Richard Thompson explores past in revelatory memoir, ‘Beeswing’

thompson beeswing book

The cover of Richard Thompson’s memoir, “Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975.”

“There is dust, and then there is dust,” writes Richard Thompson in the dramatic opening of his memoir “Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975” (281 pp., $27.95, Algonquin Books), available on April 6 in the United States.

He continues:

It’s thickest here, in my memory. This remotest room of my mind has been shut up for years, the windows shuttered, the furniture covered with dust sheets. Light hasn’t penetrated into some of these corners for years; in some cases, it never has. If something is uncomfortable, I shove it in here and forget about it. When was the last time I dared look? I don’t want to remember, but now it is time to think back. The arrow is arcing through the air and speeding towards its appointed target.

I have been impatiently waiting for this book since he first discussed it in our 2019 interview. And it has been worth the wait. The electrifying singer-songwriter and guitarist, who helped invent the British folk rock genre with his band Fairport Convention in the ’60s, writes in a way that is poetic, witty, understated and revelatory. He can add engrossing prose to his life’s achievements.

Our recent conversation at my kitchen table in Montclair, the town where he now resides after living in California for many years, focused on the book but inevitably swerved off course, turning into a winding discussion of literature, music history, politics and philosophy.

We met on a windy day with a hint of sun that warmed the bulbs beginning to appear through the dirt still hard from the long, cold winter of the coronavirus. He shared an appreciation for spring’s reawakened bounty of daffodils forced to an early bloom inside my kitchen’s clay pots. A cerebral man with eclectic interests, he has enjoyed his time in suburbia; he has played tennis in our local park and spent time walking when, during the height of the pandemic, that’s all we could do.

His last extended break from touring was in 1976, but the pandemic caused virtually all of his concerts to be cancelled. “This year has been unique,” he said.

Over the years he’s played 10,000 gigs. “That’s a lot of gigs” he said. Indeed, spread over more than 50 years, that comes to nearly 200 gigs a year.

Richard Thompson with Zara Phillips.

As his creative energy is unstoppable, Thompson, during social distancing, has finished his memoir, presented virtual concerts (including one for the Royal Albert Hall and one with his partner, singer-songwriter and author Zara Phillips), and released a compilation of performances from three shows streamed from London (Live From London) and a studio EP, Bloody Noses. He also contributed a rendition of “A Heart Needs a Home” with Phillips (originally recorded with Linda Thompson on the album Hokey Pokey) to NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series.

You can watch him and Elvis Costello in a live virtual conversation with music, presented by Succeed2gether’s Montclair Literary Festival, on the release day of “Beeswing,” April 6 at 8 p.m.; for information, visit bit.ly/Beeswing46. And you can see him live, in a free concert outdoors at Woodbridge High School, June 23, with Phillips opening (visit woodbridgeartsnj.org), and double-billed with Judy Collins at the Ocean City Music Pier, June 28 (visit ticketmaster.com).

By focusing on the years of 1967 to 1976 in “Beeswing,” Thompson captures a period of explosive political and cultural changes in the world, in addition to the transformations in his own life and music.

We read about his discovery, at age 3, of a guitar stored in the attic his family’s home in the Notting Hill district of West London. His father, a Scotland Yard detective, “opened a case and pulled out a magical wooden box with strings on it,” Thompson writes. “The box made noises, and you could change them by turning the pegs at the end. My father ran his hand across the strings. It sounded like heaven, and I wanted to hear more.”

He was inspired by his father’s record collection, which included traditional Scottish music as well as records by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. His older sister, Perri, introduced Thompson to rockers such as Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The home also was filled with books, and that’s where he developed an appreciation of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and other Scottish writers, unintentionally training himself to become a master storyteller. With his early knowledge of traditional music and poetry, he developed into a young man who transformed music by merging rock and British folk music.

The cover of the 1987 Fairport Convention album, “Heyday: BBC Radio Sessions, 1968-69.” Richard Thompson is at far right.

