Beeswing: Richard Thompson’s Memoir

Richard Thompson is my favorite musician. Between 1967 to 1975 he was involved with some of my all-time favorite music.

So I read his memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975, as soon as it was published (on April 6, 2021). If you need a sample of RT’s work, you could do worse than the song “Beeswing” (which is set during and after “the summer of love”).

Beeswing the book was well worth reading, especially for the painful passages related to Fairport Convention. If you don’t find painful stuff worthwhile, then you’re probably not a fan of RT’s music, and won’t enjoy this book. One of those passages describes the 1969 road accident that took the life of Martin Lamble, Fairport’s drummer: an excerpt is available at Rolling Stone.

Other passages are wrenching without being deadly, such as the sacking of Sandy Denny, and Richard’s decision to leave Fairport.

RT’s book, like his music, made me laugh amidst the darkness. I loved the scene in which he and Nick Drake were on the same Tube platform. RT “had to strike up a conversation, or what would pass for one, between two socially inept introverts.”

I loved Beeswing because I love RT. I think I love it more than it deserves: towards the end, RT seems uncertain about what to include and how to cover it. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles is in many ways a better account of the same scene. To use the Goodreads 5-star systems, White Bicycles is a 5, whereas Beeswing is “only” a 4. But I’m very glad to have bought it, and will re-read it at least once.

2021: Books

What’s good about 2021? It’s not 2020.

What’s there to look forward to? Books and music, among other things.

To start with music… I hope to go to at least one live music show in 2021. As for recorded music, my favorite musician does not have a new album due out in 2021, as far as I know. But he does have a book due out.

Richard Thompson’s memoir Beeswing covers the years (1967-1975) during which he and some friends founded Fairport Convention, the band made some great albums, he left, he made his first solo album, he married Linda, and the two of them made my favorite album: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. I hope that it is only the first of several memoirs.

The link from Beeswing in the previous paragraph goes to I think I’m done with Amazon links. Unfortunately, Bookstore doesn’t yet have entries for two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2021 (so I’ll link to Goodreads, despite reservations). Each in the concluding volume in a fantasy series.

Jade Legacy concludes the trilogy that Fonda Lee wrote by mashing together martial arts, Godfather-esque conflict between families/gangs, and other things she loves.

The Fall of Babel is the fourth and last book in the wonderfully strange series that started with Senlin Ascends. I posted about this series about three years ago, and my enthusiasm for it has only grown since. I’ll probably re-read the first three in the month before The Fall of Babel comes out.

What are you looking forward to reading in 2021? What else are you looking forward to in 2021?

Music 2018

Sorry, but I have to start with the death of Scott Hutchison, even though I posted about it at the time. There was no 2018 album that hit me like Midnight Organ Fight, the masterpiece from Scott’s band Frightened Rabbit.

Among the albums I enjoyed were Lucy Dacus’ debut Historian and Mitski’s Be the Cowboy. Here’s a sample from each: Night Shift and Nobody respectively (links to YouTube).

But my two heartiest recommendations are videos of old guys. My favorite musician Richard Thompson was on tour with his electric trio (which at times had three members, but often had more).

I love this video of the set at Shrewsbury–particularly the song selection, with material from the new album, from Fairport Convention 50 years ago, and many points on the timeline in between. The performance is great, as is the sound quality.

The other video is Tower of Power’s Tiny Desk show. ToP started 50 years ago, but are currently fronted by a powerful young singer. Everyone in the band can really play, and play together.

The reasons to be happy about music in 2018 are many and diverse. It’s a long way from Lucy Dacus to Tower of Power, and a very good journey indeed.

Thompson Family Album

My father is one of the greats to ever step on the stage
My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world

ThompsonFamilyFrontThose two lines open the album Family. The writer is Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda.

Richard and Linda Thompson’s best-known song is the title track of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an album released forty years ago. If you want to hear “I Want to See…”, and have Spotify, my Thompson Family playlist starts with that track, and continues with half a dozen selections from Family itself.

