Richard Thompson performed several songs on acoustic guitar to a packed house at Little City Books in Hoboken, April 3, surrounded by books of poetry and music on his left and gardening on his right — which seemed fitting given his interest in all of those subjects. When he sang “Meet on the Ledge,” the bookstore audience — including his wife and backing singer Zara Phillips, seated nearby — joined in for the chorus.
At the event, which was part of the second Hoboken Literary Weekend, musician and Guitar Bar music stores owner James Mastro interviewed Thompson about his well-crafted, witty and understated memoir “Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975,” (281 pp., $27.95, Algonquin Books), previously discussed in an in-depth NJArts.net interview with Thompson. Both interviewer and subject punctuated the hour-long conversation with humor, adding some levity to Thompson’s serious reflections and intense command of music history.
“This autobiography reads at times like Shakespearean drama, other times a Marx Brothers script,” said Mastro, adding that Thompson provides us with “an incredible history lesson” and is “a true journeyman and I’m very happy to say he has found his way here to Hoboken.”
“Meet on the Ledge” — from What We Did on Our Holidays, the 1969 album by his band of the time, Fairport Convention) — has lyrics that some think speak to the afterlife; written by a teenage Thompson, it foretold his spiritual side. And Thompson opened the event with his “Genesis Hall” from the 1969 Fairport Convention album Unhalfbricking. It’s a protest song about an abandoned London hotel occupied by squatters, who were evicted by London police.
“You take away homes from the homeless and leave them to die in the cold,” Thompson sang, elegantly and strongly, to the hushed crowd.
He explained that since his book focused on the turbulent years of 1967 to 1975, beginning with a song about police violence and protest was apt. Mastro said the song was timeless.
Mastro touched on many intriguing subjects, including Fairport Convention’s move to incorporate traditional British folk songs into their music, changes in the band’s lineup and Thompson’s departure from the band.
Mastro also said that he “can’t believe the knowledge you have of older material. I could ask you to play the most popular song of 1500 and you could do it.”
“It’s going to be 1513, if that’s okay,” Thompson replied.
He then played “The Flowers of the Forest,” a Scottish folk song commemorating the 1513 Battle of Flodden Field, in which the English lost 1500 men and the Scottish, 15,000. The song — which is popular at funerals, according to Thompson — filled the room with a pensive mood.
“There’s a whole generation of Scots lost, leaving women and children to mourn and sing this song,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that by creating British folk rock, “We wanted to connect with our own culture. Fairport was always interested in traditional British music. We thought if we could contemporize that somehow — we’re a rock band … what happens if you take old ballads and you use amplified instruments, you put drums to it. What happens to that? Well, what happens is that it gets very exciting. You’ve got incredible lyrics.
“A song like ‘Matty Groves’ … something Fairport did, from 15-something, it’s really, really old … the lyrics are very visual, they’re very immediate, they’re very witty. You’ve got all those great things happening lyrically. You put the energy behind the music and you’ve got a very powerful combination.”
Mastro asked if Fairport Convention made a conscious decision to create British folk rock. “Yes, it was a conscious thing,” Thompson said. “We were great admirers of The Byrds, who were doing a similar thing in the United States with American music … we thought, ‘That’s not our culture’ … we thought we should do something that was closer to home.
“Sandy Denny, a wonderful singer we had in Fairport — when she joined the band, she was already singing traditional music at folk clubs.”
So the transition became “a more natural process,” he said, and they played some of her material, including “A Sailor’s Life.”
Mastro looked at Thompson, held up his book and said, “Have you read this?”
“I’m wading my way through,” answered Thompson with a laugh.
“It’s very good,” said Mastro. “It’s very well written and it’s very songlike – I find that it does flow.”
He asked Thompson if the prose writing process was different from songwriting, for him.
“Yes and no,” said Thompson, adding that one of the differences between the two forms of writing is that prose is “a little dry and it’s a little chronological, really. I found myself fighting the chronology. I didn’t want it to appear quite that linear because my experience wasn’t linear.”
Mastro noted that Fairport Convention was given a record deal quickly.
“It was one of those times,” Thompson said. “It was a bit like punk — in the U.K., anyway, where suddenly the doors opened, something was happening on the street, but the record companies don’t understand so they start signing everybody and everything … They were terrified of missing out … So in 1967, Fairport Convention, within a couple of months, got professional as a band. We were lucky to run into (producer) Joe Boyd, who wrote a wonderful book about the ’60s called ‘White Bicycles.’ Joe was on the same wavelength and he saw the potential of the band. He saw that we loved roots music, as he did.”
