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RICHARD THOMPSON WITH SCOTT TIMBERG - Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock And Finding My Voice 196775

RICHARD THOMPSON WITH SCOTT TIMBERG - Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock And Finding My Voice 196775
Faber ISBN: 9780571348169

The sub-title to this intimate memoir denotes a concentration on the early years of Richard’s career, those white-heat years when so much happened so quickly and in which there’s inevitably the greatest amount of interest (not that I wouldn’t appreciate a comparably informed personal perspective on the later decades too at some point).

Richard states at the outset that these are dusty and sometimes uncomfortable memories that have been shut away for years, and it took a deal of cajoling from recently-departed LA author/journalist Scott Timberg before Richard agreed to open the box. The book’s initial chapters exhibit a pervasive topographical authenticity and the flavour of a now-distant era when everything in life was so different from today. Richard takes us on a personal tour of his teenage haunts, chronicling – suitably laconically, and with the very gift for observational storytelling for which his songwriting is renowned – his formative musical, social and literary experiences. Sometimes, it seems, the key opportunities just fall into his lap, but equally some decisions were clearly informed beyond “just wait and let things happen” and lucky discoveries came via influential friends and business contacts.

Richard’s eager investigation of all manner of musical experiences and inspirations sparks parallels in us all of course, and his responses are knowing and wryly analytical yet not without uncommon perceptiveness. The earliest, ultra-eclectic Fairport incarnation appeared “swept along by the fates”, not least in the uniquely all-embracing nature of their repertoire. Additionally, considerable insight is provided into Richard’s interaction with fellow group members (notably Sandy Denny) and other passing acquaintances (e.g. a revealing encounter with Nick Drake where the sole topic of conversation was the music of Delius!), and some almost incidental artistic decisions which subsequently assumed tremendous importance (such as the awakening of the electric muse at the service of traditional English folksong).

The book then takes us through a hectic 1969 (with its three Fairport LP releases!), and the firing of Sandy signalled the start of the chaotic series of line-up changes that would set a pattern for years to come. There’s an emotional honesty in Richard’s chronicling, an element of trusting the reader that facilitates, for example, a pointed contrast between the amusing account of life at The Angel and a disturbing post-gig offstage encounter. Moving on, the memoir deals with their love of deep Americana perfected by The Band, and the increasing dissatisfaction and gulf between Richard and Swarb that accelerated Richard’s decision to leave Fairport. Then the period of session work, including helping Sandy out with her first Island solo albums, out of which arose his first encounter with future wife Linda; their marriage, the recording of the duo albums, the early-70s folk club scene, and so on. Then further reflections on esoteric reading material evidenced Richard’s increasingly urgent quest for solving the puzzle of reality, which led to his affirmation of (as opposed to conversion to) Sufism.

The memoir ends (flexibly, given the timeline) with a brief post-1975 catch-up in the form of afterword and epilogue – but not before a candid and revealing little chapter on the writing of Beeswing (the song) and reflections on the (often unacknowledged or misunderstood) purpose of songwriting in general. The book also sports a generous spread of photographs and two brief appendices (lyrics and dreams). What strikes one most, though, is Richard’s capacity for acute and often painful self-assessment leavened with humour. As in his songwriting, indeed.

David Kidman


This review appeared in Issue 140 of The Living Tradition magazine