In Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice (1967-1975), Thompson looks back on difficult memories that turned into familiar songs. Paul Morigi / Getty Images Hide caption
Paul Morigi / Getty Images
Paul Morigi / Getty Images
Richard Thompson has been making music for a long time. From his late 1960s days as a teenage guitarist and songwriter with pioneering 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 together with Jimi Hendrix. Despite years of touring, recording, and multiple Grammy nominations, Richard Thompson remains largely on the mainstream radar. At 72, he published a memoir titled 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) speak of difficult moments earlier in his life that turned into songs 20, 30, or even 40 years later. Small snippets he kept from a hollow sexual experience or an encounter with a mentally ill fan. “The songwriting process lies in those memories to rest. It’s something that bothers you, that you want to deal with, and I’m just sorry it takes me so long to process,” he says.
Over the years, Thompson has put together a loyal roster of fans, including many musicians like Bonnie Raitt, to whom he has opened live more than 70 times.
“In terms of depth and range and how it can move me so deeply,” says Raitt. In my opinion, he’s in the top 5 best of all time. “
According to Thompson, American songwriters like Raitt have an advantage over Britons like him.
“You can fall back on objects and place names that have reached a kind of mythology,” he says. “Car names have a resonance like Cadillac. They already have half a song there, just put the word Cadillac in the title. Cadillac something or something Cadillac. I’m not American. What should I do?” “
Very simple: For a ballad, Thompson remembered his neighbor having a black Vincent as a kid, a terribly fast motorcycle. So he built the song around it and made up the characters, James the Outlaw and Red Molly, his girlfriend.
In “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” James is finally beaten down by the police and on his deathbed hands over the keys to his bicycle to Red Molly. In a lesser hand, the melody might seem sugar-sweet or clichéd, but Thompson manages to make even the hardest bitten soul a little foggy, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” remains one of his most revered works.
Despite the brilliance of the songwriting and guitar work, many fans wonder why Thompson didn’t achieve greater fame. At the same time, they’re happy to see him perform in more intimate settings like theaters and clubs as opposed to stadiums.
Thompson spent the pandemic at his New Jersey home. In addition to his memoir Beeswing, he worked on two EPs, a full album and a piece of music. He is planning a socially distant outdoor show in June to complement the 10,000 or so performances he already has. And he can’t wait.
“Like any other musician, I’m itching to be out there again, to go on tour again and hug some people,” he says.