Review of Richard Thompson: Strange Affair by Patrick Humphries

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Aug 7, 1996, 3:00:00 AM8/7/96

Review of:
'Richard Thompson: Strange Affair - the Biography' by Patrick
Humphries, London: Virgin, 1996, xiii + 386 pp., soft covers, ISBN 0
86369 993 6, 12.99 pounds
(publishers address: Virgin Publishing Ltd, 332 Ladbroke Grove,
London W10 5AH)

'Don't expect the words to ring/Too sweetly on the ear' (Richard
Thompson, 1972)

This book is the first-ever full-length biography of Richard Thompson,
the folk-rock singer-composer and guitarist considered by his admirers
to be Britain's finest living songwriter, and the author of such
superb songs as The Poor Ditching Boy, Dimming of the Day, Wall of
Death, Devonside and Beeswing. If you have never heard, or heard of,
any of these songs, please read on and console yourself with the
knowledge that no-one, neither Richard Thompson (RT) nor anyone else,
has _ever_ had a hit single with one of his songs; if you _do_ know
the songs, please continue and congratulate yourself with being party
to one of the music industry's best-kept secrets.

RT's career is, indeed, something of an enigma, as Humphries fully
brings out in his careful study. Adulated for years by critics and
fellow-musicians, he has built up a small but fanatical cult
following, over near on three decades of hard musical grind. He is at
least as good a guitarist as million-sellers Eric Clapton and Mark
Knopfler, but, London born and bred though he is, the Person on the
Clapham Omnibus is most unlikely to have heard of him: as Humphries
admits, even today, 'booking rehearsal rooms for ''Richard Thompson''
- or indeed writing his biography - elicits a puzzled response' (p.
2). His songwriting is thought by many critics to be as good as Bob
Dylan's, but where Dylan has accumulated gold discs and is known
across the planet, RT's highest worldwide sales count for any album is
a mere 250,000 (for Rumor and Sigh, 1991 - p. 278), and, in defiance
of rock stereotypes, he cannot be called a rich man ('We are just
about at the point where if the band goes out, we can now afford to
tour America in a bus ... We can only afford one bus at the moment' -
p. 317). His career falls roughly into three phases: as a member of
the seminal British folk-rock group Fairport Convention (1968-70); as
half of a recording duo with his then wife Linda Thompson (1972-82);
and as a solo artist (1983 to the present). British-born (his father
was Scottish, his mother a Londoner), he is to this day seen in the UK
as basically a folk artist, ex-Fairport luminary and composer of
folk-club floor standards; however, he now lives in the US, where the
critics, if not the record-buying public, have lapped up his work
since 1982, and he tends be viewed more as an alternative rock
performer. Today RT's music straddles several areas at once: he
records with American musicians but tours with a British band; a
typical concert will be half-acoustic, half-electric; and his latest
album, you? me? us? (1996), is a double CD split down the middle into
separate 'nude' (unplugged) and 'voltage enhanced' (electric) discs.
He has received the now-typical modern accolades of retrospective box
set and (two) tribute albums, but remains a cult figure whose relative
obscurity is itself a marketing value (one 1993 newspaper headline
ran: 'The best rock musician in the world - and he's never had a hit'
- p. 287). However, in the end what matters, and what makes him
permanently interesting, and a fit subject for a biography, is the
outstanding quality of his songwriting; and it is this, above all,
that the book brings to the fore.

Patrick Humphries is the author of an earlier volume (1982) on
Fairport Convention, and is eminently qualified to write on RT's life
and work. Quite rightly, he places the main emphasis on the work, on
RT's career as professional musician and songwriter, with detailed
discussion (in some cases track-by-track) of every record, comments on
the albums' reception and close readings of particular songs. He
avoids crudely biographical interpretations, pointing out that the
misfits and outsiders who populate the songs are not necessarily
Richard Thompson (who, be it added, hates the autobiographical reading
of his songs - p. 303). He is also careful to put his subject's work
in its historical context, and so RT's musical life is seen against
the background of such phenomena as the post-war welfare state which
shaped his childhood (he was born in 1949) and the dismantling of that
same structure in the 80s by the Thatcher government (a process
reflected in the 1985 song Walking Through a Wasted Land, with its
historically pregnant question 'Where is the future that we planned?'
- p. 234).

