Some thoughts about my all-time favorite Richard Thompson tune in celebration of his SXSW shows:
Richard Thompson and Tom Verlaine were born in the same year, 1949, and I will never get over enjoying this weird little fact. While Verlaine is associated with the first flowering of punk rock in New York in the mid and late 1970s, with the twitchy sounds of his brilliant band Television, Thompson started his career with that most bucolic of acts, the seminal Fairport Convention.
Thompson also got famous, comparatively so, extremely early. He was all of 18 when Fairport got rolling. He made several brilliant albums and quit the band by 22. Verlaine didn’t get Television going until he was in his mid-20s, pulling the plug on it in ‘78 when he was not yet 29.
Thompson and Verlaine’s styles are like two sides of the same coin, Thomposn raised on British folk, early rock and a bit of jazz, Verlaine a devout jazz head who came to the guitar in high school. But both men avoided blues cliches. If you can find it, check out the alternate version of "A Sailor’s Life" on Thompson’s 1993 box set "Watching the Dark." From 1969, it is an acetate version of the classic Fairport tune thought to have been lost. You can listen to it on YouTube, though it does not seem to be on any legal download sites. It is stunning how much it sounds like a Television song, like Television taking a swing at folk rock — the wiry, tiny sounds strung together and flowing into each other. There was clearly something in the Atlantic Ocean in 1949.
Thompson is still one of the best guitarists of his generation, by which I mean most lyrical, most adept, most likely-to-generate-gorgeous-yet-powerful-solos. Yet he always serves the song, which tells you how much he respects and is indebted to the folk tradition of stuff that is designed to be sung by anyone. It is striking to longtime fans that the song of his that has become the closest thing to a folk standard is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a tune from 1990, from an album that was supposed to be a comeback.
And here we are, 23 years later and Thompson is still playing, still touring constantly, still making records now and then. His newest is called "Electric," and it’s rock solid. But the real gift is seeing him play, seeing him find new voicings for old songs, seeing him continue to explore, more than 40 years after he started.