A Palisades balladeer
IN one, a poor woman from the west coast of Ireland flies, to the strains of a lonely Celtic melody, to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis Presley. In another, a British soldier wounded in World War II wanders London, recalling the days when he danced to the music of a long-dead big band singer. In yet another -- the beat is faster now -- a reckless young man who loves vintage English motorcycles and red-headed girls tangles with the law. The law wins.
They’re all songs by Richard Thompson, a mild-mannered, middle-aged Englishman often called the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix. “When I listen to him,” says Pico Iyer, a novelist who writes often of exiles and emigres, “I hear Thomas Hardy or even the outline of a medieval ballad, about faithless love and lonely wandering, as much as I hear any musician from our lifetime.”
What’s strange about all these numbers -- which exert a darkly insinuating power despite not being conventionally catchy -- is that they were written by an apparently contented man living on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Today, Thompson, 57, sits in shorts and black denim shirt in a coffee shop in Pacific Palisades, near his home of 13 years. Nearby, teenagers pull skateboard moves in a parking lot.
“I can write a street scene about two characters right here,” he says, gazing out at the verdant stretch of Sunset Boulevard, “and they’ll end up on a wind-swept moor in Yorkshire. I can’t help it. I think the landscape of songs is something you carry around inside you; it’s an internal landscape. And I still write in a Celtic style. If I write about American topics, it still comes out in those terms, that musical vocabulary.”
In some superficial ways Thompson, who will perform “1,000 Years of Popular Music” at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday, has changed in his quarter century here: His performances have become much more extroverted -- his onstage banter could win him a Vegas run if his songs didn’t star hangmen and obscure Scottish accordionists -- and he reputedly plays a mean game of tennis.
But unlike, say, David Hockney, whose paintings became literally brighter after moving to Los Angeles from Britain, or Christopher Isherwood, whose writing warmed to the more open and hedonistic climate, Thompson seems to have largely resisted large-scale changes in his work. His music remains mostly what it was before he moved to California: an eclectic mix of bagpipes and Chet Atkins, Sufi mysticism and Hank Williams.
“It’s kind of a transparent culture here,” says Thompson, who exudes a sanity and wry humor that don’t always show up in his work. “You can live in it and not necessarily be moved or influenced by it. As a musician, I’m not going to suddenly start writing surf music. If I lived in New Orleans I might think, ‘I just have to incorporate this rhythm, this melodic shape into what I do.’ In California it’s more diluted. There are way more strains of culture here.”
Thompson’s old band, Fairport Convention, dedicated itself to reviving centuries-old British ballads and reels -- and adding a Chuck Berry backbeat. For this folkloric strain they were sometimes called an Anglo-Scots version of the Band. The guitarist’s tenure in California, then, is as incongruous as if Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm had moved to England after recording “Long Black Veil.”
“He’s an enigmatic fellow -- who knows?” says Loudon Wainwright III, an old friend and collaborator. “He’s maintained his Britishness. He’s a really cheerful guy, especially for an Englishman. Maybe that’s because he lives in California?” Thompson has so many influences, friend Van Dyke Parks says, that they give his playing a startling “power of deception” and put him beyond time and place.
“California has loosened up his personality,” says wife Nancy Covey. “I’ve seen the man change, but not the writing. The main thing he likes about California is that he can garden year-round.”
‘Shoot Out the Lights’
THOMPSON is still probably most famous, if that’s the word, for a much-hailed 1982 record, “Shoot Out the Lights,” he made with then-wife Linda, as well as college radio hits like “I Feel So Good” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” His songs have been covered by Los Lobos, R.E.M., X and Sleater-Kinney, and he’s a hero to the New Folk movement. Elvis Costello called him “the greatest songwriter Britain has ever produced” and covered him three times. “I was absolutely stunned,” Lou Reed said about the bent shards of melody that make up his guitar playing. “I didn’t believe anyone could do that anymore.”
