By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"No, they don't! They don't say nice things about me! What you have in the press booklet is the nice stuff."
"It's not the press booklet. I've done Nexis searches; I read . . . "
"Yeah, well, I read too, and there's some vicious stuff out there. There are people I would hit in the street if I got near them. Charles Mingus had the right idea -- when you see critics in the street, beat the shit out of 'em."
IN THREE DECADES, RICHARD THOMPSON HAS LIVED through his share of make-it-or-break-it moments, none of which have amounted to much more than appreciative reviews and a cult following so dedicated they can tell you where he buys his guitar strings. For all his exquisite ballads and stunning guitar picking, Thompson remains unknown to the vast majority of record buyers, and known to many others only as a key player in a long-expired morality play in which the former Fairport Convention guitarist leaves Linda, his wife and able interpreter of his most resonant love ballads, for another woman.
Those of us who temporarily abandoned him in the wake of that breakup have for the most part grown up and recognized that men are not so easily cast as villains and women as victims in an authentic script of a modern relationship, and that even the brilliant 1991 near-hit from Rumor and Sigh, "I Feel So Good," is more about what it means to be alive that what it is to be male. Besides, ã Thompson is thoroughly a family man now, even if he can't remember the ages of his children. "I know the numbers, but then they all change!" he complains. "Anyway, I've got five." (They range in age from 7 to 27.) His 23-year-old son, Teddy, who was 6 when Thompson left Linda, now plays guitar and sings backup vocals in his band. His wife of 17 years, Nancy Covey, conducts a late-summer tour of the British Isles that visits all the Fairport Convention landmarks. During our interview, she serendipitously stops by to ask whom to expect for dinner (Loudon's coming over) and whether the baby sitter minded hanging on a few extra hours (she acted happy about it, Thompson assures her).
Of course, the late forgiveness of feminists has had no impact whatsoever on Thompson's fame; obscurity has continued to define his career. It has its privileges: The absence of a bona fide hit since he recorded "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight" in 1974 with Linda has made him, at 49, the kind of consistently inspired songwriter and dedicated performer whose best work always seems to be ahead of him, who studies the harmonies of 20th-century opera composers (Britten and Tippett, in particular) "as an exercise," and who still achieves his greatest moments in solo live performance.
"If you have a pop-music career," Thompson explains, "if you have hits, and then you stop having hits, then what do you do? You're either wealthy and you retire, because you don't have an audience anymore, or you try to tour and people don't turn up. I came out of folk music, where the whole idea was to get up in a little club and sing to people -- you just get up and do it, and that's the norm. Anything bigger than that, well, that's fine, but you know you can always go back to just that room thing."
Thompson, in fact, thrives on "that room thing" and all the risk it entails. A few weeks before, Thompson broke a string in the middle of a performance at the Roxy and carried on not just unfazed but with glee. "You always break strings at the absolute climax of a guitar solo," he claims, as if he wished the rule were true. "There are stories of Django Reinhardt breaking a string in the middle of a solo and he wouldn't even blink, he'd just work around it, and you wouldn't even know it. So I thought, c'mon, I can aspire to that!" Last year at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, where Thompson performed his first live set in four months to a crowd that relished his screwups as much as the fancy riff that introduces "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," he reveled in so many mistakes that I felt sure he had staged a few -- a hunch I confirmed half a year later in Santa Barbara, when he re-created the same flubs for a new audience.
He did introduce a new repertoire of wisecracks, although that habit, he says now, is the one regret of his performing career. "I wish when I started playing solo that I'd just never said a word," he says glumly. "Just go on stage and be the moody poet, never talk to the audience, sit there on the stool. 'Ah, a touch of genius,' they'd say. 'Fantastic, oh, he's so deep!' If I'd been the tortured poet all the way through, I'd have an unbelievable career. I'd be a billionaire by now."
"Really?" I ask. "Do you think so?"
Thompson looks at me, still kind, but a bit incredulous.
"No," he says. "Not really. It's a joke."