Listening in with Elvis Costello and Montclair’s Richard Thompson
By GWEN OREL
Special to Montclair Local
When Richard Thompson got up to plug in his computer, the at-home Crowdcast audience worldwide got a quick glimpse of his knees.
There was something endearingly informal about Elvis Costello’s interview with Thompson the night of April 6, at a ticketed event for Succeed2gether’s Montclair Literary Festival.
More than 650 people worldwide tuned in on Crowdcast to watch Costello, in Vancouver, interview Thompson, in Montclair, about the launch of Thompson’s new book, "Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975." The book came out the same day.
It takes its title from a beloved Thompson song.
Thompson, who moved to Montclair in 2017, was a founding member of the folk-rock group Fairport Convention in 1967, when Thompson was just 17. After leaving the band in 1971, he continued a distinguished musical career, and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011.
The close-ups of the musicians’ faces and the many chat messages from the crowd — which showed that people were tuning in from Guatemala, all over America, England — combined to create a feeling almost of listening in while two legendary musicians talked shop.
Thompson, 71, is a few years older than Costello, 66 — a five-year difference that put Costello in a different generation than the rock bands of the 1960s, but close enough for them to remain major influences on his own work, and for the two performers to share in memories of London.
Costello (Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus) is also an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, appointed in 2019, and his own memoir, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink," came out in 2016. He has won two Grammy awards.
The two joked about British television shows of days gone by, and traded guitar insider comments (did you know a B-bender was a guitar strap that can pull the B-string up, often used in country music?).
Among the topics they covered: the London of Thompson’s youth, the musical scene, the folk-rock/rock music connection, Fairport Convention’s tragic highway accident of 1969, Thompson’s spirituality and the nature of musical memoirs.
There likely won’t be a sequel to this book, Thompson said. He gets bored by many rock memoirs about two-thirds of the way through, when the story becomes about awards shows and revisiting places for the third time. His next book, if he writes one, would likely be something else about music.
FINDING HIS WAY
"I’m fonder of the ’50s than any other decade," Thompson told Costello, explaining why he wrote about the postwar era with such affection. "Bombed sites seemed wonderful and magical places to play." Though there was austerity, it was his childhood, and things were happening for the first time, he explained.
Costello said that as he read the book, he realized Thompson "could have been in a punk lineup with Andy Summers [of The Police] and Hugh Cornwell [of The Stranglers]. Hugh Cornwell was a school friend of yours. But maybe the world was a little smaller then."
"The music profession was probably a tenth of the size it was now," Thompson agreed. "You did know everybody in London. If you read the Melody Maker [a music magazine] you knew about every band in Liverpool, Los Angeles, New York … it was a great education."
The magazine not only covered rock bands, but jazz and folk music too, he said. At home, Thompson’s father had records by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and blues and jazz player Lonnie Johnson.
He also listened to classical music by John Dowland and Benjamin Britten.
"Dowland was an absolute superstar of his time. A great songwriter, a great singer, a great lutenist. The Jimi Hendrix of the 1580s," Thompson said.
"I’m sure I read that in the Melody Maker," Costello said.
At The Speakeasy Club in London, where musicians would go to get a bite and a drink after their gigs, Jimi Hendrix often sat in.
Costello wondered if Hendrix seemed exceptional at the time.
He did, Thompson said. Hendrix intimidated all the London guitarists — including Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton.
"You couldn’t upstage Hendrix," Thompson said. "He’d have another trick to pull. He’d play behind his back. He’d play with his teeth. If you could compete as a player, he’d upstage you as a showman."
The London guitarists, like Hendrix, were blues-based, and layered rock 'n' roll on top of it. But Thompson was not blues based; he had other influences, and decided to "jump sidewards" to not be pigeonholed with other guitarists.
‘HOW NAKED IS THAT?’
Costello brought up "something we couldn’t go around" — the terrible highway accident the Fairports had in 1969, resulting in the deaths of drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn.
"After the accident, we couldn’t bear to play songs we’d played with Martin," Thompson said. The following record included many songs that were almost requiems.
"It was our way of mourning. We didn’t have therapy. Nobody thought of sending you to a counselor for stress," he said.
The band’s members drew further away from American influences as they dived deeper into the folk form.
Costello described watching a YouTube video of Thompson and Fairport playing a "beatific" rendition of Thompson’s song "Now Be Thankful" in 1970, and then the experience of seeing Thompson perform it 10 years ago, at the Cropredy Festival (an annual folk and rock festival Fairport founded in 1976) with gravity and strength.
"You’re your own folk music," Costello said. "You’ve become your own tradition."
"I’m on a mission, still on a mission to find music that satisfies my soul," Thompson said. "The British tradition that meets rock 'n' roll thing. There’s so much to explore. I’m looking for that sound that’ll take you to another dimension."
Thompson’s spirituality led him to convert to Islam after meeting Sufi Muslims in the early 1970s.
When he met the Sufis, Thompson said he thought, "They’re like me. I thought I could learn from them, become a better person if I hung out with them."
"Beeswing" also includes a series of dreams, which show that the creative process is not always linear, Thompson said.
Now that the book is out, Costello wondered: Is Thompson worried about what it reveals?
"As a musician, you’re laying yourself bare all the time," Thompson replied. "You play solo sometimes. How naked is that? There’s only you."
Thompson sang an early Fairport song, "Genesis Hall," about a London hotel that had been used by hippies as a squat, shut down by the police, to close the evening.
He was alone with his guitar and his strong, pure voice.