Love me or hate me, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that my perspectives on music have never been influenced by commercial considerations, a desire for fame or the opinions of Establishment critics.
From a financial perspective, altrockchick.com is one of the worst-performing enterprises in history: after six years, 400 reviews and 1.5 million words, I have earned zero revenue while piling up thousands of dollars/euros in expenses. I write anonymously because the last thing in the world I want to experience is the personality distortion and general weirdness that usually comes with fame. I do read the opinions of Establishment critics, but most of the time I find myself offended by their sheer laziness, astonishing pomposity and the façade of objectivity they attempt to project. I’m sorry, but if you’re getting paid to write reviews for a magazine, newspaper or website, your objectivity is automatically compromised by the need to earn a paycheck, and the fact that the enterprise that employs you also sells advertising to the music industry compromises you even further. Commercialization of criticism demands short, punchy reviews that attempt to distill the essence of an artist’s work in as few words as possible so consumers can make buying decisions. It does not encourage understanding.
What’s sad is that many music listeners parrot the words and thoughts of Establishment critics instead of thinking for themselves. This dynamic helps create a common consensus around a particular work, and as I’ve learned in my reviews of Abbey Road, Arthur, Dark Side of the Moon and others, people who have accepted the common consensus—in large part because it validates the feeling of being “right” and lets them feel like they “belong” to a cohesive thought community—react to “No, I think that album really sucks” by aggressively attacking the heretic who dares to think differently. This is not healthy. The only valid purpose of criticism is to share one’s interpretations to help readers or listeners clarify what they feel and think about a given piece of work. In our fucked-up world, common consensus criticism has become the “official party line,” and woe unto those who deviate from the dogma.
I bring this up because the Establishment interpretation of Shoot Out the Lights has forged a common consensus that is total, unmitigated bullshit. Since they all come to the same conclusion, I’ll just cite two examples I found particularly offensive, and respond to each in turn.
Mark Deming, AllMusic: Shoot Out the Lights has “often been cited as Richard Thompson’s greatest work, and it’s difficult for anyone who has heard his body of work to argue the point.”
Altrockchick: According to Mr. Deming, Richard Thompson should have walked out of the studio after the final mixing session of Shoot Out the Lights and blown his brains out instead of hanging around for twenty-six years producing substandard work. Note that Mr. Deming dares you to disagree with the common consensus, which is pretty much all he has to support his ridiculous conclusion. I have listened to Richard Thompson’s entire body of work and I guarantee you he would not have earned status as my favorite songwriter had he abandoned his career after Shoot Out the Lights—shit, he wouldn’t have made the Top 20. His solo career features dozens of songs and several albums that are far superior to his work here. What is true is that Shoot Out the Lights was his breakout album—the moment in time when he developed a clear sense of artistic direction and emerging confidence.
Robert Christgau, Village Voice: “News of the wife’s solitary return to England brings this relationship-in-crisis album home–including the husband’s ‘bearded lady’ warning in ‘The Wall of Death,’ ostensibly a synthesis of his thanatotic urge and lowlife tic. If poor Richard’s merely ‘A Man in Need,’ I’m an ayatollah, but I have to give him credit–these are powerfully double-edged metaphors for the marriage struggle, and ‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?’ is as damning an answer song as Linda could wish.”
Altrockchick: Christgau has always been an arrogant prick, a man far more interested in self-promotion and the delivery of highfalutin’ wit than helping his readers better appreciate the music. His read here is superficial at best, focused more on the juicy titillation factor in the Thompson breakup than the content of the music itself, interpreting every song through the lens of a collapsing relationship. The truth is that even an extremely loose interpretation of the lyrics on the album will tell you that a grand total of two of eight songs deal with relationship problems, and that neither “Wall of Death,” nor “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” have anything to do with the Thompson situation. His “thoughts” on this album (minus the usual pompous references) barely rise to the standards of a gossip columnist.
