Clinton Heylin

Richard Thompson’s memoir is worth reading for the ‘Fairport years’ alone

While the rock guitarist is frustratingly circumspect about his wife and collaborator Linda Peters, his stories of the band’s formation are heartfelt and illuminating

Richard Thompson’s memoir is worth reading for the ‘Fairport years’ alone
Fairport Convention in 1969, with Richard Thompson far left. Credit: Getty Images
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Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice,1967-75

Richard Thompson, with Scott Timberg

Faber, pp. 272, £20

One of the more surreal conversations I have had with a musical hero of mine came in 2017 when I found myself arguing with Linda Thompson about the merits of Nick Drake’s music compared with her own and her ex-husband Richard Thompson’s. She suggested Nick’s had a quality that was missing in the work she and Richard created, which explained its posthumous popularity. I maintained that Drake’s music appealed largely to coeds and other hopeless romantics, lacking the lyrical depth and musical breadth of the six albums the star-crossed couple made between 1973 and 1981, from the timeless I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight to the equally acclaimed Shoot Out the Lights. The release by Universal last September of a complete(ish) eight-CD box set of the works of Richard and Linda Thompson (Hard Luck Stories) only served to confirm me in my view.

And now we have an account of these tumultuous times from Henry the Human Fly’s own mouth, something no one ever expected. When Nick Hornby asked Richard if he’d cooperate with a biopic charting the end of his marriage to Linda, he replied: ‘I don’t want to be seen as the Ike Turner of folk rock, thanks.’

Thompson himself has been among the fiercest critics of those early post-Fairport albums. Even here he damns them with the faintest of praise. Indeed, it’s a struggle at times to fathom why he has written this book. I know why I wrote my 2019 account of the same years (What We Did Instead of Holidays) — because he and his folk-rock cohorts produced some of the greatest English music of the rock era —whereas Thompson’s appraisal of his own 1975 platter, the masterful Hokey Pokey, is begrudging at best: ‘The end result was a record with two personalities... It was hard to invest emotionally in some songs that had been written just a few months earlier.’

Given that his most acclaimed album was one he re-recorded in its entirety 14 months after he first attempted it, there’s a contradiction here (there and everywhere). On that famous occasion, he now suggests, ‘we refused [the producer] permission to release’ the so-called ‘Gerry Rafferty’ version of Shoot Out the Lights. Yet it was really Richard who nixed that release, having apparently come to realise that Rafferty’s ‘main motivation for doing the record was to get his hands on Linda’, a statement Linda confirms as largely true.

Frustratingly, although the then Linda Peters enters the story in 1969 and departs it on the final page, just 40 of the parsimonious 220 pages of memoir cover the Richard and Linda years, when they blazed a trail the dust of which still permeates English music.

Nine months after he resented Rafferty’s designs on his wife and musical partner, Richard embarked on an affair that would end their marriage and musical collaboration, which he attributes to ‘falling out of love with Linda’. He has already faintly damned their ten-year marriage by begrudgingly suggesting he ‘was proud to be musically and romantically entwined with Linda’. Try: swept up in a passion neither of them could control.

He is still not comfortable talking about this stuff — unlike the ever quotable Linda. As a result, the book rather peters out, thanks in no small part to the cavalier way he treats some of his most famous songs. Wholly unmentioned in the text are the likes of ‘End of the Rainbow’, ‘Withered and Died’ and ‘Calvary Cross’, a trio for which I’d trade Drake’s entire output.

Instead, at the end, Thompson reproduces four complete lyrics written long after the book’s nebulous chronological remit. Admittedly, one of these is ‘Bee’s Wing’, perhaps his greatest song, which ostensibly evokes ‘the summer of love’. But it was written in 1992, and even the revelatory passage Thompson includes here — about the life of a tramp he knew in 1976, which helped inspire it — dates to the couple’s otherwise unexplained mid-1970s retreat into Sufism.

Not surprisingly, the best passages in this book — the most illuminating and heartfelt — cover the years with Fairport and Thompson’s far-from-wild youth. Here he opens up, talking about his influences, literary and musical; his school band with Strangler Hugh ‘Golden Brown’ Cornwell; the proto-Fairport experimental combos and, crucially, admitting for the first time that his father — a high-ranking police officer — was a belligerent drunk, though not that he was the primary source for his son’s highly troubling wife-beating paean ‘I’ll Regret it All in the Morning’.

Those first 150 pages, ‘the Fairport years’, more than justify the investment for a hardcore fan of folk rock such as myself. However, I suspect Faber was hoping for more of a cross between Joe Boyd’s engagingly candid account of the same era, White Bicycles, and Viv Albertine’s bestselling punk memoir. If so, they knew not their man; he may be Britain’s greatest living rock guitarist and singer-songwriter underneath that beret, but he’s a circumspect memoirist at best.