Thompson takes us on a tour of his youth, when his classical music listening habits exceeded what he learned in school. At 13, he was buying classical records but didn’t limit himself to what was taught in school, like Mozart and Haydn. He preferred Debussy and Ravel and others who were “dreamy, 1920s turn-of-the-century stuff. I’m falling in love with that and I’m disconnected from the historical progression of classical music, just jumping in to the end of the 19th century and starting there, and from there I’m going to Schoenberg, Stravinsky — all the stuff I was taught in school, I didn’t have the stomach for it. I came back to it. I worked my way backwards.

“When I was in school, music lessons were so stuffy. If you had known that Mozart was a raver in his spare time … that he wasn’t just a slave to music … if the teachers told you about the raunchier side of classical music, you might have been more engaged.”

In the book, we read tales of rebellion, love, loss and renewal, and the strict discipline that his father imposed.

“As a child, I tried to keep out of the way because I didn’t know what I was going to get,” he said. “In the 1950s and ’60s it wasn’t exceptional. Everybody hit their kids. All of my friends got whacked on a regular basis for a misdemeanor. Your father would get the slipper out or the belt out. That’s what happened and we all grew up, somehow.”

I asked if his father was emotionally abusive. “Whatever I was doing he said was useless … it’s almost a knee-jerk thing,” he said. “He’s hardly aware that he was saying that. Maybe it came from his father, and then from his father. Something that was passed down the line: ‘You’ll never be any good.’ I heard a lot of that when I was a kid. It makes you stronger in some ways.”

Fairport Convention came together in 1967 and was signed to a record deal by producer Joe Boyd, two months later. Thompson writes that “we were lucky to have found him (Joe Boyd) before we were forced into someone else’s vision of us as a pop or psychedelic act.”

When Thompson was in his 40s and selling out 3,000-seat venues, his parents still asked him when he was going to get a “proper job,” he said in both our interview and his memoir.

“I think my parents thought, ‘That’s it, he’s not going to get a real job,’ ” he added in the interview. “They wanted me to be an accountant or something. They didn’t think there was a future in it. They didn’t see that it was a real job.”

Sandy Denny on the cover of her 1972 solo album, “Sandy.”

In the book, he recalls moments of personal discovery and change (including achieving sobriety) and various friendships and relationships. He discusses the dangers of touring and those he met early in his career who have been lost to drugs and accidents: Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the extraordinary singer-songwriter Sandy Denny, who penned and sang the always relevant song “Who Knows Where the Times Goes?,” which appeared on Fairport Convention’s 1969 album Unhalfbricking.

He also writes about his spiritual awakening through the practice of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that has shaped his behavior and habits and kept him from feeling hollow.

The late ’60s and early- to mid-’70s, tumultuous in so many ways throughout the world, “was a very political time, probably less political in Britain than it was in America,” he said. “We didn’t have the Vietnam War. We were slightly removed, but we were very aware of it and usually sympathetic to the protests against it … It was a time when you had Monty Python taking a piss at the Queen, and politicians and the prime minister and judges and police. When you could finally say anything about anybody, then Britain kind of woke up.”

Fairport Convention, he writes in the memoir, was part of the second wave of change in London. He feels the band “rattled a few windows, without actually blowing the house down.”

In the memoir, he writes about finding his voice as a songwriter when he wrote his first song, “Meet On the Ledge.” We visit the stage of Festival Hall in London in 1969 where he and Fairport Convention played songs from their groundbreaking Liege & Lief album, which beautifully featured songs adapted from traditional British and Celtic material. This was “the first major exposure” of traditional material, he writes in the book, and it served as “the big statement of intent before an audience.”

He powerfully recounts the devastating 1969 van crash in which Fairport Convention drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn died on the way home from a gig in Birmingham, and the aftermath, which included the ousting of Denny from Fairport Convention. He described her as “one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard” in our interview.

Richard and Linda Thompson, in 1978.

He writes about his departure from Fairport Convention, his first attempts at a solo career, and his prolific musical partnership with and marriage to his former wife, the stunning vocalist Linda Thompson (known as Linda Peters before their 1972 marriage). The union produced several remarkable collaborative albums, including I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) and Shoot Out the Lights (1982).

He discusses briefly, in the book, the strain that their time in the Sufi community had placed on their marriage, and says “the wounds are still healing” with his children. He still considers the songs he wrote for Linda to sing “precious to me.”

