I haven’t had many opportunities to discuss my adoration of Richard Thompson, but it’s worth saying that I have an exceptional adoration of Richard Thompson. There is an enduring power to not just his music, but his career. From forming the foundations of British Folk Rock in the 1960s to his cult success with his wife Linda in the 1970s and beyond into the more alt rock oriented works he did in the 80s and 90s, Thompson has repeatedly shown an ability to make himself relevant in new ways without ever really needing to reinvent himself. His latest work is his first foray into long form prose, a memoir released this past April, and it is a marvelous treat.
One of the things that really sets Beeswing apart from other rock autobiographies is a focus on early years of touring and pubs you couldn’t believe weren’t shut down when you played them over glamorous accounts of that unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Thompson dedicates far more of the book to the toll of touring as an underpaid rock group, the strange life of dive bars and mob fronts, and the close camaraderie with his bandmates. Much of it strikes an emotional core that every touring musician knows but rarely makes it into biographies. When Thompson does discuss A-listers he was around, it is certainly not with the kind of glitz and glamor that one would find in the pages of Keith Richards’ Life. These sections are frequently moments where Thompson chastises his younger self for a stubborn streak he had. The most bombastic example of this is certainly when he mentions getting invited to Paul McCartney’s birthday party in the late 60s and not going because he considered The Beatles too pop for a “real” musician like him, noting immediately after that his band’s lead singer Sandy Denny did go and had a lovely time.
But if the sections about Thompson’s early career can be read with a distinctly British humility and a hint of regret, the portrait he paints of himself as a young man is marked with a distinctly relatable mix of determination and confusion. He discusses in depth his early musical influences, how he connected with the other members of Fairport Convention, and the vision for English Folk Rock they shared and ultimately pioneered. His writing about those he was working with in this period — Ashley Hutchins, Sandy Denny, and others — is soaked in affection and is truly heartwarming. His writing about his last years in Fairport and early solo years are marked with a directionlessness that is impressively human and very similar to what Millennials have termed the “Quarter Life Crisis,” and the irony that once he does find his way his promoters and labels can’t figure out what to do with that way is lost on nobody.
His writing about his conversion to Sufi Islam and the period surrounding it is almost shocking in it’s emotional transparency for a rock bio. I’m not sure if I’ve read any other book from this genre that was so honest and succinct in its depiction of the author’s underlying psyche. Whereas Pete Townshend, Rod Stewart, and other similar stars are more obtuse or abstract about their inner cognition, Thompson’s explanation of how his mind works and why Sufi works so well for him is almost uncomfortable in how direct it is, but in a way that does help the book flow and enrich your understanding of the story.
The only real weakness of the book is one endemic to autobiography, it doesn’t really know where to end. Unless the memoir is about a relationship (see Patti Smith and Doug Stanhope), it’s rare that a life has a convenient narrative end besides death. The book doesn’t have a proper ending, as Thompson provides cliff notes of his life and career through the late 70s and early 80s to tie up all the emotional arcs the book has introduced. This is mitigated by Thompson concluding the book with an almost “where are they now” description of himself and many of his Fairport bandmates that makes the ending satisfying.
Beeswing is still ultimately a stand out book in the subgenre of Rock Autobiography. It’s focus in scope as a memoir gives it a basic strength over many others in the subgenre, and Thompson’s prose voice is compelling and eloquent in a way you really can’t take for granted when reading books by musicians. It’s brevity is both disappointing and a gift. While I almost felt disappointed when it was over, that’s far better than burning out during the third quarter of a 600 page behemoth like so many other works in the genre do.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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