A Sensible Rock Star
Singer/songwriter Richard Thompson

March 2, 2002
By Russ Ringsak
Richard Thompson was born in 1949 in North London, the son of a policeman; he developed early guitar skills in a band called Emil and the Detectives. At seventeen he was a founding member of England's quintessential folk-rock band, Fairport Convention, whom some liked to call the new Jefferson Airplane but which was an original entity, with its own sound and its own direction. A producer named Joe Boyd found them playing in the Happening 44 Club in London's Soho District; in 1968 they recorded Fairport Convention and in '69 they did three more: Liege and Leif, Unhalfbricking, and What We Did On Our Holidays.

Liege and Lief has been called the British milestone equivalent to The Band's Music From Big Pink. The following year they put out Full House, toured America with Traffic and with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and then Richard moved on and started a solo career, recording the classic Henry The Human Fly in 1972. He also married folk singer Linda Peters that year, a domestic and professional partnership that would last through ten years and eight albums, the pinnacle of which was their last, 1982's Shoot Out The Lights, which made Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the Top Ten Albums of the Entire Decade.

He has written an enormous number of songs, many of them dark and moody and many in a wacky vein; each of them a story and all accompanied by his remarkable playing. He has finally figured out how to be lead guitarist and rhythm guitarist simultaneously, and instead of imitating the multitracked parts on the original recordings, he has rearranged his songs with new, leaner lead and rhythm parts that fit together like jigsaw pieces.

"There are considerable restraints in having to play all the parts," he told Acoustic Guitar magazine, "but in some ways I like that. You can take a song that you recorded with a band and ask yourself, 'How can I play this on one guitar? You have only so many fingers and so much hand-span, but you find ways around those limitations and that leads you into new tunings and new solos.

"On a song like 'I Feel So Good,' for example, I found it's possible to keep the rhythm in the bass and to play the lead fills over the top on one guitar. Also I can play that horn riff on the guitar. And it can be done without Viagra."

The writer asked him: "Many of your songs are populated by criminals like James Adie in 'Vincent Black Lightning' and other dangerous characters with shaky moral underpinnings. Meanwhile, you have a deep commitment to your family and to a spiritual way of life. Is this split between wholesome soccer dad and composer of the dark side ever a conflict for you?"

Thompson said, "Not really. Creatively-when you set out to write songs-you write fiction. Now, that writing reflects your own life to some extent. It varies, but your own experience goes into the songs. In writing songs, you ought to pull things into a sharper focus, so you draw characters who are larger than life, and you write about experiences that perhaps most people don't have from day to day. People are not really interested in the story of a soccer dad, necessarily. Unless it's the story of a soccer dad who can't take any more and shoots his family. There's a ballad. There's your contemporary 'Tom Dooley.' People want to hear about the extremes of human nature. They want things that are larger than their own lives, and more romantic, and not necessarily of their own experiences. People want to hear stories that are a bit more of an escape, and I want to write stories that are a bit more of an escape.

"To write about my own life seems mundane. To twist the stories of your own life or to write fiction without any real intention other than to entertain yourself seems far more interesting. You haven't got time to write a song as long as a Henry James novel, where you could take ordinary people and watch the slow convolutions of human nature. You have to write about human nature in a very immediate way, because you've only got three verses and three minutes. Sometimes you have to put characters into extreme situations: characters clinging to a life raft or a bit of flotsam in the middle of the ocean, desperate people, frustrated people, disappointed people. This happens to everybody, but to write a song about a frustrated dentist is not very interesting, because the guy's affluent and his frustration isn't as immediate as a car worker who's been thrown out of work, who's got seven kids, and who's desperate because he doesn't know where his next paycheck is coming from. Whereas the dentist will fall on his feet. Sometimes you have to take from the fringes of society, from the edges, if you know what I mean."

He has a home in London and another in Los Angeles, splitting his time about evenly between the two when he's not in the Caribbean; leading the life of a sensible rock star, rare as that may sound. "I moved to Los Angeles for the culture, really," he said, "There's lots of old people where I live, and everything closes at 9:30 at night. It's great."

Asked about his process for writing, he said: "Here's what I used to do: I used to get up about noon, and I'd probably start writing around midnight. I'd get really productive around 4 a.m., and then I'd fall asleep, so I'd have about a productive hour a day. I finally said, 'Well, I can't go on like this,' so now I've started writing at 8 a.m., and I'll write 'til around 2. I find it way more inspiring and way more creative this way. It's like a painter, you know; you don't sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. You've gotta prime your canvas, instead of sitting around being precious. I take notes all the time, too. You know, something terrible happens to you, and you think, 'Bastards. I'm going to write a song about that.' And then you do."

After 34 years in the business and with 29 albums to his credit, he's still pushing it: in the last ten days he's been in LaFayette, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin: Glen Ellyn, Illinois; Milwaukee, LaCrosse, Duluth, and St Cloud. And now here in St Paul.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

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