But long before the tribute records and compilations -- the latest is the five-CD “RT: The Life and Music,” which drew 4 1/2 stars in the April 6 Rolling Stone -- Thompson was Fairport Convention’s shy, wild-haired teenage guitarist, who’d never been to America.
His first night in America in the late ‘60s ended at a party at Phil Ochs’ canyon home, and that week he saw John Lee Hooker, Little Feat and a steel band arranged by Van Dyke Parks. “This is the strangest place,” he wrote in a postcard. “There are no pedestrians, but it is so beautiful and so ultimately decadent....”
“I think like anyone else who comes to Southern California,” he says now, “I immediately recognized everything,” from TV and movies. “It seemed a bland place, unbelievably spread out.”
One visit is best remembered by fans for a concert recorded during a week at the Troubadour in ’70. But Thompson recalls those shows as an “indentured slavery” to the club, since the bar bill exceeded the band’s $1,000 fee. Needless to say, Thompson never thought this was the place he’d end up. For a decade, several years of which he retreated from the world with a group of London Sufis -- he’s still a practicing Muslim -- he didn’t come to California at all.
But in 1982, he and Linda toured on the harrowing “Shoot Out the Lights” record, fighting while playing heart-rending songs, their marriage disintegrating onstage at the Roxy and elsewhere. When the “tour from hell,” as it was soon known, ended, he moved in with McCabe’s Guitar Shop booker Nancy Covey, into her Santa Monica studio apartment. And his house in North London became a place for summer and Christmas retreats.
“My girlfriend, who became my wife, was from here,” he says, on why L.A. became home. “And for economic reasons, I had to work a lot in America. I’d just gotten divorced, I had to feed two families at the same time, so I had to economically step up a level.”
As his ‘80s records began to come out, a murmur began, especially from folkies, that Richard Thompson had become “too American.” Most artists scoff at this kind of criticism. Thompson thinks they may have been right. “I did get too far from my cultural roots. I was just having a good time, not really thinking about the consequences. But I was in L.A., recording in L.A. studios with American musicians, and I suppose it started to sound a bit more American.”
It was hard to resist his thrill at the setting. “It’s a very exciting thing to walk into a studio like Capitol B, to know that the Beach Boys recorded here, Gene Vincent did ‘Be Bop a Lula,’ the Bakersfield Sound was recorded here....”
This appreciation of the city and its tradition came slowly to an Englishman who jokes that Paul Revere’s ride is too recent to count as history. “I see the character now; you have to look a bit under the skin. A few streets over there,” he says, pointing to the Temescal foothills, “the Keystone Kops used to film. That’s just unbelievable.”
These days, Thompson lives, during the half of the year he’s not touring or in Britain, like a typical cultured Westsider: He resides in “a classic Los Angeles ‘30s cottage,” loves the deserts and mountains, and enjoys regional architecture like Spanish revival and the ranch house. He hates it when Art Deco theaters are knocked down or houses are built to the lot line.
“For a Brit, this is a great place, especially on the Westside. You’ve got a little fog to keep the temperature down and remind you of the old country. I like it because it’s a bit sleazy, a bit greasy around the edges. You’ve got the music industry and the film industry here: There’s a few people here who are definitely in the entertainment business for the wrong reasons. I’d rather have a pinch of decadence,” he says, “than the more bland vibe of Northern California, where everyone’s a bit too nice.”
Still, he’s mostly steered clear of Hollywood: His best film score is for Werner Herzog’s hip but small “Grizzly Man.” Thompson leaves satiric songs about L.A. to Randy Newman. And while Los Lobos played at his wedding and he enjoys the work of Frank Gehry and California cuisine, he’s hardly gone native.
A ‘cult artist,’ and that’s just fine
ONE reason the city has had less effect on Thompson has to do with a long-standing artistic mission that has made his music more distinctive -- and guaranteed its obscurity in his adopted home.