“Beeswing” was written with Scott Timberg, the rock journalist who died in 2019, and Thompson dedicates the book to him. Timberg helped him develop the book and choose the 1967-1975 time frame. “I wouldn’t have written it without Scott,” Thompson says. “Scott started interviewing me, but I wasn’t satisfied with that process … my voice wasn’t coming across on the page. So we decided I would write it and he would help shape it by editing it at the end. We didn’t get to that point as he passed away, and it was pretty devastating.”

While he tried to keep his focus on the music he made during the time frame Timberg suggested, Thompson said in a prior interview that “my personal life is in there when I need to talk about it, because it reflects musical things as well. Sometimes I have to mention a girl I was with because it’s an interesting story that relates to a musical thing. Linda is in the book because we were together during three years covered in the book, ’72 to ’75. We had a really difficult breakup, but we are best friends now. She’s forgiven me, which is spectacular.”

“It’s all difficult stuff,” he says now. “Into every life you have difficulty. To me it’s not exceptional. A couple failed marriages for a musician is par for the course, I hate to say it. I suppose it’s cathartic to deal with that stuff because I haven’t always dealt with it. I hope people reading might get something from it as well. They might see something similar in their situation.”

There will be no sequel to “Beeswing.” Thompson might write “a different kind of book about songwriting and guitar playing, or a novel,” he said.

He did not write beyond 1976, with the exception of a few details in his epilogue, “because that’s when I took a year off,” he said. “I couldn’t see a future playing music. And when I got back to playing music, I don’t think we did very well for the rest of the ’70s — ’77, ’78, ’79, ’80. In ’81, I think we made a good record — Shoot Out The Lights, our last record (with Linda Thompson). I think a lot of people would like me to write about that because it’s juicy. There’s a gap there I don’t want to deal with.

MICHAEL J. STAHL

RICHARD THOMPSON

“We were still playing but it wasn’t that interesting. We made a couple albums that really weren’t very good. And I don’t want to write about that. I don’t want to write boring stuff. If it’s boring for me then it’ll be boring for other people as well. You play a certain town for the first time and it’s exciting. You play the Fillmore for the first time and it’s fantastic. You’re young. Things are happening to you for the first time. When you play the Fillmore 15, 20 times, what are you gonna write about? Of the rock biographies I’ve read, like Pete Townsend and Keith Richards, I get bored two-thirds of the way through. It’s all, ‘I got this award and I got that award and then we did another tour,’ and I lose interest. And I didn’t want that to happen to my poor readers. Both of them!”

The book, naturally, includes some discussion of the musical influences on Thompson and his Fairport Convention bandmates.

“We always thought long and hard about our musical style,” he writes, “but we were stopped in our tracks by a new record from Bob Dylan’s backing group. Music From Big Pink by The Band had an immediate influence on Fairport when it appeared in July 1968, as well as on the rest of the London underground scene. After a couple of years of acid-fueled, occasionally pretentious and increasingly predictable output from San Francisco, New York and London, here was something completely refreshing. We slowly began to realize that the small steps we had taken in the direction of home-grown-music — playing Sandy’s arrangements of traditional songs from England, Ireland and Scotland and composing our own music — might be leading to our salvation.”

Big Pink propelled him to further develop his authentic voice by merging traditional tunes with rock.

“In Fairport,” he said, “we loved The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful. People who took American folk music — roots music — and rocked it up a bit. The Byrds were taking Pete Seeger compositions and versions like ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ and ‘Bells of Rhymney’ and turning them into rock, and we loved that, and then when Big Pink came out, we thought, ‘Well, that’s it, really, as far as copying American music.’ ”

He ruminated that their music “shows us we are never gonna be as good as these guys. We don’t stand a chance. They’ve got every American style down. Blues, country, gospel, a bit of jazz — everything’s in there in a perfect blend. We said, ‘We have to play something from where we come from that’s as authentic as The Band does in America.’ And we thought the way we do that is we try to revive the traditional musics of England, Ireland, Scotland, and contemporize it by playing in a rock band. So we take these old ballads … four to five hundred years old, and we will play them with a rock sensibility.”

