Richard Thompson: Dark at the End of the Tunnel

By Gore, Joe | Guitar Player, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Richard Thompson: Dark at the End of the Tunnel


Gore, Joe, Guitar Player


Quick - of all the great rock guitarists who exploded on the scene in the late '60s, how many are still at the peak of their creative powers? Not just the ones who still play well, but those who truly get better and better with each record or tour, continually refining their craft without losing their intoxicating, reckless edge? [paragraph] Richard Thompson may not be the only one, but his two new projects form an airtight rebuttal to the "play hot, burn out young" ethic that still haunts rock guitar. Watching The Dark, Rykodisc's stunning three-disc retrospective, attests to the unflagging quality of Thompson's songwriting and musicianship since he debuted with influential British folk-rockers Fairport Convention in 1967, while Mirror Blue (completed early this year but delayed till January due to internal shakeups at Thompson's label, Capitol) routes that legacy down exciting new channels. Like Rumor And Sigh and Amnesia, his previous two collaborations with avant-roots producer Mitchell Froom, Mirror Blue establishes a new high-water mark for Thompson.

Maybe part of the reason Thompson isn't even more widely recognized for his exquisite guitar work is because his playing, singing, and songwriting voices are inseparable from each other and from the guitarist's lifelong musical quest: the creative cross-breeding of rock and roll with Celtic music (the indigenous folk sounds of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). You can't just fast-forward to a Thompson solo and say, "Dude! Check out this lick!" His playing loses much of its meaning outside the context of his starkly powerful songs. You have to process it as part of the whole emotional package - the thorny lyrics, the eccentric harmonies, the dark melancholy, the equally dark humor.

Thompson, the English-born son of Scottish parents, divides his time between England and southern California. Today he's sipping cappuccino in a busy cafe around the corner from his Santa Monica home.

You've been blending British folk idioms with rock and roll since the late '60s. Has that process become more intuitive over the years?

Yes, it's been automatic for a long time now. It's also automatic for me to keep looking for areas to expand that fusion. Fusion - what a dread word!

Maybe enough time has passed that we can reintroduce it without the bad connotations.

It will be at least another 50 years before credibility is restored. The word has been destroyed. We need fission!

Well, "Fast Food" [from Mirror Blue] is a sort of Celtic/Bo Diddley fission!

An interesting example. It's an alien rhythm against those melodic lines, but that gives a desirable tension, and you always need a certain amount of tension in music. Why does Chuck Berry doing "The Promised Land" sound so much better than, say, the Rolling Stones doing a Chuck Berry song? Because half of Berry's band were jazz musicians and half were R&B musicians.

You mean the clash of swing and straight rhythms?

Exactly. That tension makes it jump. I'm not saying we created anything nearly so exciting on "Fast Food," but it's an interesting clash of cultures. It's a different way of fusing cultures, or creating a new culture for myself. I have this hole inside where I don't feel a culture.

It could have been worse - you might have been raised in California.

Yes, a culture-free zone. Anyway, the indigenous culture of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales was swamped by imported culture, and sometimes it feels like I've spent the last 25 years trying to find the threads that connect it.

But when you connect it to popular music, your rock and roll frame of reference seems to end in the early '60s.

That's true, isn't it? That worries me.

It's just that the rock rhythms you use tend to evoke Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and such.

That was an exciting time in music. …

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