To be specific, the playlist continues with Teddy’s above-quoted song “Family”. Teddy produced the Family record, and describes it as:

an album of new songs by Thompsons written specifically for this project. It started with the idea of each of us [Richard, Linda, Teddy, and his younger sister Kami] recording two tracks and then we added my nephew Zack and my brother Jack each doing one.

Eleven people, all members of the extended Thompson family, are credited with performing on the album. See the Thompson Family Album site for further facts, photos, links to the web sites of specific Thompsons, etc.

Linda may well have started singing “Bonny Boys” while you were surfing the Family site. (I’m assuming here that you are listening to the playlist, and that you didn’t desert this page for good.) It’s the third song on the playlist, and the third with lyrics that initially sound hopeful, or even positive, then mix in darker matter.

So it may come as a relief when the next song starts gloomily (“We still keep falling for the same old lies… times are tough”), rather than raising hopes, only to dash them. This song is Richard’s, and it works well on this album, with much of the family to joining in on the title line: “That’s Enough”.

It may come as even more of a relief that the next track on the playlist is an instrumental. Jack Thompson wrote “At the Feet of the Emperor”, and plays bass on it. Richard plays guitars, but the track reminds me more of Daniel Lanois than of any Thompson.

If you wanted relief from dark lyrics, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this, and you won’t have got as far as “I Long For Lonely” in the playlist. This cheerful ditty is written and performed by Kami and her husband, James Walbourne. It closes the album.

“Perhaps We Can Sleep” closes the playlist. It’s one of Linda’s two songs on the album, although Teddy co-wrote it, and played all the instruments.

The Family album can be viewed from many perspectives. It is certainly a clan collaboration. It was also, to some of the musicians involved, a competition to provide the best contributions to the album. Blending this competitive perspective with my own judgment, I declare Linda the winner. I consider “her” two tracks the two best tracks on Family; that’s why I included both in the playlist.

Here’s my own perspective on the Thompson Family. Richard Thompson is my favorite musician, and probably always will be. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is my favorite album, and probably always will be. I am (to put it mildly) interested in the Thompson family. So there are many things about the Family that fascinate me. Is that Richard playing lead guitar on this particular track? How do the various Thompsons interact with other, musically and otherwise?

I sprung for the Deluxe edition, which at ~$15 includes the music CD, a DVD with a 15-minute “making of” mini-movie, a booklet with lyrics, credits, family snapshots, etc., and a foldout sleeve to contain those three items. (I should take a photo in the morning, when the light is good enough for my phone to get a quarter-decent shot.) It was excellent value for me, partly because I found the mini-movie moving and fascinating.

There are many things in the Family project that tie in with the ghosts of Thompson stuff past. Most of them are in the songs and performances. Then there are the other things. For example, there’s the remark on the sleeve (I presume by Teddy) that the family tree on the cover (and towards the top of this post) “does not illustrate how we are all related. We would have needed gatefold vinyl to even attempt that.” That reminds me of a certain double album I used to own on vinyl, with gatefold sleeve, part of which had a lovely illustration of the early Fairport Convention family tree.

Time to wrap this up. So, link again to the Thompson Family Album site. Point out that it includes links to online stores where you can buy Family in its various forms, with any affiliate money going (I assume) to the Thompsons involved in the project. Mention that the site also links to media coverage, including radio segments, but single out the excellent NY Times Magazine piece anyway. Sneak in, at the end of a paragraph, that the Family album is more likely to intruige those already pro-Thompson than to make new converts.

So, from my perspective, Family was a must-buy, and a good buy, but is not a great album. Feel free to share your perspective in the comments!

New Stuff Tuesday

Tuesday (here in the USA at least) is new release day. That includes albums, in MP3 form as well as in disc form. It also includes books.

So I just bought the new album by my favorite musician, Richard Thompson. Dream Attic is like a live album in the most obvious way: it was recorded before a live audience. It’s the new RT album in that the songs are new, not having appeared on any previous album. It’s more like a live album in that RT stretches out on guitar more than on any of his studio albums.