MICHAEL J. STAHL

Richard Thompson performs at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, in 2019.

Thompson says the ’69 van crash was difficult to write about. “There were aspects of it I never dealt with because it was too uncomfortable and too painful to think about,” he said. “I never stopped thinking about the crash. I thought about Martin and Jeannie every day for a long time; at some point you move on with life.”

Writing the book, he said, “brought everything up to the surface and I had to look at it and deal with it. So, in one sense it was probably cathartic to do it. Doing the audio book was really difficult. I had to pretend it was about other people, but it’s life. The musicians I know, there’s always tragedies … it’s a tough life and it’s a dangerous life. You’ve got travel, which can be dangerous, always in planes and trains. And cars — sometimes you’re being driven from the airport by some student asked at the last minute who got his license last week. Drugs take a lot people like Janis Joplin, who died pretty young.”

The crash had long-lasting impact on the band and altered Thompson’s direction.

“We were shell shocked for a couple of years and we made decisions that in a different state of mind that we wouldn’t have made,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t have fired Sandy from the band. Actually, we probably would have stayed in the band … We weren’t rational. I think the chemistry of the band had changed. I had been in Fairport since I was 18 and we went through so many evolutions and changes and I think I wanted to have a breather almost. I had been in bands since I was 12.”

Thompson left the band in 1971 and worked solo before he joined Linda Thompson as a duo.

Musicians and bands who appear in “Beeswing” include Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in addition to Joplin. Thompson also writes about Jimi Hendrix, who was a regular at the Speakeasy Club in London, where Thompson played “once a week in the early days.”

Hendrix enormously impressed Thompson. “His arrival in London had made a huge impact,” he writes. “He combined Pete Townshend’s stage act with lessons that he’d learned on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the States and married that to some groundbreaking musicianship. A superb blues player, Hendrix was one of the first people to really exploit the possibilities of feedback. He was a good singer, a fine composer and a wonderful arranger. His appearance on the scene made many British players, most of whom had learned their skills by copying records by Chicago bluesmen, start to question themselves. He was a true original, far more so than the armies of British blues guitarists … I loved his passion, and tried to copy his vibrato.”

The cover of Nick Drake’s 1969 album, “Five Leaves Left.”

He also writes about Nick Drake: “When I heard of his death, it shook me badly, and I questioned a universe that could take away one so young and talented. I hope the soul of Nick is still around somewhere, and I hope he can see that his music, so neglected during his lifetime, has become accepted and revered.”

He writes in his book about his encounter with Joni Mitchell, who opened for Fairport Convention in 1968 at the Festival of Contemporary Song at Festival Hall in London. Mitchell was “making her U.K. debut and performed with poise and polish,” he writes. “While Joni was finishing her set, I went backstage to tune up and I did something reprehensible — I took a peek in her notebook.” The pages reminded him of those in Denny’s notebook, “filled with abstract and figurative doodles and sketches.”

Thompson said that at that time, “she was unknown in Britain and fairly unknown in America, too. … She didn’t have a record out yet … Musicians’ notebooks are so interesting. It was very artistic, very artistic handwriting and I compared it immediately to Sandy’s notebooks. It was 50 percent art, 50 percent lyrics.”

Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd also is mentioned in the book: Thompson writes about when Fairport Convention opened for Pink Floyd in 1967 — the night Barrett overdosed on LSD and David Gilmour first played Barrett’s guitar parts behind the stage.

Over the years, Thompson’s material has remained fresh and his enthusiastic performances, sincere interest in his audience and great musicianship remind me of another master New Jersey performer, Bruce Springsteen. On the March 10 episode of his SiriusXM DJ show, Springsteen played “You Made It” by Teddy Thompson, and then said that the song was from the son of “the great guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson … it’s a song about making it, with the classic lyrics, ‘You made it, what you gonna do now?’ Whoa! That is the question.”

I shared the Boss’ comments and Thompson responded, “Well, I think Bruce is great … one of the most extraordinary performers in the history of rock music. His performance is so amazing that you can forget what a great singer and songwriter he is — if he is the king, Bon Jovi is the prince and I’m the road sweeper.”