All this does not mean that those looking for juicy information on
RT's life will be disappointed. The two main events in his life of
public interest - to those who have heard of him - are his conversion
to Islam in 1974 (accompanied by his wife and singing partner Linda)
and the acrimonious divorce of 1982; both occurrences provided some
food for the press at the time. RT is still a Muslim today, of the
mystical Sufi tendency; his faith visibly informed some of his mid-70s
albums (e.g. First Light), in a way which might invite comparison with
Dylan's work in the Slow Train Coming period, but, again as with
Dylan's Christianity, Islam has little obvious impact on his music
today. The reader learns that both he and Linda made the pilgrimage to
Mecca; that they lived for a time in the mid-70s in a Muslim commune
sounding like a hyper-ascetic cross between William Morris and the
Amish (in Linda's words, 'no phone ... no record player, no electric
light, no hot water' - p. 167); and that for a time, out of obedience
to his spiritual master, RT all but gave up music-making. Also
registered, for those interested, are RT's views on the Salman Rushdie
affair (pp. 269-71; see note below), which prove to be not that
illiberal ('If they handed me the gun ... I wouldn't shoot him'). On
the subjects of the Thompson couple's private life, the split-up and
their contemporaneous American tour from Hell, and Richard's
subsequent remarriage, those readers who enjoy probing the privacy of
the famous and not-so-famous will glean enough from the book's pages
to satisfy their appetites.

RT's hard-core admirers, however, will be mainly concerned with
Humphries' discussion of the man's music; and they will certainly not
be disappointed. One aspect which shines through is the amount of
dedicated hard work which RT and his cronies have put into their
music-making over the years. We learn that the early Fairport not only
sought out the obscurest of Dylan songs, but prided themselves on
their encyclopaedic knowledge of transatlantic singer-songwriters in
general (they were among the first in Britain to perform the songs of
Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but also championed such fine, if
lesser-known talents as Eric Andersen, Richard Farina and Jackson C.
Frank); that, at the time of Fairport's decisive move towards
traditional English music, band member Ashley Hutchings plunged
himself into the Cecil Sharp House archives and the Child ballads (p.
82); and that RT believes songwriting is a 'craft' that has to be
worked on (p. 300) and makes a point of researching his songs as
carefully as possible, since, after all, the devil is in the detail
(hence such references as the Lanark Silver Bell, apparently the
oldest horse-race in Britain - p. 133). We also discover RT's musical
influences and interests, which range eclectically through Celtic and
English traditional through country, music-hall and jazz (he has
covered Duke Ellington) to rock'n'roll (Elvis, the Everly Brothers);
his taste takes in Western and oriental classical music too, though,
not unsurprisingly, in the pop world he has taken heed of little since
punk and has 'few favourites much beyond the 1970s' (p. 288). His
fellow folk musician and occasional partner Danny Thompson (no
relation) declares that Richard's 'musical knowledge and experience is
vast' (p. 313). Those who enjoy tracking down influences will note
with pleasure that RT sees Django Reinhardt as 'the guitarist who had
everything', that his all-time favourite Dylan song is Lily, Rosemary
and the Jack of Hearts (ibid.), and that the Band's legendary second
album was constantly on all the Fairport members' turntables in the
early 70s ('it was _the_ record for us' - p. 78).

On individual albums and songs, Humphries' comments are generally
fair, though I personally feel he actually underrates both Liege and
Lief (often regarded as Fairport's finest moment) and I Want to See
the Bright Lights Tonight (which, again, many see as the best thing
Richard and Linda ever did together). In my view there is not a bad
track on either album, though familiarity may have dulled them a
little for some. On Liege and Lief, I find Fairport's version of the
Scottish faery ballad Tam Lin mysterious and magical, not at all
'leaden' (p. 90), and on Bright Lights I believe We Sing Hallelujah is
a moving and successful traditional-type ballad, not a 'false'
pastiche (p. 147) - certainly not with lines like 'A man is like a
briar/He covers himself with thorns/He laughs like a clown when his
fortunes down/And his clothes are ragged and torn', which surely have
the authentic, archaic ring of popular wisdom. Still, every album is
looked at carefully, including minor works such as soundtracks and
collaborations, and Humphries' concern for completeness is laudable.
Among his analyses of individual songs are particularly interesting
discussions of: Meet on the Ledge (the early song, about solidarity
lost and found, that Fairport admirers still hail as a 60s anthem: 'If
you really mean it/It all comes round again' - pp. 57-58); Genesis
Hall (a challenge to the powerful 'whose eyes are red with hate/For
those of a different kind', which, we discover, was inspired by the
police break-up of a London squat after which the song is named - p.
68); Al Bowlly's in Heaven (both a tribute to a 30s jazz musician and
the bitter lament of a war veteran - 'I gave my youth to King and
country/But what's my country done for me/But sentenced me to misery?
' - pp. 248-49); and Beeswing (a 1992 song which reads as a cameo of
the now long-dead epoch of the summer of love and its key value of
freedom - 'You might be lord of half the world/You'll not own me as
well' - pp. 322-23).