Because of the guitar-stretching, the 13-track album comes in at 70+ minutes. For us old folk, that sounds like double (vinyl) album length. Slightly younger folks might note that it’ll almost fill the CD to which you burn it. Respectable folks will note that you should buy it before you burn it. You can do so from all sorts of places: Amazon, eMusic, RT’s own website, etc.

Those who understandably want to listen first can do so at AOL’s listening party – but, strangely, not at Spinner, which is owned by AOL, includes a new releases “listening party” and has a coolish name, as well as some interesting additional content.

Yet others might wonder what an album is, and how anyone could muster the attention span for over an hour or music by some greybeard. So the embed for this post is the 6-minute minimix.

Back in the real/analog world, I just got a package from Amazon including a couple of last Tuesday’s dead tree book releases: Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games); and The Second Siege(paperback).

Happy new media day!

Music, Books, and Death

Reno LogoI Shot a Man in Reno is: a quote from the Johnny Cash song Folsom Prison Blues; a A History of Death… in Popular Song; a blog by Graeme Thomson, author of said book.

Graeme and I have a few things in common; that’s one of the reasons I use his first, rather than his last, name. It’s obvious that he and I share an interest in songs about death, since he decided I write a book on the subject and I decided to read it. We’re both white, dads, not too far apart in age (although I suspect I’m slightly older and closer to death), and British (although I haven’t lived in Britain for decades now). Given that, it’s not surprising that we are both huge fans of Richard Thompson.

I found myself thinking of the book as an album. It has 12 tracks (Introduction, Chapters 1-10, Epilogue). By the time I got to the end of Side 1 (i.e., the intro and ch. 1-5) I was thinking that it should be possible to buy tracks individually, since some are a lot better than others. The strongest track, Teenage Wildlife, starts with a 14-year-old Graeme listening to The Cure, then travels through teenage time to visit Shakespeare, emo, and many points along the way to present a coherent and well-illustrated account of teenage response to music, and music’s messages to teens.

But Teenage Wildlife (ch. 2) is preceded by two tracks (intro and ch. 1) rather too general to make much of an impact. They must have seemed necessary to some combination of Graeme, his editors, and his publishers, and some of the material probably does belong up front, but they get things off to a slow start.

The first side also includes the track I found to be the album’s weakest, the one about the 1960s (ch. 4). It must have been hard to come up with a fresh account of the previous century’s most over-analyzed decade; I don’t think that Graeme succeeded. Lest it seem that there was no way that this chapter was going to please this particular reader, I’ll point out that my favorite non-fiction music book is about the 1960s.

Side 2 worked much better for me. It includes the Gansta Rap track (ch. 7). This for me was the freshest, if not the best, on the album, partly because of my ignorance of the genre. It’s not exactly Graeme’s area of specialization either, and he leans fairly heavily on his interviews with Ice T (who currently plays a cop on TV).

But the heart of side 2 is the sequence of three tracks (8-10) that follows the rap. The first deals with the way singer/songwriters respond to the death of loved ones. The second starts with a list of songs often played at funerals, and goes on to discuss the more general role that music plays in mourning. The third is about how musicians regard their own impending deaths, and how this affects their music.

The last track (epilogue) is a list of 40 death cuts. Graeme took the time to come up with a thoughtful and well-annotated list. I disagree with it, but that is of course part of the point of such a list.

I disagree in particular with Graeme’s choice of Richard Thompson track. He goes for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” and so would many other RT fans. He went with a different RT song when he put together a book-related playlist for Largehearted Boy; that shows how difficult the decision is.

I go with yet another RT song: “When I Get to the Border.” It’s a song I prefer, and it’s from my favorite album. It’s the opening track, and it opens my playlist inspired by Graeme’s book. It’s also my favorite example of RT as a musician both contemporary and traditional (listen to the interplay between electric guitar and “archaic” instruments in the coda/fadeout).

RT plays on most of the tracks of Graeme’s album: that is, he’s quoted in most of the chapters. (Am I now beating the “book as album” metaphor into the ground?) Other extensively-featured musicians include Ice T (as already mentioned), Neil Finn, and Bob Dylan (although I don’t think that Graeme has talked directly with the latter).

