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Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975

Mark Sullivan By

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Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975
Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg
304 Pages
ISBN-13 : 978-1616208950
Algonquin Books
2021

Legendary British folk and folk-rock guitarist/singer/songwriter Richard Thompson focuses on his early career in this memoir. The story of his musical coming of age, it is devoted primarily to his years with Fairport Convention, early freelance playing, and work with his ex-wife as Richard and Linda Thompson.

The first year in the subtitle is the year Fairport Convention was founded, as well as the year Thompson turned 18 and graduated from school. But he sets the scene by first talking about his childhood, including his father's record collection, which included jazz like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Django Reinhardt, as well as Les Paul. His older sister exposed him to rock and roll when it hit Britain in 1956, first with Bill Haley and then Elvis Presley. Guitars were central to rock culture, so Thompson began asking for a guitar for Christmas from about age six.

After a succession of school bands, Thompson met bassist Ashley Hutchings and guitarist Simon Nicol. Simon's family owned a large mock Tudor house called Fairport—and from there the band began, initially playing covers of Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful, along with blues, R&B, and a few country songs. In Thompson's telling, the band evolved in a series of (mostly happy) accidents: the musical freedom of the underground scene; meeting producer Joe Boyd early on; the expectation that recording artists would write their own material; recruiting singer Sandy Denny, with her skill performing traditional folk music (further cemented by fiddler Dave Swarbick joining the band); and the roadway accident that took the lives of drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie.

The narrative describes the process of choosing and arranging the traditional material. As revivalists, the band was not overly concerned with authenticity, drawing from multiple sources and freely interpreting the songs. The very act of performing them with amplified instruments and a rhythm section diverged sharply from the usual performance practice at the time. Thompson's guitar playing was steadily evolving as well. But fans of his distinctive style may be disappointed, as he goes into limited detail about his concept or practice routines. This is typical of the generally self-effacing tone: he remembers lots of details about significant recording sessions, and is generous in praise for most of the musicians he worked with, but rarely boasts about his own contributions.

Thompson left Fairport in January 1971, and spent the rest of that year as a busy session musician. But he kept up old associations, working live and on record with Ashley Hutchings, Sandy Denny and others. In April 1972 he released his first solo album Henry the Human Fly, recording the songs he had been working on. He describes it as more of an attempt to understand his own writing than a cohesive statement. But everything came together when he began working with his girlfriend (later wife), vocalist Linda Peters. They began by touring British folk clubs, where Thompson finally overcame his shyness onstage.

The solo record sank without a trace, but Richard and Linda Thompson began playing larger venues with a full band. And when their first album I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight was finally released after a year's delay it managed to reach the bottom of the Top 40. When Thompson embraced the Islamic faith he found the spiritual answers he had been seeking. He also stopped drinking, and soon realized that much of his old social life had revolved around the consumption of alcohol. Shortly after that Linda gave birth to their first child. But the couple recorded two more albums—Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver, both released in 1975— before Richard Thompson decided to leave the music business. The couple moved to a Sufi community in East Anglia.

This explains the second date in the title. After touring behind their third album, Thompson describes his pilgrimage to Mecca and performance of the traditional Haj. Life in the religious community put a strain on the marriage, and Thompson confesses to being the one who fell out of love (no mention of the other woman he had become involved with, so he does not appear to be completely transparent). The pair recorded several more albums together after returning to music in 1977 but by the time they toured to support Shoot Out The Lights in 1982 their personal relationship had completely collapsed. Thompson has soldiered on, and his final thoughts are ruminations on the musical friendships he treasures and the pleasure he takes in live performance. The book includes two appendices: full lyrics of the songs quoted in the text, and a series of dreams he recalled during the writing, a surreal mixture of music and religion.

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