Richard Thompson has been making music for a very long time. From his days in the late 1960s as a teenage guitar player and songwriter with the seminal British folk rock group Fairport Convention to his roaring partnership with then-wife Linda Thompson, and his many years as a solo artist beyond.
Critics have compared his songwriting to Bob Dylan's, and put his guitar chops up there with Jimi Hendrix. Yet for the most part — despite years of touring, recording and multiple Grammy nominations — Richard Thompson remains largely under the mainstream radar. Now 72, he's released a memoir called Beeswing, Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975 recounting his early, inspired days as a musician.
Some of the most interesting parts of Beeswing (named after one of his songs and inspired, says Thompson, by the late writer Scott Timberg) talk of difficult moments earlier in his life that 20, 30 even 40 years later became songs. Little snippets he stored away about a hollow sexual experience, or an encounter with a mentally ill fan. "The songwriting process is lying those memories to rest. It's something that disturbs you that you want to deal with, and I'm just sorry it takes me that long to process," he says.
Over the years, Thompson has assembled a loyal cadre of fans, many of them musicians like Bonnie Raitt, for whom he's opened live more than 70 times.
"In terms of depth and range and how he is able to move me so deeply," Raitt says. He's up there in the top five of all the best of all time, in my opinion."
Thompson says American songwriters like Raitt have an advantage over a Brit like him.
"You can draw on objects and place names that have achieved some kind of mythology," he says. "Cars' names have a resonance, like Cadillac. You've got half a song there already, just put the word Cadillac in the title. Cadillac something, or something Cadillac. I'm not American. What am I going to do?"
Simple, really: For one ballad, Thompson recalled that when he was a kid, his neighbor had a black Vincent, a terrifyingly fast motorcycle. So, he built the song around it and invented the characters, James the outlaw and Red Molly, his girlfriend.
In "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," James is finally taken down by the cops and, on his deathbed, hands over the keys to his bike to Red Molly. In a lesser hand the tune could come across as saccharine or cliched, but Thompson manages to make even the most hard-bitten soul a little misty-eyed, and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" remains one of his most revered works.
Despite the brilliance of the songwriting and guitar work many fans are left wondering why Thompson hasn't received wider fame. But at the same time they're happy that they get to see him perform in more intimate settings like theaters and clubs as opposed to stadiums.
Thompson has spent the pandemic hunkered down in his home in New Jersey. In addition to his memoir, Beeswing, he's been working on two EP's, a full album and a musical play. He's planning a socially distanced outdoor show in June to add to the some 10,000 performances he's already got under his belt. And he can't wait.
"Like every other musician I am itching to get back out there, get back on tour and hug a few people," he says.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Richard Thompson's songwriting has been compared to Bob Dylan's, and critics put his guitar playing up there with Jimi Hendrix. Yet after decades of recording and touring, Thompson is still under the mainstream musical radar, and that's something he addresses in his new memoir called "Beeswing." Here's NPR's Peter Breslow.
PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: Richard Thompson has been making music for a very long time, from his days as a teenage guitar player and songwriter with the British folk rock group Fairport Convention...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES")
FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) Who knows where the time goes?
BRESLOW: ...To his roaring partnership with his then wife, Linda Thompson...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALL OF DEATH")
RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON: (Singing) Let me ride on the wall of death one more time.
BRESLOW: ...To his many years as a solo artist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL SO GOOD")
RICHARD THOMPSON: (Singing) I feel so good. I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. I feel so good. I'm going to take someone apart tonight.
DAVID FRICKE: I feel so good. I want to break somebody's heart tonight. There are a million country singers who wish they could have written that. That's almost like Cole Porter strata.
BRESLOW: And as for the guitar playing, says music journalist David Fricke...
FRICKE: Yes, I've seen Clapton. I've seen a lot of greats, but this is on another level.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON SONG, "SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS")
BRESLOW: Over the years, Richard Thompson has assembled a loyal cadre of ardent fans, many of them musicians. Bonnie Raitt opened for Fairport Convention in 1970. Years later, their roles reversed, and Richard Thompson started opening for Bonnie - to date, more than 70 times.
BONNIE RAITT: Just every night, stood in the wings with the rest of the guys in the band, and we just were floored at his artistry and his humor and his dry wit. And in terms of depth and range and how he is able to move me so deeply, he's up there in the top five of all - the best of all time, in my opinion.