Humphries is also interesting on the question of RT's songwriting
influences. The inevitable shadow of Dylan is, of course, there:
references to the bard of Minnesota are scattered across the book, and
we are told that RT's very first songwriting efforts, when still at
school, were 'in the style of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs' (p. 29).
However, Humphries does not go into detail as regards possible Dylan
influences on particular songs (I have tried to remedy this particular
gap myself: see note at end). He is more specific in noting the
influence on RT's songs of the Scottish ballad tradition (e.g. on
Crazy Man Michael, pp. 90-91), and also of literature. RT is revealed
as a serious and voracious reader (as a child, says his mother, 'he
read every single book in the house' - p. 26), and Humphries notes
various literary references in his work: the refrain of Love in a
Faithless Country is a quotation from Rilke, and two albums have
titles borrowed from poems (Rumor and Sigh from Archibald MacLeish,
and Mirror Blue from Tennyson's Lady of Shalott). One possible
connection that Humphries does not explore is with Thomas Hardy, with
whom RT shares a deep sense of the rural tradition and a fascination
with 'life's little ironies': Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman shares
the same subject-matter as Hardy's tale The Three Strangers,
Waltzing's For Dreamers recalls such an embittered Hardy lyric as A
Wife Waits, and RT's character the Poor Ditching Boy, oppressed in
work and unlucky in love, could be a distant cousin of Tess hoeing
turnips in the Wessex winter ('With her scheming, idle ways/She left
me poor enough/The storming wind cut through to my skin/But she cut
through to my blood'). This kind of timeless, traditional atmosphere,
whether via the ballads or Hardy, is, as Humphries suggests (p. 224),
at its most powerful and moving in a narrative song like Devonside,
one of RT's all-time finest, which traces the climactic meeting of two
destitute souls on the open road: 'And the only food she had was bread
and morphine/But he fed on the shiver in her eyes'.

Humphries not only offers a wealth of information, but does full
justice to his subject in the enthusiasm and articulacy of his style.
The book is generally well and clearly written, despite the occasional
jarring Americanism of the 'just a tad' type (p. 70), and there are,
thankfully, only a few typos to note (Edgar Allan Poe's middle name
is, classically, misspelt as 'Allen' (p. 248), in an otherwise
interesting comparison with a song called Long Dead Love; the index,
though not the text, has a rather fishy reference to someone called
'Salmon Rushdie'; and, comically, RT is said to have 'mixed' a
proposed live release, where the sense demands 'nixed' - p. 294). On
the matter of factual accuracy, I did not notice anything looking like
an error, and Humphries is also scrupulously fair in his assessments
of the work and contribution of RT's many associates over the years
(the only omission I would query is that more appreciative stress
could have been laid on the very important role played by Joe Boyd of
Hannibal Records in his 80s CD reissues of much of RT's then-deleted
back catalogue, generally with lyrics added, and keeping the albums in
print since then: availability is, after all, vital).

The book has a long and useful appendix (compiled by Colin Davies),
packed with enough discographical information to gratify the most avid
of Thompson aficionados. Every record is listed, along with all the
many albums on which RT has played as a session musician and an
alphabetical list of all released RT songs, complete with mentions of
all known cover versions. Long-term fans will be interested to know
that the most-covered RT songs are Down Where the Drunkards Roll (15
versions), Crazy Man Michael (14) and Dimming of the Day (13). The
list of covers is certainly proof of the resonance of RT's songwriting
in the folk world, but does not suggest that the royalties are likely
to change his lifestyle: there are a few well-known names (Linda
Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt), but some of RT's interpreters
must surely be a shade obscure even to the most committed folkies
(who, may I respectfully ask, are Knots and Crosses, or the Blue
Aeroplanes?). Among the welter of facts provided, I can think of only
two things lacking: there is no list of other peoples (or traditional)
songs officially covered by RT (worth doing, surely?), nor is there
any indication of lyric availability (most of the currently available
CDs include the lyrics, but this would have to be checked and set out
in detail). Alas, at present there is no official RT lyric book; nor,
as far as I know, does there exist a detailed literary analysis of his
songwriting, unless an unpublished thesis is lying in someone's

