In the admiring opinion of several other songwriters, Richard Thompson has written some of the most depressing songs of our time, tunes in which love turns to bile, crippled war vets are chucked into the rain, babes are warned “there’s nothing to grow up for anymore.”
Thompson can dispatch such songs with a Dickensian detail rooted in traditional, somber British music that leaves one imagining that he spends his free moments brooding in the heath somewhere.
He is more likely to be down at the bowling alley. For the past few years, the 39-year-old Englishman has spent half his time living in Southern California, where Thompson has been smitten by that most pedestrian of sports.
“I think it’s a very healthy recreational sport for all the family,” he says in a droll North London accent. “You don’t see fights at bowling alleys very much, and you see all races and ages intermingling very happily. I think it’s just one of the nicest, most peaceful places you can go.”
By this point, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Thompson turn up anywhere, as his musical career has veered somewhere between eclectic and parodoxical. How often is a devout Sufi Muslim (which Thompson is) the author of a top-10 country single (as is currently the case, with Jo-el Sonnier’s rendition of Thompson’s riotous “Tear-Stained Letter”)?
A founding member at 17 of the legendary folk-rock band Fairport Convention (which reached back to British antiquity for its folk roots), Thompson is still revered by a sizable cult as the best and brightest figure in British traditional folk music. He and his present band will perform at the Coach House Saturday night.
It is not unusual for his shows to feature 16th-Century Scottish reels or hornpipe tunes. But Thompson just as often applies a tearing Stratocaster to the boundaries of avant-garde music, collaborating with the likes of Henry Kaiser, Fred Frith, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and REM’s Michael Stipe.
Then he will turn up guesting with the premiere Cajun band Beausoleil on a bayou stomper or adding a jazzy Hot Club solo to Crowded House’s “Sister Madly” or leaping from Duke Ellington standards to wild rockabilly to Okinawan pop songs in his own shows.
But easily the biggest parodox to Thompson’s music is that it is unknown to most rock fans. John Mellencamp may claim that he is in awe of Thompson’s songwriting, and Rolling Stone may have placed two of his albums on its list of “the 100 best rock albums of the last 20 years,” but he remains a cult figure.
That might change with “Amnesia,” Thompson’s second album with Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom at the helm and his first for Capitol Records, which is enthusiastically promoting the disc.
But the singer isn’t convinced that high rotation is a club he wants to belong to. Reached by phone earlier this week, he said:
“If you are on a major label, you have to aim stuff toward the radio somehow. But I don’t think that we are ideal radio material, and that may be a good thing. I’d hate to produce something that slipped very easily into a radio format because I think radio formats today are disgusting in their conservatism.
“The industry’s understanding of what sells and its ability to market very successfully to certain groups has made it harder for anything new to break through. To be successful people have to ape what’s already successful. If you want to get on the radio, you have to sound like radio already does, which is basically uncreative.”
While “Amnesia” boasts more of a mainstream rock beat than previous Thompson releases, that is tempered by an emotional rawness that at times verges on musical violence (not that there isn’t a fragile ballad or two as well). There are also Thompson’s lyrics, which are anything but soporific love chants.
One song, “Yankee, Go Home,” offers a caustic Third World viewpoint of U.S. power diplomacy, running counter to the “we’re the envy of the world” slogans being bandied about in the presidential race.
“I think that’s really dangerous for America,” Thompson said, “because America isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore. The sooner Americans realize this, the sooner they’re going to save themselves and their savings and everything else. America has to stop churning money into all these huge defense industries and start spending it on something real, on something that has more to do with the day-to-day economy of America, because it’s already all over, and it’s going to be over even quicker if they’re not careful.
“It’s very hard to face this change. The reason I felt qualified to write this song was that Britain used to have an empire, and it took us 80 years to realize it didn’t exist anymore. There’s people in Britain who still think it exists; it’s very hard to change that attitude. I’m sure it was the same for the Romans.”
There are other things that haven’t changed with time, according to the album’s “Pharaoh,” which paints a bleak picture of mankind eternally held under the thumb:
A thousand eyes, a thousand ears
He feeds us all, he feeds our fears
Don’t stir in your sleep tonight, my dears
We’re all working for the Pharaoh.
“It’s a song about power, I suppose, the fact that there seems to be one method of having power and controlling people, which is basically Pharaonic. It seems to me things haven’t really changed that much in the last three or four thousand years,” Thompson said.
Often defining love, truth and other qualities by the vacuum left in their absence, his lyrics have been described as fatalistic, but to Thompson, who converted to the Sufi faith 15 years ago, that is a matter of perspective.
“I think things are doomed to fail if people only see the material aspects of the world as the goal,” he said. “I think that always ends in disaster because the world always sort of crumbles and eludes you if you pursue it. You can’t grasp the material world; it’s not possible. You have to have some spiritual values, and people seem to have less and less of that these days.”
Thompson is reluctant to state what effect he hopes his music has on listeners, preferring the pre-rock-critic days when music was allowed its secrets.
“It’s almost as if if you spell it out, you miss the point of it, of whatever morality or message there is in the music,” he said. “It’s buried, and that’s the way it works. If you say, ‘Well, this is obviously what this fellow’s trying to say,’ it kills it, it seems to me. In a sense the music shouldn’t be perceived as that; it should just be taken as music. And if anything’s communicated, it’s more a feeling than anything that can be said with words, I hope.”
Living part time in Santa Monica has influenced his musical tastes somewhat (“It completely turned me off surf music. I’d had a soft spot for Jan and Dean once.”). But his chief influence remains British traditional music, with lesser interests in jazz, classical and rockabilly.
Though his band can tear through some highly disparate musical territory, most of its members share his folk roots. Drummer Dave Mattacks is a Fairport alumnus, bassist Pat Donaldson belonged to the offshoot group Fotheringay and John Kirkpatrick is considered the best accordionist in the British folk scene.
Thompson said this will probably be the last tour to feature backup singers Clive Gregson and Christine Collister because their career as a duo is taking off (with good reason, as the pair’s “Mischief” album on Rhino attests).
Though after more than 20 years in the music business Thompson finds himself playing venues the size of the Coach House and the Roxy instead of arenas, he has his own measure for success:
“By my standards, I think it’s when the music goes to unexpected places, when things happen in it to take you to new areas. I suppose there are parts of each show which are mechanical or ritualistic in that there’s a structure that has to be followed. But then within that structure, this band is very fluid and doesn’t get bogged down in the set arrangements. We get a bit of that almost every night, and that’s where the excitement is for me.”
Richard Thompson and Ian Matthews play the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, Saturday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.