Graeme varies his own tone rather deftly. For example, he gives credit where it’s due, and finds it frequently due to RT and a few others. He acknowledges the occasional greatness of Paul McCartney. He is also good on musicians who aren’t any good, such as Marilyn Manson: “simply the media’s most willingly complicit hate figure… He relishes this… because the alternative is to be judged on his music and then he would really be in trouble.”

That’s more than I meant to write. Now it’s all over bar the rating (4 stars out of a possible 5) on Goodreads, and… oh yes, my Reno-inspired playlist. I was going to embed the playlist in this post, as I’ve done with other Lala playlists in other posts, but for technical reasons, I won’t do so here.

I’ll just link to the playlist at Lala, announce my intention of extending it beyond the initial three tracks, and state what I regard as the main omission. Loudon Wainwright’s The Last Man On Earth is a response to the death of his mother, and a great album. I’m surprised that Graeme didn’t mention it. I’m a little upset that I can’t find my CD. And it’s an omission from the playlist, because Lala doesn’t offer it. I’d probably have gone with “I’m Not Gonna Cry.”

End of Tape

End of an Analog EraThe clearing-out continues. After today’s thrift store donation visit, I own zero music cassettes. I had for years intended to copy some of them to disc, but then reasoned that it had been years since I’d played any of them, and that when I do miss the music on them, I can find it on the web.

Having said that, I just checked and found that neither Small Town Romance nor Daring Aventures is available in MP3 form from Amazon. Yes, I know that doesn’t mean that there are no MP3s out there.

I got the other two tapes in the pile I photographed via tape trading, an archaic procedure whereby fans would actually exchange tangible objects in order to expand their music collections. The 1994 Cat’s Cradle show was in some ways the best of the booty things thus obtained.

Anyway, I donated the pre-recorded cassettes, along with most of my CDs. Again, I intended to do a lot of copying to disc, but again decided that time was too short, and the web too good a source of music, for that to be worthwhile. When I choose to keep a CD, it was usually one with good liner notes, track details, etc. For example, I did keep my Watching The Dark: The History of Richard Thompson box set.

And yes, I do have music by other people…

Rumble With Piano Accordion

While posting about a deceased guitarist and living singer-songwriters the other day, I was reminded of Link Wray, and how Richard Thompson nabbed the riff from “Rumble” for “Shoot Out the Lights.” Let’s hear the trademark of the Shawnee Indian who invented punk after losing a lung in Korea in the context of a song prompted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, said song being the work of a British singer-songwriter-guitarist, performed here in Chicago (in 1983) with a band including a piano accordion (not an instrument prominent in punk). Now that’s world music for you.

Coverville: Richard Thompson

My favorite musician, Richard Thompson, was 59 yesterday. In honour of the occasion, Brian Ibbott devoted the current Coverville to Richard. I recommend that you go listen to the show, and then come back here for a some stuff by the man himself.

Here are a couple of tracks from you? me? us? It’s a double CD, with one electric (“voltage enhanced”) and one acoustic (“nude”) disc. Here’s one track from each disc: “Bank Vault in Heaven” and “Cold Kisses” respectively.

ymu came out in 1994. So it must have been in that year that I met up with some other people on the RT mailing list, which I used to follow and occasionally contribute to. I remember driving back with a newly acquired tape of ymu, which had yet to be released at the time.

When I Get to the Border, 33 Years Later

brightlights.jpgAn album used to be a black circle, a foot across, that gave up its secrets to the right kind of needle while rotating at the right speed: 33 revolutions a minute. My favorite 33, and still my favorite album, is Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. It was released 33 years ago.

Its opening track, “When I Get to the Border” is perhaps my favorite example of folk-rock, due to the interplay of the (folky) mandolin and (rockin’) electric guitar. One of the delights of this year’s Richard Thompson album, Sweet Warrior, is the similar interplay on the opening track, “Needle and Thread.”

Another musical delight of 2007 is the cover version of “When I Get to the Border” by M Ward, with Zooey Deschanel. I’ve embedded it in this post. I’ve also created a Seeqpod playlist with the original as well as the cover.