* * *

The book proper concludes much as it begins, praising RT's boundless
talent and lamenting his continued obscurity. As he approaches his
50th birthday, Humphries suggests, RT 'surely cannot but help reflect
what a long, strange life it's been' (p. 346) - a 'strange affair', as
in the title of his 1978 song which is also the book's title ('and
where are the dreams I dreamed in the days of my youth?/They took me
to illusion when they promised me the truth'). Reading between the
lines, one may conclude Humphries would be pleased if his biography
helped its subject to gain the commercial success which has always
eluded him - the break that would elevate him 'from cult figure into a
major player' (p. 265). In Britain, RT's last half-dozen releases have
ephemerally graced (or grazed) the album chart, and back in 1968 a
cajun arrangement of a minor Dylan song even lifted Fairport, RT
included, all the way to No. 21 in the UK singles chart. His music
remains, however, a decidedly minority taste, though it does also show
up in unlikely places - I was converted myself to RT in a big way some
dozen years ago when several of his albums were played late at night
on Portuguese radio! RT's songwriting has been criticized by some for
propagating 'doom and gloom', and certainly titles like A Man In Need,
Walking on a Wire and Can't Win point to a talent that thrives on the
darker side of human life (to quote the last-named, 'We shoot down
dreams/We stiletto in the back'). But there is no doubting the
vitality and energy of his writing; and humour breaks through too
sometimes, as in Two Left Feet, his back-handed tribute to
awkwardness, or the self-deprecatory album title Henry the Human Fly.
RT's latest album, you? me? us?, shows that there is plenty of
creative life still in him, especially in its standout track, Woods of
Darney - a First World War narrative entwining love and death around a
French battleground in the Vosges that can rank with the finest of his
story-songs ('I found your picture in a corporal's pocket/His cold
fingers still pressed it to his chest ... '). As RT once said himself,
he seems fated to make 'unpopular popular music'; he may simply be too
talented to become famous, barring another cultural cataclysm such as
the movement which propelled a poet called Bob Dylan to stardom. It is
to be hoped that, at least, Patrick Humphries' excellent tribute will
spread the secret a little wider and encourage a few more people to
give themselves over to the strange, dense but endlessly rewarding
world of Richard Thompson's music. Listen to the eloquence of
Richard's guitar and his (or Linda's) heartfelt vocals, and surrender
to the fairground excitement of living-on-the-edge in Wall of Death
('This is the nearest thing to being alive/Let me take my chances on
the Wall of Death'), or bathe in the twilight mystery of Dimming of
the Day:

'This old house is falling down around my ears,
I'm drowning in the river of my tears -
When all my will is gone, you hold me sway -
I need you at the dimming of the day.'

* * *

If (as I hope), this review impels some of the uninitiated to explore
RT's music further, I would suggest: starting with either I Want to
See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974) or Shoot Out the Lights (1982),
his two most acclaimed albums (both made with Linda); then continuing
with either Watching the Dark, a triple-CD anthology of his work, or
The World Is A Wonderful Place, a various-artists tribute album
containing some excellent cover versions of many of his best songs;
and, finally and with any luck, going on to investigate the rest of
this musician's remarkable body of work (it is my view, shared by most
admirers, that RT has never made a bad album).

1) I have also posted two subsidiary articles on aspects of RT:
on RT and Salman Rushdie, on and rec.arts.books; and
on RT and Bob Dylan, on and
2) Reviewer's profile:
Christopher Rollason, M.A. (Cantab.), D. Phil (York), UK national,
resident France, former lecturer in English at Univ. of Coimbra,
Portugal, currently international official and translator; review
interests: fiction, non-fiction (history, travel), fine arts, music,
3) The reviewer will happily discuss the book, the review or Richard
Thompson with anyone wishing to email him at:

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