When Thompson started with Fairport Convention, he attempted to build a distinctly British rock mythology, a way of countering America’s dominance of rock’s language. “Why should Americans have all the fun?” he asks. “Why should Chuck Berry write all the good songs?”
The problem, he says, goes back to first recordings of American blues and jazz that became popular in Europe and with British intellectuals. American phrases and place names -- from New Orleans, then the wider South and later California -- acquired a powerful and suggestive resonance. “And then in the rock ‘n’ roll era,” he says with a smile, “it’s easy to write an American song: You just come up with a couple of place names or something and you’re done. You know, ‘Cadillac with Tennessee plates....’ That’s a song right there! But an English song takes a little more work.”
It didn’t much help when the Beatles covered Smokey Robinson and Motown girl groups, and the Rolling Stones tackled Buddy Holly and Solomon Burke. “So this whole body of mythology rolled over European culture,” he says, “and for the most part didn’t do it any favors.
“It left a gap, if you’re an English writer and you’re determined to write about who you are and where you come from. If you’re a poet, that tradition is unbroken. But there’s a real break in the popular tradition, in pop music. Today, a song that’s too British is treated like a novelty song. This has broken down a bit in Ireland and Scotland; they’re a bit more accepting of homegrown culture.”
Not that Thompson hasn’t kept trying. For the song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which later became a hit for bluegrass artist Del McCoury, he started out trying “to find an object that’s British and romantic and mythological” and found a vintage English motorcycle that becomes as iconic as the T-Bird was for the Beach Boys.
“It probably became such a habit with me; I stopped crusading about 30 years ago. Now it’s just an instinct.”
Thompson’s instinct has led to a huge body of inventive, deeply felt music. But it also may have ensured his commercial obscurity in the U.S., where he remains a “cult artist.”
After the ‘80s, with its jeering that Thompson had gone American, he began to grow more deliberately British. Even while living in California and enjoying its charms, he began making records like “Mock Tudor,” about his North London upbringing, or his most recent, “Front Parlour Ballads,” an acoustic album with a lute and Elizabethan keyboard on the cover.
“Over the past few years there’s been a reflectiveness on Richard’s part toward the old country,” says Patrick Humphries, Thompson’s biographer. “ ‘Mock Tudor’ was the first record that struck me as Richard-in-exile.”
The guitarist says his next record will be “more British even than the last one.”
“I’m sure, like Isherwood and Hockney and so many of us who’ve come from Britain to California, he’s found a new light in the West, a sense of freedom and possibility,” says Iyer, who like Thompson was born in Britain and spends part of each year in Southern California. “But what impresses me is how little California has affected his work externally.”
During the last few years, instead of pursuing surf music, the guitarist embarked on the project that brings him to Royce Hall: It started when Playboy, at the dawn of 2000, asked several musicians to list their favorite songs from the last millennium. Thompson’s list ranged from the pre-Chaucerian “Sumer Is Icumen In” to Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again.” While there are American songs on the list -- the traditional “Shenandoah,” Prince’s “Kiss” -- the show, with its medieval round and naughty Italian dance tune, shows how catholic his sense of rock’s heritage is.
Despite an enormous presence in America from “Love Me Do” to “London Calling,” British rock has lately kept a low profile internationally. The British government has recently set up initiatives to promote its popular music, an idea that would have seemed absurd when the Stones, Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin bestrode the world.
But as Britain lost its empire after World War I, it began to lose much of its musical reach after punk. Thompson’s commitment to non-American sources, then, comes when it’s much needed but deeply unfashionable.
“Richard Thompson,” says Iyer, “seems to be one of those artists sufficiently in thrall to his vision not to be damaged or distracted by the circumstances around him. I suspect he can sit in L.A., London or Outer Mongolia and still outline stories of a lamp-lit port town somewhere in the deep past where hearts and lives are being broken beyond repair.”