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GUITAR FAN: Richard & Linda Thompson

meg reid notes on a life

A Heart Needs a Home:

The Broken & Beautiful Language of Richard and Linda Thompson

There’s a depth that comes from the presumed relationship between two singers. Something we, as listeners, carry with us into a song. A man and woman create something particularly moving. A recent great example is “Home,” by Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros. It has the slapdash home-recording feel of the Paul and Linda McCartney albums that came out after the dissolution of the Beatles—you can almost hear the kids and dogs and goats meandering around the eight-track machine. If the two singers sound like they’re in love and having the time of their lives, you can hear it on the recording, as distinct as any tape hiss or fingerboard squeaks.

I know that part of my fascination with this dynamic undoubtedly comes from an early exposure to the music of Richard and Linda Thompson. Is there much point in trying to communicate that Richard Thompson is one of the most phenomenal guitarists to ever pick up the instrument, in folk, folk/rock, rock or any other genre? It’s like saying the ocean is wet. Whether he’s playing acoustic, with shockingly complex fingerpicking runs, or indulging a unique, almost psychedelic cross of blues and folk on his ’59 Stratocaster, the man is a manifestation of some higher power’s need for us to understand the boundaries and bounds of the instrument. It’s surprising and humbling, even for those of us intimately versed in its abilities. Watch him play “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” live. I promise he isn’t endowed with extra fingers.

Linda’s voice is the perfect counterpoint to this energy, a rich alto that seems soft and old, soothing as a well-worn blanket. You could call it a “plain” voice, which somehow doesn’t stop it from being emotionally compelling. She was my age now, roughly, when she was recording those songs, but she sounds much older. Her voice is wise and wounded, imbued with a palpable sadness. She has a wonderful upper register, but her power comes from her willingness to keep her voice low.

They met after Richard left Fairport Convention, one of the pioneering groups in the emerging British folk-rock scene. When he left the band, he had been writing the best songs in their entire catalogue. On their early albums as a duo, Linda did most of the singing. On “Dimming of the Day,” her voice haunts like a memory. Especially when she sings: “When all my will is gone, you hold me sway.” Richard’s words. His reedy tenor joins her for the choruses, providing a kind of droning harmony, a simple backing instrument, in many ways less ornate than his guitar parts. He wrote the words for her voice, for their voice collectively. It feels like the most natural storytelling possible, these two voices woven together. Linda’s voice is striking on it’s own, but together they create something far superior than the sum of their parts. It’s simple and stunning and alive.


My sister sang “A Heart Needs A Home,” my mom’s favorite Thompson song, at my mom’s second wedding:

I came to you when no one could hear me
I’m sick and weary of being alone
Empty streets and hungry faces
The world’s no place when you’re on your own
A heart needs a home

 

Richard Thompson’s music had been a constant of the relationship. My mother fell in love with Mark after he interviewed her for a job. She got the job and moved my sister and me to Maine from eastern Canada. They were the songs of our early life together as a family. Linda sang through the speakers of our Ford Tempo, songs like “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”: “I’m gonna dream till Monday comes in sight / I want to see the bright lights tonight.” Mark built me a telegraph system from our upstairs to our basement, bought me a book on Morse code. We were learning how to communicate, how to speak to each other. These songs became part of a burgeoning language.

My sister and I were getting to know this man and our mother, too. She’d been single since I was born. This new woman wore shorter skirts. This new woman camped and hiked the mountains of western Maine. Mark had this RV, an ugly beast of a thing, a Winnebago complete with an ugly beige “W” on the side. My mom hated it, but we’d still take it on camping trips sometimes. They took it to Arizona, brought home photos of them arm-in-arm, smiling, standing in front of cactuses. They told us stories of camping in the desert, listening to the coyotes bay in the distance, their weaving howls communicating shouts and songs across the dry desert air.


In the seventies, Richard Thompson converted to Sufism. He remains, to this day, a Muslim. I distinctly remember holding the vinyl of Pour Down Like Silver in my hands, the cover an early picture of Richard in a turban, his gaunt face framed by the chunky wooden beads around his neck. In the companion pictures, Linda wears a loose headscarf. They made their first two albums—the truly collaborative ones, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver—and after they were complete, moved into a commune in East Anglia. But Linda never took to the Sufi lifestyle and left the faith as their marriage fell apart. Richard spent more and more time in America, grew closer to a folk-club owner. He was searching for something. He wanted to leave show business but kept making albums.

Sometimes facts take time to reveal themselves. Mark battled depression—something we would slowly uncover over the decade my mother was with him. When he was in one of these periods, he’d buy boxes upon boxes of freeze-dried food packets and go for longer and longer hikes in the mountains around the state. Or worse, fly back to his childhood home in California, disappearing into the mountains for weeks at a time.