Fairport Convention evolved over the years, with people moving in and out of the band. Mastro asked Thompson about these changes, including firing Denny, who penned “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” “I can’t imagine any of these decisions were easy,” said Mastro.
“They weren’t easy,” Thompson said. “You start out as a band with local friends … at some point you realize the band has a core to it. Ashley (Hutchings), Simon (Nicol) and myself … Judy (Dyble) was a good singer in a folk club.”
He explained that Dyble “was getting overpowered” as the band developed. “Some members find their own trajectory,” Thompson said. “Sandy joined and she was great, but Sandy could be unreliable, difficult, very emotional, very highly strung, very insecure. And at some point, she wanted a solo career … we went through endless personnel changes.”
Fairport Convention released three albums in 1969 alone. “Did you sleep at all?” Mastro asked.
“I think so, Thompson said. “We were busy — we were recording all the time. Sometimes after a show we’d start recording at midnight and record all through the night … In those days, Jerry Lee Lewis was recording four albums a year, for perspective.”
“You paint a very nice picture in the beginning of a black and white London, cold and damp … when does it become color for you?” Mastro asked.
“It becomes color when the films become color,” Thompson said. “When the hippies really take over; in ’67 you start to see people on The King’s Road in Chelsea parading up and down … shops started opening up … and it became very colorful. London was becoming hip and it was becoming the center of youth culture … the fashion and the film world, British gritty ’60s cinema … a whole world ripped open around the Beatles and the Stones, this whole art gallery scene — this nightclub scene where these people are always seen. Jane Asher and Paul McCartney turning up at this gallery or this event. It was becoming hipper. ’67 is when it came in color and stayed in color.
“It was a great time to be there. I almost think of Fairport as the second wave. The Stones and The Beatles were probably the epicenter of that culture. We were a musical generation later, which means five years.”
In the book, Thompson writes about musicians he encountered in his early years. Mastro asked about a few of them, including Jimi Hendrix. Thompson played in London’s Speakeasy Club, he said, several times a week. “Jimi would have a few drinks and would want to get up and play, so we weren’t going to stop him … Very sweet man, shy,” Thompson said.
Mastro asked how jamming with him affected his playing.
“I saw him quite early on … and it was further confirmation that I should not be playing blues-based music, because there was too much competition,” Thompson said. “There was already competition with (Eric) Clapton and (Jimmy) Page. So I thought I needed to do something different. Then when Hendrix arrived, I had to do something different. This guy just knocked it out of the park … However good you think you are, if you jam with Jimi, he’s gonna up the game … you could never upstage him … so I decided to go to my own musical world and find different influences.”
Mastro said the book portrayed Thompson as enjoying his early years.
“One of the nice things about writing about that period is that it was when everything was new for us,” Thompson said. “First time you play the Royal Albert Hall, the first time you go abroad to France or Italy. There’s all these fantastic new experiences when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old. It was a great time, a fantastic time.”
Mastro asked about Thompson’s eventual departure from Fairport Convention. He said he “got burnt out” at 21. “I had been in a band since I was in school 13 or 14 years old,” Thompson said. “I had been writing songs that I couldn’t see where they’d fit with the band … it was kind of eccentric, selfish songs — songs about me, my little inner world and it didn’t seem appropriate to give them to the band, so I felt I had to leave … I felt I just couldn’t go on.”
Thompson came to America in 1970. Mastro asked if it was different from what he expected. It was a “strange learning experience,” Thompson said, adding that the “first night I was in America I was at Phil Ochs’ house … I thought, ‘I’m going to love it here.’ And of course, that was the high point of that tour. It was a little scary. The generational thing. 1970 was a little scary. Protesting against Vietnam could get you in trouble and looking like a hippie could be scary in some parts of the States.
“The joy was meeting Linda Ronstadt, people like that in L.A., Roger McGuinn in New York, being on a co-bill with Ike & Tina Turner.”
“You taught her all the moves,” Mastro said.
Mastro asked Thompson what he has being doing since 1975, when the book’s tales end. “I got a job at a great tech company,” Thompson laughed.
He said he thinks that since he is not on television, people assume he is inactive. Thompson said that he never stopped recording music and has a very hectic tour schedule. Indeed, this hardworking musician has played more than 10,000 gigs over the years.
As the interview occurred on Thompson’s birthday, Mastro ended the evening by asking Thompson to play a C chord and then graciously leading the audience in a round of “Happy Birthday to You.”
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