There is also another problem in labeling Shoot Out the Lights Richard Thompson’s greatest work, namely the mediocre vocals of one Linda Thompson. Struggling with her diaphragmatic breathing due to pregnancy, she manages to hit the notes most of the time, but her phrasing is inconsistent, sometimes disconnected from the lyrics she’s singing. Her primary means of expressing emotion is to raise her volume, but since she also gets louder when straining to reach notes at the upper end of her range, it’s hard to tell when she’s going for feeling or struggling with the scale. Truth is, she wasn’t much of a singer to begin with, especially when compared to her contemporaries. With Linda Thompson, you don’t get the stunning clarity of Anne Briggs, the remarkable presence of Sandy Denny, the breathtaking range and dynamic command of Maddy Prior, or the brilliant interpretive skills of June Tabor. Replace Linda with any of those singers and you’d certainly have a better album, though to label it Richard Thompson’s greatest work would still be a rather significant stretch. Shoot Out the Lights is like the key that unlocked the door, a celebration of self-discovery where Richard Thompson resolved the internal struggle between the spiritual and secular, reconnected with his guitar and began to live up to his immense potential as a songwriter.
The first thing you notice on “Don’t Renege on Our Love” is Richard Thompson’s new-found confidence in his vocals. If you listen to the Richard & Linda albums preceding Shoot Out the Lights, Richard sings almost apologetically, like he’s concerned that taking command will expose a fatal flaw. Here he sticks self-deprecation where the sun don’t shine and delivers a forceful but attenuated vocal that captures a range of psychic states, from frustrated lover to broken-hearted beggar to outraged victim of betrayal. The notion of betrayal will become a major theme in his work to come; at this point, his sense of right-and-wrong is as rigid as rigid gets (“Do I take you for a lover or just a deceiver?”), failing to recognize that the whole thing could be a simple misunderstanding. The theme of betrayal also carries with it a deeply held belief that for love to be real it must be pure in word and deed, including love in its carnal form. It’s a belief I hold myself, but when distrust begins to creep into a relationship, it’s easy for the still-active libido to rise up and offer itself as the solution to the relationship problem—if we can just fuck, everything will be all right. The problem is that when the poison starts to spread in concert with the sexual urge, it amplifies the original suspicion, negating the healing power of physical love:
There’s a rope that binds us and I don’t want to break it
If love is a healing why should we forsake it
Well hunger is hunger and need is need
Am I just another mouth to feed
That creeping, dark feeling is perfectly captured in the progressively dissonant chord changes that accompany the fade—a punctuation mark that clearly communicates both the underlying fear and the unlikelihood that the relationship can be salvaged. I love the sprightly, sharp guitar fills throughout the song—just enough and not too much from a man who has the guitar chops to dominate any song he chooses to dominate. I’d also love to pin some kind of medal on Dave Mattacks for sustaining the skip-and-roll pattern throughout the song without having his arms lock up in protest.
“Walking on a Wire” may present us with the woman’s side of the same story; then again, maybe not. It’s easy to make that assumption because of the juxtaposition, but to take that a step further and connect the two songs to the Thompson breakup would be an overreach. Richard wrote both songs, and there’s nothing about “Walking on a Wire” that makes it gender-specific. The one thing we can say with certainty is that “Walking on a Wire” is an emotional powerhouse sung from the perspective of a human being experiencing the slow death of a relationship and unable to do anything to stop it. Here Linda overcomes the challenges of a compromised voice, oscillating between the release of repressed frustration and the utter exhaustion that comes with an attempt to a rescue a relationship that is probably long gone.
Too many steps to take
Too many spells to break
Too many nights awake
And no one else
This grindstone’s wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don’t use me endlessly
It’s too long, too long to myself
Richard’s low-end harmony on the chorus helps strengthen the sense of despair that permeates the piece, and he delivers another superb guitar solo that reinforces the tender melody.
After two relatively heavy pieces, the bouncy “Man in Need” comes as something of a relief, and no, Mr. Christgau, this is not Richard Thompson singing about Richard Thompson but Richard Thompson playing the part of a peripatetic man of the sea whose urge to wander and fear of commitment leaves him in quite a pickle when it comes to securing the basics of food, shelter and clothing. His conundrum is “Hey, I’m only doing what comes natural to me” and is completely oblivious to the fact that most people would consider a man who abandoned his dependents and has proven himself little more than a sponge to be an undesirable companion. Richard Thompson delivers the vocal with carefree abandon, tongue firmly planted in cheek, supported by a cascading set of call-and-response vocals from Linda on the chorus. The guitar solo is an absolute delight, a set of nimble thrusts centered around the melody, a solo that makes you wonder about the sanity of the Mullah who had encouraged Richard Thompson to give up playing electric guitar to facilitate his quest for higher spiritual consciousness. That idiotic advice led to a three-year hiatus after Pour Down Like Silver, but he really wouldn’t regain the sparkle in his chops until Shoot Out the Lights—and thank fucking god he did.
