Book Review: Beeswing–Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 by Richard Thompson

fullsizeoutput_431 Richard Thompson  (© by jpbohannon 2018)

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975
Algonquin Books, 2001

At the beginning of the pandemic, in late March 2020, Bob Dylan released a near 17-minute song, “Murder Most Foul.” Among the many, various reviews, one of the most consistent comments was on Dylan’s encyclopedic knowledge of music. The song references scores and scores of songs, familiar and un.

Well, anyone who reads Richard Thompson’s new memoir of his formative years (1967-1975) will likely also be amazed at the range of music that Thompson cites as influences. From French jazz to American blues, from Highland traditional songs to African rhythms, from classical music to British music halls, Thompson seems to have absorbed it all and writes intelligently and knowledgeably about them.

From early on, Thompson and his mates seemed to have had a vision and knew what they, as Fairport Convention, wanted and did not want. They did not want to be like the earlier “British Invasion” bands that were exploring and copying American blues and R&B and often bringing that music back to America. They wanted to use native British themes and rhythms taken from centuries-old British traditions and meld it with rock-and-roll. And thus, Fairport Convention gave birth to what became known as British folk-rock.

While admittedly influenced by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and other American singer-songwriters and American forms (Thompson claims that what The Band did for “Americana” music with Music from Big Pink was essential in confirming what they wanted to do with British traditional music), Fairport Convention took what it learned and applied it to British themes. For example Thompson took a 15th-century British poem, married it to a 19th century Appalachian tune and electrified it (“Matty Groves”). “Matty Groves” was one of five “reworked” traditional tunes–along with three originals–that appeared on the Liege and Lief album (1969), which is unarguably considered the beginning (and high point) of British folk rock. The claim that Fairport Convention “invented” the form can be appreciated by considering the bands later begun by former members: Pentangle, Frothingay, Steeleye Span.

But Beeswing is more than a musical history. If it were only about music, its appeal would be limited. Richard Thompson’s story is a testament of persistence, resilience and a search for peace, a cultural memoir of the zeitgeist of London and the music world in those frantic years. Its focus on music arises from the fact that after leaving school, Thompson never worked at anything else but as a working musician.

And his is a story that has an almost Shakespearean plot arc.

There is much tragedy: early on, when the band is on the rise and returning from a gig, their van goes off the road killing their driver/roadie, their drummer, and Thompson’s girlfriend. Thompson himself spent a good while in hospital.  At another time, a truck missed a sharp turn and plowed through the second floor rooms where he and fiddle-player, David Swarbrick, were living. There were firings–how do you fire Sandy Denny, the greatest vocalist of the day–and there were leavings. Thompson left Fairport Convention to tour with his wife as Richard and Linda Thompson. And then there was the fiery divorce that colored their North American tour.

But there is also–not so much redemption, for he was no more lost than anyone else at that time–but a sense of achieved contentment, of understanding. Much of that is due to his discovery of Sufism, which for Thompson has a “nobility of being … it seem[s] like the way human being should be.”

Richard_Thompson Photo_by_Anthony_Pepitone

             photo © 2007 by Anthony Pepiton

Anyone who has seen Richard Thompson in the past 20 years know him to be a gentle, humorous, friendly performer. (He is, by the way, also considered one of the finest guitarists in the world. The L.A. Times calls him “the finest rock songwriter after Dylan” and “the best electric guitarist since Hendrix.” And anyone who has attempted to emulate his acoustic guitar playing is often quickly daunted.) Whether playing with the excellent musicians he surrounds himself with or performing solo, Thompson regularly puts on shows that always leave the audience with the feeling that they have just seen/heard something memorable and remarkable.

And it is this genial manner that one observes on stage that
informs the tone and pacing of his memoir.

Richard Thompson seems very much at peace with himself–perhaps this is where the “finding my voice” in the subtitle comes from–and this feeling of contentment permeates his memoir. Although Beeswing deals with a mere nine years–from the time he was 18 years old to when he was 27–they were nine years that helped form one of the trailblazers and icons of modern music.

 

Music Review: Tom Jones’ Spirit in the Room: “There’s a Lot New, Pussycat!”

tomjonesI can’t believe I’m doing this. But I am.  I am reviewing the latest Tom Jones album.  Mainly because it’s extraordinary.

Remember when Johnny Cash did that Nine Inch Nails cover produced by Rick Rubin and accompanied by that powerful video, and how every hipster coffee shop around now has a Johnny Cash tune playing on its sound system about once every 20 minutes?  If you don’t remember, here it is:

Well, Tom Jones is doing the same thing. He has left behind the Las Vegas glitz and the sex-god personna of his past (he parodied himself in Mars Attacks, for god’s sake!) And he is choosing songs that give resonance to his powerful voice.  Like a old bottle of Laphroaig that announces itself with a blast of peat smoke against your throat, Tom Jones voice is aged to perfection. And the lyrics he’s delivering add to that agedness, to the gravitas.Spirit+in+the+Room

Produced by Ethan Johns and covering songs by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Paul Simon and McCartney, among others, Spirit in the Room presents Jones stripped down and honest. Just as likely to be accompanied  by a single acoustic guitar or a tinkling piano as a full-tilt-boogie band, Jones dives into the blues, gospel, and roots music.

And again, he has the voice to do it: this time, however, one hears more of the Welsh ditch-digger than the nightclub lounge singer.  And in my opinion, that’s a vast improvement. He is authentic, he is wise, he is ruminative.

Jones’ cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is every bit as good as Cohen has ever done it. One hears the pain of age, the pain of wisdom.

Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is one of my top ten favorite songs ever (I own recordings by Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, the Corrs, Emmylou Harris, and a wonderful version by the short-lived band, Danko, Fjeld and Anderson) and I was excited to see that Jones included it here and that he does it well.

His voice smooths out Waits’ growl, roughs out Simon’s baritone and turns Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” into a rueful waltz that reminds me of Jagger’s version of “The Long Black Veil” with the Chieftains. And his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of Man” is almost threatening and is as jagged as the guitar that centers it.

I have always felt that Tom Jones was a bit schmaltzy but, to be fair, I never gave him much of a listen. He has always had a powerful voice, but his delivery was always a little more polished than I preferred, every end note seemed elongated, every word seemed to carry the same weight.  He always seemed to be overdoing what I saw was essentially an outdated vibrato.

But I was wrong or he has changed or I have changed.  Because Spirit in the Room is quite an achievement.

Now, I’ll  probably start hearing him every fifteen minutes in the coffee shops I hide in!

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Here is Tom Jones covering Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” the first track on the album: