Musical truths… ‘I am and I am not the same person’

ARE we the same people now as when we were young? This question arises after reading the autobiography of a musical hero, but it has general resonance, too.

I’ve not read many music books, four if memory serves.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello was fleetingly brilliant, especially about the early years, but too long and needed a stern edit.

A better book is to be found in Chris Difford’s Some Fantastic Place: My Life In And Out Of Squeeze. Smartly written, as you’d expect from the Squeeze lyricist, and blissfully short.

Many pages beyond short is A Long Strange Trip, The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, which runs to 820 pages, plus index. Dennis McNally’s book was opened recently after sitting on the shelf for years. Whether it will ever be finished is another matter, although 225 pages have been read. Good pages but the thought of all those to follow is off-putting.

That leaves Beeswing by Richard Thompson, which has the subtitle, ‘Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My voice 1967-75’. Newly published by Faber, this musical autobiography is a must for all Thompson obsessives and nerds, who revere his guitar skills and song-writing.

Thompson was still a teenager when Fairport Convention found the sort of quick fame that happened in the 1960s. They were never as big as the obvious names from that era, but they had their moments, and they’re still playing today, minus Thompson who only hung around for a few years, and has been playing solo for decades.

Beeswing, named after one of Thompson’s best-known songs, is good at recalling the chaos and momentum of being in a young band. Thompson writes well, as you might guess from his lyrics and wry on-stage banter, as he traces the genesis of English folk-rock, a genre Fairport can claim to have invented.

It has always seemed strange that a man who doesn’t drink can write such good drinking songs, including God Loves A Drunk and Down Where The Drunkards Roll. Thompson, who turned to Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, in his late twenties has joked before that he doesn’t need to drink as he swallowed a lifetime’s worth when he was young. The booze-fuelled account he gives here backs up that explanation.

Beeswing covers all of Thompson’s time in Fairport, including the devastating minibus crash that killed two people, drummer Martin Lamble and Jeannie Franklyn, Thompson’s new girlfriend at the time. One of the worst moments in his life somehow produces the strongest writing.

The book then moves onto the Linda years, as Richard and Linda Thompson produced albums that easily stand the test of time, such as Shoot Out The Lights and I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, and some that don’t, such as Sunnyvista.

Shoot Out… was first produced by Gerry Rafferty, who, in Thompson’s account, was drunk most of the time, ruined the songs by layering the sound in studio trickery, and spent too much time leching after Linda. The Rafferty version was abandoned and never officially released, although bootleg cuts exist, and the album was recorded again.

At the end of Beeswing, Thompson looks back on more than half a century of writing and recording – alongside personal highs and lows – and wonders how the man he is now relates to the boy he once was. Many share such feelings, although most don’t have such prominent signposts.

Thompson regards some old songs with fond puzzlement, uncertain how or why they were written. “To play a song like Meet On The Ledge, written fifty years ago on my bed in my tiny room in Brent, for reasons I cannot remember, with a worldview that was understandably naïve, is curious. I am and I am not the same person. I have to forgive the author of the song for being youthful, but I salute some of his insights into life, which seem hard won.”

Thompson in his seventies no longer shares that young man’s emotions, so must seek new emotions to stir when he plays the song.

A fine study in whether we are the same people now that we were then. And a great read.