We also spoke about the role that Sufism has played in keeping him safe on the road all these years, embracing sobriety and finding productive things to do when there is down time on the road. He said that instead of filling his emptiness with alcohol, he fills it spiritually.

“I think I always was that person, a spiritual person, and I met other people who seemed to be like me,” he said. ” They say beware of who your friends are because you will be like them. Here were people who shared the same interests and spiritual ambitions, but when I met them, they seemed to have what I didn’t have — it was like good behavior, good manners, a way of treating other people. It seemed very human. I need that for myself and I need to become that person.”

We talked about the connection between music and spirituality. He pointed to Bach as music “that’s almost spiritual — it is mathematical perfection. It’s a conduit from God, like talking to God.” Then he laughed at his own profound musing.

The cover of Richard Thompson’s “Mirror Blue” album, which contains “Beeswing.”

Thompson’s book is named after his delicate and powerful song (listen below) from his 1994 album Mirror Blue, because the song reflects the time period explored in the book. The song describes an innocent time of youth, change and possibility and tells the story of an independent young woman during the Summer of Love, with the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

She “was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing/So fine a breath of wind might blow her away/She was a lost child/She was running wild,” Thompson sings. The woman’s fate is described with these brilliant lyrics: “And they say her flower is faded now/Hard weather and hard booze/But maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.”

Thompson says the song is “about people dropping for one reason or another from society … the tramp (narrating the song) has dropped out because he has no choice, he’s lost his work. He’s taken to the road to find work and he doesn’t find it. His story is quite tragic in many ways. … I went to school with a lot of people who did the same thing. They ended up in varying degrees of happiness. Some became drug dealers, some lived on communes. They did all kinds of alternative things with their lives, rather than taking the path well-traveled to Oxford, Cambridge, and becoming lawyers and doctors.”

He said that when writing the song, one line just led to another. He addresses his theory of songwriting in his book: “Songwriting is a strange business, and those who claim to understand the creative process are usually uttering bullshit of the first magnitude.”

Thompson has an intimate rapport with his audience members. “In the guise of entertainment,” he said, “you can pull something out of yourself and you hold it up to the audience and say, ‘Look at this. Do you recognize this?’ And the audience will say, ‘Yeah, I’ve had the same experience.’ As a performer you almost disappear into the audience. Everyone in the room is a component in the shared experience. The stage is an illusion and the fact that you are four feet higher than everyone else is an illusion.

“It’s the best job in the world. Well, it’s better than digging up the roads.”

PAUL SANDY

Richard Thompson, onstage in 2012.

He writes in the book that he “treasures the experience of communicating a song, and it doesn’t matter if they receive it differently from how it is given.”

His reward, he says, is to have a listener acknowledge that the song spoke to them. “I love to feel that I express the unexpressed for the listener, things that sometimes are even subconscious feelings,” he says.

In the book, he mentions that not only is his solo career still going nearly 50 years after his first solo album (1972’s Henry the Human Fly), but that Fairport Convention is still active, and even have their own annual festival, Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, which has made them a staple in the folk establishment.

He says “that was something we all would have feared back in the day, but Fairport wear it well, retain integrity, inject new songs into the repertoire, rearrange the old chestnuts from time to time.”

Like Fairport Convention and “so many contemporaries,” he writes in the book, “I don’t know when to stop – and hooray for that. There are still mortgages to be paid off and bills piling up, but more motivational than that, there is still an audience. It may be twenty thousand at a festival, thousand in a theatre or ten in a retirement home, but the desire to communicate from my heart to their hearts is the strongest pull, and the sweetest feeling.”

Even after writing his book, Thompson feels he still has more to reconcile about his past. “Very recently, probably about six months ago, someone pointed out to me that, ‘You are the typical son of an alcoholic,’ ” he says. “And I thought, ‘What? What do you mean?’ ‘You don’t like confrontation.’ It never occurred to me. I thought a penny dropped 50 years too late. I still tend to avoid confrontation, but I force myself to do it.”

He ends his book with a poetic prediction for the future: “The attic is empty now. It was time to throw out some old junk, but in doing so, it brought up a lot of memories, fond, tragic, regretful, loving. The arrow is arcing back towards earth now, and catching a glint of god from the setting sun.”

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