetwood Mac’s doomed Peter Green to Jimi Hendrix, who we learn actually drunkenly jammed with Fairport Convention at one of their pub gigs back in the day.
Fittingly the book proper concludes with his own deconstruction of his tune “Beeswing,” from which he took not just this memoir’s name but also his publishing company’s. As he puts it, it’s a song about a woman “too wild to be seduced into any kind of life that has a whiff of compromise.” Inspired by a host of people he knew, situations he lived, and a love for the English ballad form, he wrote something eternally moving, especially when powered along by his deft pick-and-fingers technique on acoustic. Light, lovely, and lasting.
The book Beeswing is nearly the same—you want more from it, but that’s only because it lingers in the mind.