The World According to Richard Thompson
The legendary guitarist and songwriter released his memoir "BEESWING: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967–1975" this month
Welcome back to “The World According To,” a series in which we solicit advice from people who are in a position to give it. Up today: Richard Thompson.
A folk-rock pioneer who is as good a songwriter as he is a guitarist, Richard Thompson is what they call a musician’s musician.
Don’t take it from us: David Byrne, who toured with Thompson in 1992 (which resulted in a tough-to-find live album), had this to say about the 72-year-old British bard: “Personally, being somewhat envious of Richard’s songwriting and guitar playing, it’s somewhat satisfying he’s not yet achieved household-name status. It serves him right for being so good.”
No longer just content with letting Byrne and others sing his praises, Thompson recently took the opportunity to describe himself, by penning a memoir. Written with Scott Timberg and out this month, BEESWING: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967–1975 focuses on Thompson’s formative years during the peak of electric folk and foreshadows the career that followed. Now living in New Jersey, Thompson talked with InsideHook about writing the book, his relationship with music and writing new material during the pandemic.
InsideHook: Why did you decide to focus the memoir on the specific eight-year period from ’67 to ’75?
Richard Thompson: People ask me a lot about that time period and wanted to get what I remember written down before I forget it all. My memory is selective anyway, the stuff I remember, the stuff I actually do not remember. It seems to have been a very important decade in music and is still resonating now. People still listen to the Dark Side of the Moon and people still wear their Led Zeppelin T-shirts and what have you. Generation after generation still refers back to that time period. I thought this was a good time period to pick, but I wanted to stop in ‘75. From ’75 to ’80, I didn’t really enjoy the music I was making. I made a couple of bad albums. So, I didn’t want to taper off into that time period particularly and then pick it up later. That seemed kind of dishonest.
What was the most enjoyable aspect for you of working on BEESWING?
It was fun to tell anecdotes. I had a harder time with the chronology, so I tended to write sloppy to begin and just write the stories without thinking about the timeframe. I kind of imposed the timeframe later, which for me, was much more of a chore. Once you start writing, you remember more things and you start to unlock parts of your memory. So, that was lovely, to remember some of your old colleagues in a certain light, when we were all young and keen and enthusiastic and the world was our oyster.
What record or records do you think you’ve listened to the most in your life?
Boy, I don’t know. Crikey. It’s probably a piece of classical music. It’s probably [Edward] Elgar or something. It’s probably Elgar’s “Cello Concerto” or “Enigma Variations.” Something like that. In terms of pop music, it could be an album like Revolver. I think it’s a great record. Tricky question. Come back to me next week and I’ll let you know.
What’s your preferred method of listening to music these days?
I probably like CDs best. What I really like is something analog transferred to CD. That’s the way I like to make my records as well. I mean, I like the sound of vinyl, but it’s not perfect. It has a wonderful warmth to it, but some frequencies annoy me slightly on vinyl. Yeah, I’d say CD is still my favorite. People use their phones, but I don’t do that really. If I want to hear music, I tend to put it on and make it a special thing. I like to sit and get some good headphones and just enjoy a few tracks. And then I’m satisfied for the day. I don’t like the idea of exercising to music or jogging to music. I really don’t do that. I’d rather have silence.
The past year or so has been a bad time for many reasons, but has it been a good period for songwriting?
It’s been a great time for writing. I’ve written lots of songs, probably the next album or two. It’s been good for that, but it’s also been frustrating. It’s been tough for so many musicians that I know. All of them, really, and everybody involved in music and in theater. It’s going to be 16 months of no work. That’s hopefully coming to an end.
Is putting out a book similar to putting out a record?
In music, you can kind of get an album out fairly quickly. In publishing, there are very long lead times and lots of things you have to do to get ready for release. There’s not that much in common, I don’t think. The publishing world is very different and it works to very different standards and on very different timescales. For me, it’s a new world. I’m dipping my toe in and also exposing myself to a whole new set of critics. It’s okay. As a songwriter, you get compared to [Bob] Dylan or Leonard Cohen and you think, “Oh shit.” But if you’re a writer, then you get compared to Charles Dickens or something. It’s a whole different world. Lots of critics out there to snap at you.
Sounds like you probably won’t be switching from being a musician to being an author.
Well, we’ll see what happens. If I sell more books than I sell records, I will be very, very annoyed. But if that happens, I should think about doing another kind of book. I wouldn’t do another memoir. I would do something else. I can’t tell you what it’d be. I’d be giving the game away.
Do you have any bad creative habits when you’re working?
I wouldn’t say bad, but I’m kind of fussy about things like stationery. I have to have the right kind of paper. I have to have the right kind of pens. It’s these kinds of creative corners that you talk yourself into. I have to go to Paris to get my stationery. Isn’t that terrible? Every year or so, I have to nip over to Paris to buy that really nice French stationery. That’s my excuse anyway. I just like it a certain size. I like the fact that I can lay it flat and I can work on both sides of the page. If I’m forced to, I can do it other ways, but I like to do it this way. That’s my creative comfort zone.
What does music give you that you can’t get anywhere else?
That would mean imagining a world without music, which is very, very difficult. They say it’s the most elusive of all the arts. I think in that way, it can take you somewhere more ethereal or more spiritual. I think music can almost suggest other dimensions of existence. It seems that way to me anyway. So, a world without music would be a truly dull and boring place that I just cannot imagine.
What have you learned from music over the course of your career?
There are a few things. One thing you learn is that you go past the mistakes in life. You’re up on stage playing and you make a mistake. You don’t burst into tears and start crying and run off stage. You keep going. You make a mistake and you go past it. That’s a great life lesson for kids to learn. Music is also great, especially for kids, because it seems to structure the brain differently. One of the great adjuncts of education is to have music on the curriculum because it makes you think differently. Music really gives you a different shape to your brain. It’s a bit like learning Latin or something. It just makes you think differently and, in many cases, better. It makes you do better at other subjects. Kids who learn music in school generally do better overall.
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