Linda returns to the mike for “Just the Motion,” a gentle, reflective piece that reminds us that any change to the routine is more difficult than we’d like to believe. For the most part, she does a decent job, particularly in the quieter opening verse. Unfortunately, when she arrives at the ending, she goes classic crescendo when the song demands the opposite. This is most noticeable on the second repetition of the line, “You can’t hear the storm, it’s as peaceful as can be.” The text after the comma should be delivered like this:
as can be
Instead, we get:
as can be
Every time I hear her ramp up the volume on PEACEFUL–a word that by definition should alert the singer to back the fuck off—I clench my teeth so hard I feel an overwhelming urge to run to the dentist to make sure I didn’t break a molar. It comes across as “Goddamn it, can’t I get any PEACE AND QUIET around here?” Since the only other cover of the song is David Byrne’s typically beat-happy approach, I’ll just have to sit back and hope that June Tabor decides to finally put together a Richard Thompson tribute album and give us the definitive version. What saves this track is the sheer excellence of the song and the perfectly lovely combination of electric guitar and dulcimer. “Just the Motion” is a gem that deserves better treatment.
Side Two opens with the rough power chords that form the intro to the title song, a clear signal that Richard Thompson has thrown all caution to the wind when it comes to electric guitar. He approaches the vocal with an equal sense of command, relating the tale of a paranoid, gun-toting, anti-social shut-in with stark brevity. The slow, relentless beat accentuated by those power chords seem to reflect a sense of cold determination on the part of our shut-in, making his chosen isolation seem all the more dangerous:
Keep the blind down on the window
Ah, keep the pain on the inside
Just watching the dark. Just watching the dark.
Ah he might laugh but you won’t see him
As he thunders through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
After an extended electric guitar solo with loads of dissonance and unexpected shifts over the fretboard, the closing verse expands the sense of danger. Up to this point, the guy seemed to be a crackpot more likely to do harm to himself or inflict mayhem on a few stray neons in the vicinity; now the man is on the move and we start to wonder if the lights in question are the lights of human life:
In the darkness the shadows move
In the darkness the game is real
Real as a gun. Real as a gun.
As he watches the lights of the city
And he moves through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
A second ripping solo accentuates the high end of the fretboard in an extended scream, followed by attacks both high and low. The experience of “Shoot Out the Lights” is remarkably compelling, a disturbing but credible depiction of the anger that courses through those who feel they have been left behind—by choice or by social selection.
“Back Street Slide” is a character sketch portraying women who have little else to do but spread slanderous gossip about anyone who flies through their finely-attuned radar screens. “Gatemouth woman leaning on the fence/She’s got no teeth, she’s got no sense/You don’t need much intelligence” is a pithy description, but in the end the lyrical narrative doesn’t go much further. The strength of the song can be found in the bouncy beat and party-like feel of the arrangement, melding the joyous rhythm with loosely-fitting background vocals from Linda. I like the listening experience, but the song shows that Richard Thompson still had room to grow as a lyricist—and grow he would, Mark Deming be damned.
The only co-written song on “Shoot Out the Lights” is “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” where Linda Thompson shares the honors. Christgau’s assertion that this is some kind of answer song in the context of the breakup is certainly a creative interpretation, but there’s no evidence to support that flight of fancy. Any rational person who ACTUALLY READS THE LYRICS would conclude that the song deals with the status of women in society. And though Linda Thompson’s receives co-writing credit, Richard Thompson wrote the lyrics, and in a 2008 interview with the blogger behind I Shot a Man in Reno, Richard shared his approach to the song:
How do you approach the subject of death in your writing? Do you consciously come at it from a specific angle?
