Richard Thompson Isn’t Just a Boomer Folk-Rock Guitar God

Kip Berman (The Natvral) dives deep into the folk legend’s new memoir.

I first encountered Richard Thompson’s music a few years ago, shortly after my daughter was born and I had left my beloved Brooklyn — and my band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart — for a new life with my family in Princeton, New Jersey. One afternoon, my mom came by and overheard me playing something I was working on, and asked, “Have you ever listened to Richard Thompson? You remind me of him.” I soon began to devour his solo records, then later discovered how much I also loved his previous band, Fairport Convention. But I wondered, why did she hear something I was doing and go “there”? Aside from a shared desire to hit the guitar strings as hard as possible, I don’t play leads (at all), let alone with his fluid intricacy, nor have I the rough-hewn baritone of an aged sea-captain. I’m more of a wordy goat.

Thompson, for his part, is often cited as “the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix.” And, to me at least, this estimation of him is not entirely hyperbole, though Prince might be coughing loudly from a purple cloud. But if there’s one thing that resonates with me about Thompson, more than his being held as a worthy peer to the most virtuosic writers and players of his generation, it’s his humility, sincerity, and a sense that his mind and his art have weathered time’s ravages far better than almost anyone. (For example: David Crosby’s crotchety Twitter, Van Morrison’s anti-lockdown and “they run the media” conspiracy thinking, or even Neil Young’s PONO digital media debacle). Looking back, maybe my mom wasn’t even commenting on what I was playing, but how she saw what I was doing in this new chapter of my life — just playing and singing my own music in my own way and without much concern for its reception — as rooted in a similar sincerity of purpose as Thompson’s. Then again, maybe she was just prone to a bit of encouraging hyperbole about her son, the way moms (thankfully) tend to do.

 Thompson’s new memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975, traces his days as a founding member of Fairport Convention — a group that pioneered the melding of folk traditions of the British Isles with contemporary rock — to his remarkable artistic partnership with Linda Thompson and beyond, all with a clear-eye towards celebrating, mostly, the lesser known artists that crossed his path. If what you’re looking for is a ribald, braggadocio-filled send up of 1960s decadence, this is not the book for you. While no puritans, Fairport Convention, with whom Thompson recorded five glorious albums (three of them — What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege and Lief — all released in 1969 are justifiably regarded as classics), were much more likely to demand the tour van stop for antique shops and tea than to indulge heavily in the libidinous excesses so common of rock musicians of the era. The exception, sadly, was Sandy Denny, the luminary and unmatched voice that fronted the group at their finest. Denny medicated what Thompson saw as her anxiety in the public eye (he describes her not as having thin skin, but “lacking [even] a layer of skin”) in a self-destructive manner that ultimately led to her death at 31. 

Thompson, for his part, seemed more preoccupied with chasing down a good, early model Fender Stratocaster, or waiting impatiently for sheet music from obscure 16th century folk ballads to arrive in the mail. In short, he was a musician’s musician, the kind that quits a legendary band because the fiddle player (owing to the amphetamine-laced diet pills he took to combat a pot belly) has made the live tempos too fast and lost the music’s subtle nuance. Even his departure was rooted in a generosity of spirit, as he, a founding member, could have just as easily fired the fiddler.  

One incident that will unnerve the reader, especially those who have toured as musicians themselves, is the death of drummer Martin Lamble following a fatigue-induced van accident. The tragedy underscores both the group’s youth and their prodigy — Martin had recorded three iconic albums and was only 19. The death of Lamble, and the American girlfriend of Thompson’s, Jeannie Franklyn, who was traveling with the band, took an incredible emotional and existential toll on the whole group, resulting in their abrupt rejection of American rock and blues traditions in favor of a sound that was rooted in the ancient folk music of the Britain. The resulting album, 1969’s Liege and Lief, is widely considered the first (and finest) union of British folk and contemporary rock — and it founded British folk rock as an enduring genre.  