Our only contact with him was an early satellite phone. His words were so hideously delayed and echoed that they were nearly unintelligible—they arrived behind ours, we spoke over each other. Our conversations moved through space and ricocheted back down to our little town in Maine. We were losing our language, couldn’t quite find the words to say what was going on.


Richard eventually left Linda for the club manager. He and Linda separated in 1981, but decided to continue on and do a final tour. The tour was an infamous mess. There are YouTube clips of the performances, and they’re not pleasant. Linda’s voice has an uncomfortable edge to it, and their harmonies are strained. They didn’t speak to each other when they weren’t on stage. Between shows, Linda did decidedly un-folk-rock things like trashing dressing rooms and stealing cars.

Shoot Out the Lights was released in 1982, the last album the couple—long since romantically uninvolved—would make. It has to be one of the all-time greatest breakup albums. Even the cover is a testament to the demise of the relationship: Richard sits on the floor, smiling at a framed picture of Linda on the wall. Subtle. Richard’s songwriting has always painted a particular view of the world—his tongue is always set firmly in cheek, allowing a more than healthy dose of cynicism to invade the world he creates. Even by this standard, Shoot Out the Lights is a triumph of bitterness.

The centerpiece of the album is the fantastic “Walking on a Wire,” a soaring achievement of guitar work, energy, and pure vitriol.

 

“It scares you when you don’t know / Whichever way the wind might blow,” Linda spits. She sings most of the song, but Richard joins her for the choruses. Long gone are the gentle and organic harmonies of “A Heart Needs a Home.” Now their voices argue for dominance, moving out of time with each other, as Richard stretches his voice higher and higher above Linda’s. His voice wanders into the vacant spaces between her notes, seemingly searching for the last word. Where his voice fails, his guitar recovers, finishing out the song with a searing solo. It’s powerful but awkward to listen to—like wandering into the middle of loved ones fighting, watching as they struggle to suppress or conceal emotions too true to survive under a third person’s gaze.


My mom and I saw Richard Thompson perform in a renovated church in Portland, Maine, shortly after she and Mark separated. A few months later, we found the bottles beneath the workbench in the garage, in the tool shed at the edge of the woods on our property. Our family had been, once again, whittled down to three members. Only, a decade had passed, and we had all grown up and away. Once more, we were tasked with finding out who we were and how best to speak to one another.

We stood out in the cold on the stone steps of the church for an hour or so before the show, used our elbows to negotiate our way through the crowd, and ended up in the front pew. I snuck out to smoke during the break after the opening act. I remember that it had started to snow—the thick February snow that falls wet and heavy with purpose. I knew the two-hour drive home would be a fight.

Back inside, he played the entire show on his acoustic. Two incredible, powerful sets of songs ranging from his early releases to his (then) more recent output. It’s interesting to note the songs he’s adopted from his early catalogue, the ones he now sings instead of Linda. He won’t sing “A Heart Needs A Home.” He doesn’t ever play “Walking on a Wire.” He sings “Dimming of the Day” now. I was struck by the image of him alone on stage, in a single spotlight, taking back songs that were written for, and made famous by, his former wife.

His finale that night—“Beeswing”—is about the relationship between two wandering people. They tinker from town to town, move from place to place, until he suggests settling down. She promptly disappears with a band of gypsies. The refrain is about what a rare, fine thing she was, how he should have never tried to keep her in or cage her: “They said her flower is faded now / hard weather and hard booze / but maybe that’s just the price you pay / for the chains you refuse.” Both my mom and I fought back tears. Neither of us said anything. A lot of Thompson’s later work focuses on regret, on accommodation. What do we give up when we give ourselves to others? What parts of ourselves do we leave behind when we part ways?

No one escapes unscathed. Linda suffered from hysterical dysphonia she attributed to the breakup and couldn’t sing for years. She released nothing between 1985 and 2002.


We drove home that night after the concert, through the apex of the blizzard. I remember it was the night the governor suffered a concussion and broken rib after his Suburban hit a patch of ice and slammed into another car. He was going 71 mph immediately before. We were taking no such chances, our speed never surpassed 35 mph on the turnpike. As we made our way home, my mom told me about the first time she saw Richard play live, in a coffee shop in 1983. The divorce was fresh, she said he was not in such a great space, she could see the pain he was going through.

I remembered that she had been the one who introduced us all to these songs. Before we were four people, or even three, she was listening to those albums. Sharing the songs we sing to and about ourselves is one of the great gifts we can give each other. The words and sounds that come through and change us—whether sung in harmony, in unison, or alone—teach us how to speak to one another. We learn what to say and when to say nothing at all. Though some meaning gets lost in the feedback and noise of the world, other messages enter us whole. Even “A Heart Needs a Home,” which doesn’t play any longer in our house, still resounds, alive and intact, somewhere within us.


Click the link below to stream Richard and Linda's Shoot Out The Lights for free. All you need is a Facebook account to log in!

Richard And Linda Thompson – Shoot Out The Lights

 

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