BRESLOW: Here they are together on stage performing Thompson's "Dimming Of The Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIMMING OF THE DAY")
RICHARD THOMPSON AND BONNIE RAITT: (Singing) Yes, I need you at the dimming of the day.
R THOMPSON: My name is Richard Thompson. I'm a musician, according to some definitions.
BRESLOW: Richard Thompson just turned 72. He's graying, goateed, favors a black beret and, even on Zoom, comes across as kind of mischievous. He recalls in his new memoir "Beeswing" hearing his first guitar strummed in his grandfather's attic at age 3 or 4. And by the time he was 12, he was playing his first gigs with a nameless band in London.
R THOMPSON: We'd spend hours, you know, when we should have been rehearsing, working out what the name should be. And I'm not sure we ever had one, or if we had one, it was different every week.
BRESLOW: At 18, he helped form Fairport Convention. The group started out imitating American roots music. But he says that began feeling dishonest.
R THOMPSON: At some point, we want to do something that's more true to where we come from. So why don't we take some of these old ballads and these great old folk songs and combine them with, you know, the lingua franca of the world at that point, which was rock music?
R THOMPSON: And so was created a new genre, British folk rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATTY GROVES")
FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year. Lord Donald's wife came into the church, the Gospel for to hear. And when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about. And there she saw little Matty Groves walking in the crowd.
BRESLOW: Thompson says he and his bandmates became kind of musical purists. He even passed up an invite to Paul McCartney's birthday party.
R THOMPSON: I saw the Beatles and the Stones - the Kinks, even - you know, maybe I thought they were pop music, you know, as opposed to, you know, what we were trying to do, which is sort of, you know, serious intellectual - incredibly snobbish, really. And I could have had a good time at that party, but there you go.
BRESLOW: Some of the most interesting parts of Thompson's memoir talk about difficult moments earlier in his life that 20, 30, even 40 years later, became songs - little snippets he stored away about a hollow sexual experience or an encounter with a mentally ill fan.
R THOMPSON: You know, the songwriting process is almost laying those memories to rest. It's something that disturbs you that you want to deal with. And I'm just sorry it takes me that long to get through the process, you know?
BRESLOW: Many of his songs are like short stories, which he says he writes only on fancy French stationery. One of his most beloved tunes is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD THOMPSON SONG, "1952 VINCENT BLACK LIGHTNING")
BRESLOW: It's about an outlaw finally taken down by the cops who, on his deathbed, hands over the keys to his motorcycle to his redheaded girlfriend. It's a song that can make even the most hard-bitten soul misty-eyed. Thompson says American songwriters have an advantage over a Brit like him.
R THOMPSON: You can draw on objects and place names that have achieved some kind of mythology - car names like Cadillac or something. And you've got half a song there already. Just put the word Cadillac in the title - Cadillac something or something Cadillac. You know, I'm not American. What am I going to do?
BRESLOW: Well, he remembered that when he was a kid, his neighbor had a black Vincent, so he built a song around it and invented the characters.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1952 VINCENT BLACK LIGHTNING")
R THOMPSON: (Singing) He reached for her hand, and he slipped her the keys. He said, I've got no further use for these. I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome swooping down from heaven to carry me home. And he gave her one last kiss and died. And he gave her his Vincent to ride.
BRESLOW: In a lesser hand, these songs could come across as saccharine or cliched, but not with Thompson. So why has the artist remained largely unknown to a wider audience all these years? Music journalist David Fricke thinks it's been at least partially Richard Thompson's choice to reject the arena rock route.
FRICKE: There were probably a number of junctures where he could have considered that path, but I think he's always been suspicious of that kind of acclaim.
BRESLOW: Fricke thinks it also may have to do with Thompson's practice of Sufism, which he began in his early 20s. This mystical form of Islam emphasizes closeness to God and shuns materialism, which seems a bit counter to pop stardom. But that's fine with Fricke.
FRICKE: Lucky us. I get to see him in small theaters. I don't want to see him in Giants Stadium. I can't see his fingers.
BRESLOW: Richard Thompson has spent the pandemic hunkered down at his home in New Jersey. In addition to his memoir "Beeswing" he's been working on two EPs, a full album and a musical play. He's planning a socially distanced outdoor show in June to add to the some 10,000 performances he's got under his belt. And he can't wait.
R THOMPSON: Like every other musician, I'm itching to get back out there, to get back on tour and hug a few people.
BRESLOW: Peter Breslow, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS")
R THOMPSON: (Singing) Shoot out the lights. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.