A quietly reflective memoir from the Dawn of Folk-Rock.
I think it would be fair to say that this is the book many Richard Thompson fans have been waiting for. Patrick Humphries’ authorised biography, ‘Strange Affair’, published back in 1996, does a great job but there’s a big difference between an official biography and an artist’s own memoir. This is Richard Thompson in his own words and, perhaps more importantly, in his own voice. Those that have seen the great man at a live performance will know what a wry and witty raconteur he can be and it’s that voice that rings out clearly from this book, albeit in a quiet and reflective manner.
The full title of the book is ‘Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75’ and Thompson has said that he wrote the book following encouragement from the renowned American journalist and author, Scott Timberg, who “cajoled me gently for a couple of years before I got up the courage to embark”. Sadly, Timberg didn’t live to see the finished book; he would’ve been justifiably proud of his cajoling.
Starting from his very earliest recollections – at the age of three he remembers being taken into the attic at the family home to be shown his father’s guitar, Thompson quickly moves on to his earliest forays into a musical career, starting with the usual school bands but rapidly progressing to the meeting that would most influence his future life – the one that connected him to Ashley Hutchings and then to Simon Nicol, originally coming together in Hutchings’ Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra and then on to the initial forming of Fairport Convention. It’s particularly enjoyable to read Thompson’s own reflections on the formation of Fairport Convention and the development of the band. There can be few British bands that have been more thoroughly documented than Fairport Convention but what they mostly lack is that personal view from inside the band in its earliest moments. In this book, we get Richard Thompson’s own thoughts on their progress and the key points that moved them along – the finding of Martin Lamble to replace original drummer, Shaun Frater, “Martin Lamble, a young drummer in the audience who was a friend of Kingsley Abbott, suggested that he could play better than Shaun, and after giving him an audition soon afterwards, we agreed.” The finding of Joe Boyd as a manager, someone who the band felt got them and their ambitions. Adding Iain Matthews to the early line-up to boost the vocal sound. Bringing in first Sandy Denny and then Dave Swarbrick as they strove to establish their musical identity. What is quite surprising in reading all this is how ruthless Thompson himself appears to have been in pursuing his vision for the band. It’s reasonably well documented that Hutchings was usually the hatchet man when it came to removing and replacing band members but it seems it was always with the support, and often with the encouragement of Thompson; while never vindictive, Thompson clearly felt strongly from the very start about the band and his role in it. He and Judy Dyble were still, just about, in a relationship when she was jettisoned and he was sharing a flat with Iain Matthews when he was unceremoniously released from the band on the eve of a tour because, good singer that he was, his voice and style didn’t suit the direction in which the main three wanted to take the band. In fairness, Thompson did manage to stay friends with musicians who were “let go”, even going on to play on their various solo albums and it says much for the various band members that they could accept these decisions and see them as musical ones, rather than any sort of personal attack. The book makes it clear that, for all the wrangling and power play that goes on around any band, Thompson has always respected the people he worked with.
Perhaps the darkest part of the book is when the author talks about the infamous motorway crash that claimed the life of his then-girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, and drummer Martin Lamble. Thompson opens up on the impact the crash had on his life at the time. He seems to have been particularly upset by the loss of Lamble (he had only been dating Franklyn for a couple of weeks and, while he clearly regrets her death, he is honest in his assessment of their fledgeling relationship), “It is hard to list all the ‘what-ifs’, but Martin was a special human being, a special musician and someone I have remembered fondly my whole life”. It was clearly a hugely difficult and upsetting time for the band, their families and friends and Thompson writes about it, in some detail and with refreshing honesty; how it impacted on them and the decisions they made for their futures. It’s easy to forget that this all took place over fifty years ago and that Richard Thompson himself was barely twenty years old at the time, yet it clearly still has an influence on his life to this day. This is one of the striking things about this book; for much of the time it is a pleasant amble through the singer and songwriter’s early years and then, quite suddenly, it will dip into deeply personal aspects of his life.
Thompson is equally honest about the importance of Sandy Denny to the band and his love of working with her despite, and sometimes because of, her high maintenance attitude and her mercurial mood swings. He’s similarly candid about his musical love/hate relationship with Swarb and how he enjoyed the challenges a musician like Swarbrick posed for him, while constantly fighting with Swarbrick’s own longer-term vision for the band.
I’ve always found Richard Thompson to be a fascinating musician and character and this book only adds to his complexity. He talks at some length about his conversion to Sufism, which happened in his twenties and has stayed with him as his spiritual focus throughout his life but he talks about it in a very matter of fact way, while being very honest about his own search for a deeper meaning in his life. “Since my school days, reality had been a puzzle to me, and existence a riddle that I could not decode. I had early experiences of seeing and feeling ghosts and other unexplained phenomena. This led me to think that perhaps, rather than these being illusions, it was not a mechanistic universe, as traditional Cartesian science would have it, but something far more subtle, complex and even intelligent”.
Of course, the book is also about Thompson’s early forays into a solo career and about his marriage to and professional partnership with Linda Peters/Thompson. He talks about their career together and the effect that his conversion to Sufism had on them, their career and their marriage. Again, he’s honest and open but he doesn’t go into as much depth here as he does with other areas of his life, perhaps understandably. Significantly this memoir stops short of the infamous “Tour From Hell” when, with the marriage already broken down, they toured North America, apparently producing some of their best performances ever but with frequent rows with and physical attacks from Linda. It would’ve been interesting to read his thoughts on that tour and perhaps that will come in a later memoir, though there are worrying suggestions that he will not be returning to the writing desk in the immediate future. His last paragraph in the epilogue reads, “The attic is empty now. It was time to throw out some old junk, but in doing so, it brought up a lot of memories, fond, tragic, regretful, loving. The arrow is arcing back towards the earth now, and catching a glint of gold from the setting sun.”
This is an excellent book that I have enjoyed greatly and I have no doubt that I will re-read it a number of times. Sad that we’ve had to wait so long to read Richard Thompson’s own words on his early years but it has been well worth the wait and I do hope he can be persuaded to release more of his own thoughts on his career in future. As well as Richard Thompson’s own words, the book comes complete with lyrics to some of the songs referenced in the book and some very enjoyable and often amusing dreams that he recollects from this time. Although there were no accompanying photos with the review copy of the book I understand it will be well illustrated and a full index of the contents included. This is one for birthday and Christmas lists the length of the land; a great personal recollection from one of the UK’s greatest living musicians and writers. A joy from start to finish.
‘Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967 – 75’ is released by Faber Books on April 15th 2021
One of the first of his own compositions referenced in the book.