The Elegant Aging of Richard Thompson

Why doesn't anyone buy this man's records?

Mock Tudor is sort of the sequel to 1997's Industry, written and performed by Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson (the former bassist for Pentangle and no relation). Industry is as British as cricket and warm beer, a record made by two folk heroes who long for a preindustrial England where "a man feels reward for his sweat and his pain." The disc is strictly for the homeys -- the return of a man to his roots only to find they've been dug up, replaced by an open hole filled with corpses. A song cycle about "the transition from industrial to post-industrial," as Richard writes in the liner notes, Industry evokes the gloom of cheerless nostalgia, the dourness of a man trying desperately to recapture a past no better than the present. That record almost smells of grease and metal.

Mock Tudor, like its predecessor, "reads" almost like a novel: "There's a house in the alley," Thompson sings in a voice that comes from somewhere between his left nostril and his gut, "in the squats and low rise of a town with no future/But that's where my future lies." Soon enough the music growls and growls, building toward finely structured and oh-so-beautiful chaos -- a hootenanny while the buildings burn. Eventually it reaches a song like "Hard on Me," which has an opening that sounds as though it was lifted from his own immortal "Shoot Out the Lights." But this is a song from a son to a father: "Why did you grind me so small?" he asks his dad. "At every fence I fall/I bite my rage/I stop my breath/I shake my cage."

Mock Tudor is the sort of record of which James Joyce and Charles Dickens and even Thomas Wolfe would be proud -- a disc about the grappling with childhood phantoms that haunt the grownup years later, even if he doesn't quite know how or why.

Why doesn't anyone buy this man's records?
Why doesn't anyone buy this man's records?

"Of course, it's more complex than that," Thompson says. "I'm using the past as a kind of reference, but I am writing about things that mean something to me now. Everything on the album has a relevance to me now. Otherwise I couldn't get fired up about it. There's a decoding of the past -- trying to decipher the past. Sometimes a song is a key; at least, that's one of the functions of a song. It's entertainment, yes, but for the writer, it's also a kind of life analysis or self-analysis to varying degrees. Sometimes it's incidentally cathartic for the artist and the audience."

Thompson has spent more than half his life playing music and getting paid for it. He cofounded Fairport Convention, still among the most beloved folk-traditionalist bands ever to come from England, when he was but 17 years old. The young boy with the sweet, innocent visage of a schoolboy and the hands of Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix was always looking backward, worshiping the doctrine, paying homage to moribund echoes. Fairport wasn't quite the gang of purists it was painted to be -- singer Sandy Denny had soul enough to burn down any Renaissance fair, and Thompson could never stand still long enough to stay away from rock -- but they were children then, playing make-believe in the forest. Like the Band, their Canadian and American counterparts, Fairport Convention believed there was still some future to be culled from the past.

When Thompson went solo in 1972 with Henry the Human Fly, he debuted what would become, in essence, his persona throughout the late '90s: the irascible, dry-humored guitar god who writes like a poet and never confuses the tender with the sentimental. "Don't expect the words to fall too sweetly in your ear," he warned back then, and anyone paying attention either stepped aside or dove right in. From there on out, his was the most uncompromising of work: to-the-bone honest about himself and about anyone who dared listen to songs about wayward muses, couples whose love turns into the most violent of hatred, and other miscreants looking for a little salvation in a sad song.

Not long after Thompson began making records with then-wife Linda in 1974, the pair began embracing the Sufi religion. From that point on, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once wrote, "the Thompsons [didn't] sentimentalize time gone -- they simply encompass[ed] it in an endless present." No doubt it had something to do with believing they were going to live forever -- the Muslim's eternal soul.

Beginning in 1974, the pair made five albums together, none more significant than their first two (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Hokey Pokey) and the last (1982's Shoot Out the Lights). They're sort of spiritual bookends: Hokey Pokey finds the couple performing a song like "A Heart Needs a Home," while Shoot Out the Lights is undoubtedly the most venomous, unfeigned look at a divorce ever put on record. When Linda asked did she jump or was she pushed, the woman sang as though she could still feel Richard's hand upon her back. And in the end Richard no doubt felt the broken bottle on his head -- the one Linda smashed upon his noggin during their final show together.

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