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.