  1. Hi Julian,
    another nice post which strikes a chord. I’m surprised, though, about your experiences with music books (I suppose particularly, if not exclusively with auto- and simple biographies). I’ve had rather the opposite trajectory, reading – over the years – far too many. Yes, disappointing in the main, but some truly excellent stuff in there, too. In the end, it’s a rare book that’s insightful about a major artist, perhaps because they always have to battle too much with the ‘legend’ and recycle gossip and hearsay. I’ve read umpteen Beatles, Bowie, and Dylan books and they’re all dull at best, or maybe ‘worthy’ in (partly) setting a chronology straight. Then again, there’s always the caveat that one must actually know (and like?) something of the artist’s work, no? I find it difficult (but not impossible) to imagine getting worked up about someone / some band whose music I don’t actually like, and know to some extent. All that being said, I’ve read not one, but three excellent books about The Fall: illuminating, wider than ‘just the band’ and accurate (as far as an outsider can tell). I’d recommend ‘Renegade’, ghost written ‘along with’ Mark E. Smith, which is about 25% artful fluff and 75% acerbic ranting; also The Fallen, by Dave Simpson, which is a great quest for ‘lost’ members of the band, scattered over 30 years, and equally an examination of fandom, and a declining north-west.
    On a sideways note (written by the Fall’s drummer (one of them…) is Paul Hanley’s excellent ‘Leave the Capital’ which chronicles the outpost of provincial resistance which is/was Manchester by looking at major records recorded in and around the city from the 50s until the present day. Hanley admirably only includes one recording he actually played on, but he digs up novelty singles, talks about the Hollies, 10cc, and the punk and Factory years, as well as later waves like The Smiths and Stone Roses. If I had to recommend just one music book, it would be this one (given that you might be more inclined to raise an eyebrow when reading minutiae about Stockport, or Freddie and the Dreamers.
    Viv Albertine’s book on her part in punk – as a girl around boys, then as a mover and shaker as the guitar player in The Slits’ (‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys’ – great title) – is really good, too. But how interesting is a female coming of age story if you weren’t around or involved in the 76-80 punk scene?
    Irmin Schmidt’s book about ‘Can’ is pretty amazing too, especially as he splits it into a, ‘academic’ half, talking about music and band chronology; and a ‘personal’ half, which is basically emotional, polemical poetics. Germans, eh?
    Simon Reynolds’ overview of post-punk ‘Rip It Up & Start Again’ is pretty amazing – covering three continents (yes, the UK is a continent) and hundreds of bands, as well as the entire social turmoil of the 78 to 83 period. In a similar period, but wider ranging is Mark Fisher’s K-Punk book. But we’re almost into cultural semiotics there…
    And Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ is really excellent – no ghost writer here. It’s almost a literary fictional work, until you realise it’s about a real person(a). And Dylan can write some.
    There’s a pretty decent (though a bit overly respectful) bio about Robert Wyatt ‘Different Every Time’ which fills in a lot of stuff we (you and I) should have known in the early 70s, but there was no internet…
    and there’s quite a few jazz bios – maybe Ross Russell’s ‘Bird’ is best, even if it’s a white guy writing about a black guy; and Mingus’s heavily redacted (for the moment) autobiography ‘Beneath the Underdog’.
    Perhaps what I’m looking for in all those is getting around the “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” conundrum.

    So, excuse my verbosity – there’s a lot out there.

    I have to go now, though, my life is slipping away reading and writing. Time for a strum and wondering when someone will write the definitive John Martyn bio…

    all best
    thanks for the thought-provocation, as ever

    • Hi Russell… I clearly need to read more widely. Some of those sound good. Will check them out and thank you for responding and for your suggestions

      • A young musical theatre group is taking on the show so I’m writing the lyrics for a couple of extra songs (not the music!) – Big Brother and Tramps’ Nightclub – and rewriting the script. Always enjoy the blog. What else are you up to these days?

        • Hi Pete. I just spent eight months as a census engagement manager for Census 2021, my first ever non-media job, although there was some feature writing and appearing on local radio. Writing freelance features for the Yorkshire Post and should be doing some editing work for PA. Happiest writing really. Did some journalism lecturing too but that stopped. How about you?

          • Hi mate. Well, I’m 73 now, so no full-time stuff. For five years up to Covid I did the press for Greenwich Theatre, and our show One Georgie Orwell had four nights there in 2012, followed in 2014 by five nights way, way off Broadway in New York. I’m rewriting the script for a young musical theatre group, a talented bunch who hoped to tour with it last year but there was a medical problem of some kind. I’m also helping a crackpot former colleague, Duncan Raban, who is campaigning to bring people together and combat mental health problems with his Facebook page ‘justsayhello’. He went from snapping a day in the lives of The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and others to seeing ordinary people as celebrities after a life-changing, week-long photographic stint at Great Ormond Street. Help with him a book, a documentary or whatever (if poss). Published a fun education book – What’s My Headline – on Amazon last September and intending to share a book of short stories with a lovely woman I worked with at the Kentish Independent in 1967! Need a title! So keeping going as best I can and enjoying it, as I’m sure you are. All the best. Pete

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