Rock and Roll Book Club: Richard Thompson's 'Beeswing'

Richard Thompson's book 'Beeswing.'
Richard Thompson's 'Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Comedian Charlie Fleischer famously said that "if you remember the '60s, you really weren't there." Singer-songwriter Richard Thompson was definitely there, and in his new memoir he supports his case by lack of pretense to remember it all. Some books feel like sitting next to the author on an airplane for 12 hours; Beeswing (buy now) is more like sitting next to the author at dinner.

The unassuming tone of the book — subtitled Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 — is fitting for an artist who's long had a reputation as a musician's musician. Now 71, Thompson remains active as a touring and recording artist, often described to American audiences as "the best guitarist you've never heard of."

Now let me tell you that he's regarded as a founding father of British folk-rock and you'll assume the reason you haven't heard of him is that his oeuvre's full of twee ditties about gnomes and chimney sweeps. In fact, he's a writer of devastating force with a songbook that includes slashing rockers, pained laments, and heartbreakingly tender ballads — including the song that provided the title of Beeswing, not a song of that era (it appeared on his 1994 LP Mirror Blue) but rather a poignant look back on those years.

Beeswing starts when Thompson is freshly 18, capping an adolescence increasingly focused on music by launching a group that would take the name Fairport Convention. Previously known as the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra, the new group took its name from a house where they rehearsed. "In keeping with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Strawberry Alarm Clock and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat," writes Thompson, "it was suitably polysyllabic for the age."

It took Fairport Convention a while to find their voice as a group, but they ultimately decided to outreach their British Invasion forebears. Whereas those bands Anglicized the American roots music that melded European traditions with those of African Americans and other voices of our continent, Fairport took the folk-rock approach of the Byrds and the Band to England's own musical traditions. The result was deeply British, but without the affectations and indulgences of prog rock.

Fairport's most distinctive voice was Sandy Denny, who also emerges as the most distinctive personality in Beeswing. Although the band were already established when Denny joined, her force was such that they bent around her rather than vice versa. Thompson paints her as the Janis Joplin of British folk rock, far more colorful than her mild-mannered new bandmates: "Compared to Sandy, we seemed like chalk and cheese."

Sandy was an extraordinary bundle of contradictions. She thought herself not thin or tall enough, and yet when men went nuts for her, she always wanted the ones who resisted her. She was both very sure of herself musically and then not so sure, and you were never quite certain which Sandy you were dealing with. If you offered her reassurance, she could suddenly get irritated and dismiss you. She could be side-splittingly funny and then turn on you, screaming, or collapse in tears and hysterics. She possessed a tremendous empathy for others. She lacked a layer of skin.

Thompson and Denny remained close for after they both left Fairport; she would die tragically young in 1978 due to alcoholism. First, though, Fairport endured another tragedy in 1969 when a roadie fell asleep at the wheel of their tour van, killing drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Thompson describes that accident in harrowing detail, and recounts how, understandably, the band never fully recovered from the tragedy.

Perhaps out of deference — she's still very much alive — Thompson treads delicately through the years of his next major musical collaboration, a duo with his wife Linda. It was in that decade-long personal and professional relationship that Thompson emerged as a major songwriter, producing his most revered body of work. Their final album, Shoot Out the Lights, found them finally gaining U.S. attention just as their marriage was dissolving; that fact, as well as the spasmodic dysphonia that claimed Linda's singing voice for some of the succeeding years, fed into the duo's legendary status.

While Beeswing has some fantastic flashes of wit (the author describes one particularly inquisitive German prostitute as being like "a social worker with a 'happy ending'"), this often melancholy memoir belies the gregarious persona he's latterly brought to his concerts. He touches on some of the subjects fans will be curious about, including his session work with Nick Drake ("in an era when a lot of people didn't say much, myself included, Nick stood out at that end of the spectrum"), and the book isn't indulgent or meandering.

All in all, though, Beeswing passes like a warm sigh, gently nostalgic but decidedly unsentimental. Despite the introspective subtitle, the focus is less on Thompson's personal journey than on the scene where it occurred. His retrospective take on Fairport Convention's legacy is, "We rattled a few windows, without actually blowing the house down." How very, aptly, British.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

April 8: Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile (buy now)

April 15: Begin by Telling by Meg Remy (buy now)

April 22: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (buy now)

April 29: Why Solange Matters by Stephanie Phillips (buy now)

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