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Journeyman's Grace

Photo by Peter Sanders
"WHAT'S IT LIKE," I ASK RICHARD THOMPSON, "TO write a song?"

"It's hell," he says. "No, it's great, just great. I mean, no -- it's hell."

"It doesn't just pop into your head?"

"Oh, sure, yeah. It pops right into your head. And I find it pops into your head a lot easier if you spend about 16 hours drinking cups of black coffee and staring out the window."

He has forgone his trademark Balmoral today for a Malibu Sports baseball cap, which, with the Ace bandage around the hand that works the frets, gives him the incongruous air of a sparkly-eyed, outdoorsy Westside dad -- one who just happens to be a virtuoso guitarist, heading out on what might possibly be a pivotal tour with a sprained hand, an injury he sustained when a big wave slammed him into the beach. He is friendlier than I expect him to be, kinder, too -- he even bows slightly when he shakes my hand -- and I am grateful to learn that Thompson in person is just as flippant as he is on stage. In all the talk about his dark lyrics and cynical worldview, hardly anyone notices that Thompson is relentlessly, brutally funny; even on solemn subjects he seems always on the verge of a joke.

"I'm a fairly lighthearted person, believe it or not," he insists. "The British are just like that, you know -- the weather and various world wars have driven us to find everything hilarious." He excuses himself and comes back with a slice of pie and more coffee. "I need the caffeine and sugar," he informs me with a firm stare and a shake of his head, "to make it through this grueling interview."

I have met Thompson for afternoon coffee in an airy little Pacific Palisades café, on a sunny and very suburban-feeling California-dreamin' kind of day. Which is appropriate, since Thompson's new record, Mock Tudor, is all about the suburbs, though you might not know that if he or the liner notes didn't tell you. "I think the suburbs are very important in the creative history of the 20th century," he opines. "The Beatles are from the suburbs, and the Stones and the Yardbirds and all those blues bands. They're really kind of suburban sounding. Because basically, the suburbs are a wasteland, and you have to create your own entertainment. You have to find people of like minds somewhere, and it's a long bus ride into town to get some nutrition."

On the face of things, however, Mock Tudor has less to do with the suburbs than with another significant moment in Thompson's storied career. After four inventive and quirky albums with producer Mitchell Froom, Thompson hired Beck producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf to collaborate on the most rigorously commercial record in his history. Mock Tudor contains none of the nerve-grating dissonance that punctuated Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us?, none of the hissing social commentary on postindustrial Britain that defined his 1994 collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson, Industry, and only one dark folk song, "The Sights and Sounds of London Town," which he wrote in the "fine tradition of upbeat tunes about mining disasters." The rest of the record is one well-wrought lyrical tune after the next, each with the makings of a single.

"I suppose we shared a philosophy of trying to record something straight-ahead," Thompson says of his work with Rothrock and Schnapf. "We tried a few loopy things and novelty things, but they just seemed irrelevant. It's pretty much a live recording, in a good studio, with musicians who played really well." The effort has seen rewards already: A couple of Mock Tudor's singles, "Crawl Back Under My Stone" and "Sibella," have been picked up by progressive DJs; "Hard on Me," an unembellished rock ballad, and "Bathsheba Smiles," are likely to follow.

Oddly -- and defiantly, perhaps -- Thompson is not particularly concerned whether they do. He may not have made a bundle for Capitol Records in the decade since the label signed him, but his was never a career designed to crank out hits; from the beginning, Thompson set out to create his own genre, and pushed its every edge. "I wanted to write music that would satisfy my soul," says the British-born Thompson, who grew up listening to his Scottish father's music but veered toward Charlie Parker as an adult. "I wanted to create this funny hybrid between Scottish music, rock music and a bit of Django Reinhardt on the side. That's the music I've always wanted to write, because it didn't exist." I resist the urge to applaud his success; this is, after all, the same Richard Thompson who humiliated a local radio show host for fawning. "Don't you know I'm a hack?" he retorted after one too many compliments. It is also the same man who publicly excoriates the critics who fail to appreciate his work. "Praise is worthless," Thompson declares. "And the people who praise you this year will curse you in the next."

"I understand," I assure him, "but who's cursing Richard Thompson? They say such nice things about you."

"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."


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