While the music of British guitarist Richard Thompson has often drawn upon traditional sounds and songs, it’s always been with the idea of pushing the music forward.
It’s an idea that’s driven his career. Which makes the in-depth look back that defines his new book Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967 – 1975 a pleasant surprise.
The new memoir, Thompson’s first (now available via Algonquin Books), recalls a sometimes tumultuous upbringing, ultimately tracing the formation and rise of influential British folk group Fairport Convention, with whom Thompson recorded a whopping five studio albums between just 1968 and 1970 (three in 1969 alone).
With the group, Thompson developed a fervent following on the road and the book examines Fairport’s highs and lows, with the famed guitarist surviving a van crash on tour which would ultimately kill drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s then girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn.
Walking away from the group arguably at its height, Beeswing observes Thompson’s career as both a session musician and solo artist, touches on his musical partnership with ex-wife Linda Thompson and hits upon his discovery of both Islam and sobriety, working in humorous anecdotes along the way centered upon his interaction with everyone from Buck Owens and Jimi Hendrix to Nick Drake and a Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd.
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Named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, I spoke with Richard Thompson about his new memoir, what he learned from looking back, the importance of live performance and much more. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
While you’re frequently looking back on traditional music, it’s always been with the idea of pushing it forward. That idea has kind of informed your career – forging ahead. What did you learn through the process of looking back that defines Beeswing?
RICHARD THOMPSON: I suppose I learned that there’s a lot of things that I didn’t deal with at the time. There’s things that are painful and there are things that you don’t really want to look at. If you’re writing a memoir in that way, then you really have to bring that to the front of your consciousness and look at it. So that was… revealing.
Your recall in the book is pretty impressive – places, specific dates. Did you journal?
RT: I wish I kept a journal. That would’ve been great. And I actually think that my memory is very selective, rather than complete. So I can remember things that my fellow bandmates don’t remember – and vice versa. They can remember stuff that’s lost to me completely. So I was fine writing about incidents that were very lucid to me in my memory. But I struggle with the framework. It was hard for me to be chronological. So I had to rely on databases. There are websites where they have a lot of Fairport tour dates and stuff like that. So trying to do the day by day stuff was difficult. That was the hardest part for me.
Certainly, after discovering Islam, the idea of spirituality is there in your solo work which followed. But it seems like in some ways it was always kind of there before that too, even if as a less concrete idea than it became later on. How important has that idea of spirituality been for you in your music?
RT: I think it’s always been there. Certainly, since the time I was a teenager, I was interested in trying to find some kind of spiritual path – some way to kind of connect with the universe. When I was a teenager, I really became interested in trying to connect to the universe and figure out some spiritual dimension. I gradually met like-minded people and realized that I wanted to learn from them – without really changing. I think I’m more involved than really dramatically changed.
From Keith Richards to Jesus, dreams inform the Beeswing narrative. How important of a role have dreams played for you?
RT: I think, if you’re a creative person, you live quite close to your dream life. I think dreams can inspire you. I think dreams can seem almost like another reality. I’ve always drawn ideas from my dreams. I think the creative experience, when you’re actually writing something, is semi-conscious maybe. People have tried to describe what that state of mind is and have failed. I think you’re bringing stuff up from the unconscious all of the time in the creative process.
You write eloquently about a period of history that fascinates me – which is the pre-rock and roll era. How did attitudes post-war and that development of an American youth culture, kind of for the first time, come to impact and inform what would become rock and roll music, impacting music not just in the U.S. but in the U.K. too?
RT: I think after World War II, there was a lot of austerity in Britain. In America, you had a huge economic boom. But, in the U.K., we were really impoverished by the war. There was rationing. And it seemed a very grey period. And London, where I grew up, was pockmarked with bomb sites. So rock and roll was this heaven sent thing for young people.
Your parents wanted an easy life after the war. They didn’t want any trouble. Whereas, kids wanted something exciting and energetic. And here was rock and roll! Here was Elvis and Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent and all of these characters. And it was just so exciting to hear this music as a young person.
So that became the important musical connection and the great excitement in one’s life, if you like, in this kind of drab world.
One of my favorite passages in the book is your recall of Fairport Convention’s first American tour. You tell a hilarious story about your airport interaction with Buck Owens. Coming from the U.K., what was it like experiencing the American cultural divide circa 1970 that you detail in the book?
RT: It was strange. Obviously, in the U.K., we had a kind of counterculture going. We had our long hair, light shows and we had our LSD. In America, it was immediately apparent that it was much more political – that there was a real political divide among the generations. And a lot of that was to do with the Vietnam War. But there was also a whole revolution of attitudes, I think, also fueled by the drug culture. So it was just much more pronounced in America.
I think we were shocked that just our appearance would be so disturbing to an older American generation. And there are a few incidences of that in the book – where you’re treated like another species almost in some situations.
You speak at the end of the book about the importance of live performance for you. Here we are in an era where it’s obviously difficult to monetize recorded music – and now traditional live performance remains largely off the table amidst pandemic. Just how important has live performance become today?
RT: It’s been, as you say, a tough year. It’s going to be, basically, a tough 18 months really. And, for most artists that I know, it’s been very difficult. I’m not alone in having to dig into my pension to survive through this year.
It’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to do stuff online, to do virtual shows, and keep that connection with the audience. That’s been a godsend. But it will be wonderful to get back to live shows. And there’s a few bookings coming in now. A few socially distanced shows over the summer. Which will be wonderful. And next year is looking a lot healthier.
RT: Well, it was great for writing. Lots of time and not so many distractions. So I wrote a couple of EPs. I wrote the next band record. I’ve written most of a musical play. Not a problem there at all.
But people complain about that kind of lockdown brain fog. And I’m probably suffering now from a bit of that. I’m starting to slow down a bit. It’s been too long really.
So I’ll be glad to get back to some semblance of normality.