If Dylan, by going electric, had symbolically turned his back on a dogmatic reading of folk, creating an Americanized folk rock in the process, Fairport Convention’s rejection of American rock and roll and blues and fuller embrace of their own culture’s folk traditions, allowed for a British strain of folk rock to emerge as an equal and relevant modern art form. While such a reading is, to be fair, a touch simplistic (Dylan never actually “turned his back on” folk, just its gatekeepers), Thompson’s band was innovative in ways that neither negated their own cultural heritage, while making something new in the process. And they did it marvelously — listening today, one is struck by the nuance and invention in these modern tellings of ancient stories that feel as relevant in this age as any.

Reading this, you may race ahead 50 years and fear him to be something of a nativist, Brexit-y asshole, or to have some Clapton-like racist skeletons in his closet. Far from it. While his politics are never made explicit in Beeswing, that he has been a practicing Muslim since 23, lives happily as an ex-pat in Montclair, New Jersey, and sees one of his greatest achievements as opening a pathway for international musicians to re-interpret their own folk traditions is a good reminder that not every book — white-haired, boomer, folk-rock guitar god — ought to be judged by its cover. He’s legit cool, and comes across as the kind of guy who you’d love to sit across and hear him ramble on about “back in the day,” but also wouldn’t fear him telling you “sampling isn’t real music, man.” 

Thompson doesn’t dwell too much on day to day life during his time in a religious community in the late ‘70s, or delve too deeply on the dissolution of his relationship with Linda Thompson — though he does clearly take account and blame for his shortcomings as a husband and father. Linda Thompson, In a recent interview with The Guardian,  alluded to her unhappiness in the religious community where she and Richard lived from 1975 through 1978, saying, “Sufism had appealed to me, but the guy who ran it was bit of a tyrant. There was lots of praying and guilt, and women were so subservient.” Richard, upon reflection, seems to agree with her. And as his faith matured and he moved on from that particular community, so, too, did his recognition of the petty vanities and cruelties that can emerge in any such idealistic endeavor. 

The real testament, though, to Thompson — what makes Beeswing so essential and delightful to this reader — is his celebration of the many musicians he met, played with, or simply admired from afar in his travels. There are countless small love letters and send ups of other artists, and his interest seems far more rooted in offering shine to lesser known players than juicy gossip about artists with greater stature to a modern reader. Read this book with a paper and pen handy, as he takes delight in being a tour guide to names I’d never heard before, but have grown to admire: Anne Briggs, Davey Graham, Martin Carthey, Dudu Pukwana, and Ida Presti, just to name a handful. Yes, there are run-ins with Beatles, Stones, Eagles, and more, but you get a sense that Thompson’s own estimation of his brushes with other artists are rooted only in his view of their worth, not their commercial significance.  

I was lucky enough to see Richard Thompson play solo in my new hometown of Princeton, New Jersey three years ago. Standing on stage, alone with an acoustic guitar, what I witnessed was unlike anything I could have anticipated coming to a seated theater in my sleepy university town. For at least two hours (that went by like 20 minutes), he played and sang with an unmatched vitality, and bantered with a lovable, roguish (though self-effacing) wit, clear that he had never drank his own Kool-Aid, as it were. To see him as someone to emulate — at least technically — would be impossible for all but the most skilled players of this generation. But his humility and genuine love of music for its own sake is a lesson we who follow him can take to heart. 

As the frontman of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Kip Berman wrote songs about the thrills and ills of young adult life with the care and concern of a cool older sibling. The long-standing New York City indiepop group disbanded soon after releasing their final record, The Echo of Pleasure (2017), and Berman found himself at a creative crossroads. He wanted to keep making music, but the themes and sounds he was interested in had shifted; it felt time for a course correction.

Enter Tethers, Berman’s first solo record as The Natvral, which finds him coming to terms with the changes in his own life by observing those transformations in the people he’s known — a self-portrait in relief. In the time between making his last record with his former band, Berman’s life and location have shifted dramatically, as he welcomed a daughter, then a son, and moved from Brooklyn to Princeton. With his new identity as a parent came a crucial shift in how he approached music. Gone were the months in a cramped tour van and late nights rehearsing with his band in a windowless warehouse space. In its place were amorphous, suburban afternoons playing whimsical songs to two young children, while writing music for himself after their bedtime.

But in this time away from the life of a touring artist, Berman discovered an unvarnished, broken folk rock sound — a marked departure from his previous work.

(Photo Credit: Remy Holwick)