You don’t sit down to moralise or write about your philosophy every time you write a song. You just write a story. It’s fiction and it’s fun to make something up, it’s an enjoyable process. Then you look at it afterwards and you think, ‘Oh that’s obviously about me or about someone I know, and that reflects what I believe.’ With a song like “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” I sat down to write a story. It could be about Sandy [Denny] or a couple of other people that I know…. I don’t think it is about any person in particular. It’s a bit like detective fiction, it has some of the same goriness and detail. In good detective fiction there’s always a corpse, otherwise you feel unsatisifed. The song doesn’t really give any answers, it just asks the moral questions.
The “moral question” has to do with society’s tendency to doubt a woman’s credibility. Since it’s pretty obvious that the woman in the song did not off herself (given the fingerprints on her throat) some may wonder why the premise of the song is posed as a mystery, but every woman alive knows the answer to that question: the broad is always to blame, never to be believed, and if she was raped and strangled, she must have been asking for it. The fact that we need to ask the question is the moral of the story.
In this case, the woman was definitely trying to become a player, inviting only “the chosen” to her parties, double-crossing old friends without a second thought. In addition to committing the cardinal sin of encroaching on traditional male territory, she makes the same mistake many women have made in attempting to achieve equality: believing that if you want to play with the guys, you have to act like a guy. We do not know what specifically led to her death, but she did fail to take into account the warning signs that she was pushing too hard: “The truth came ’round and she refused it.” Her “fatal flaw” was her ambition—or more accurately, that she dared to even have ambitions. Wherever you land in the interpretation, “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” is a superbly-written work, a song that leaves plenty of room for the listener to engage in both debate and self-reflection on the status of women in our societies.
Some of Richard Thompson’s stories are dramatic narratives sung from the perspective of the adolescent male, with “Read About Love” earning status as my personal favorite. “Wall of Death” is one such song, and any interpretation that says otherwise is absolute nonsense (Hello, Robert Christgau). This is a light-hearted song about how the natural desire of a young person to experience the essence of life tends to lead the youth to court risk and tempt fate—in this case, to experience the most dangerous carnival ride available, The Wall of Death.
This seemed to be a guy thing, a necessary rite of passage into culturally-induced manhood, so I asked my Dad about it. He told me that in high school, he and his friends liked to drive down Highway 1 around Devil’s Slide, a twisty, curvy dangerous coastal road that sometimes falls into the ocean in torrential rains. They’d take the curves at double the speed limit, then rate the risk factor on a 1-10 scale. “A ’10’ was death. We had a ‘9’ once, with two wheels over the edge of the cliff. I’ll never forget that one.” “Why the fuck did you do such a fucking stupid thing?” I asked politely and respectfully. “I can’t explain it—it was dumb but we just had to do it. It’s a version of the Rebel Without a Cause thing—floor it, head for the cliff and jump out just in time.” “Uh, Dad, Buzz didn’t make it.” “Yeah, but Jim did,” he replied with a tenuous sense of triumph.
Our teenage hero embraces that urge, dismissing the more conventional outlets of excitement as poor substitutes for the ultimate thrill:
On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free
Well you’re going nowhere
When you ride on the carousel
And maybe you’re strong
But what’s the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy.
Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
When he later describes the experience as “the nearest thing to being alive,” he reinforces the belief that the daily routine is a form of existential death while capturing the feature of the human personality that leads us to feel more alive and alert when faced with danger, especially when one’s life is on the line. It’s the same tendency we see in the stories of people who lived through WWII (on the Allied side, of course), who describe those years as the most exciting of their lives. It seems crazy, but when you look at it from the opposite perspective, it’s a damning commentary about how our well-organized societies fail to provide much in the way of meaningful challenges.
The music is hardly funereal, featuring stereo arpeggiated guitar patterns and Linda’s best high harmonies on the album. Richard Thompson really identifies with the character, imbuing his vocal with the tone of a guy who has found his niche in life and is intensely proud of it. And goddamn, I love that guitar solo—especially that delightful high-speed arpeggiated transition back to the vocals. It sounds magical, reflecting the magical experience of an adolescent boy experiencing the thrill of his life.
“Wall of Death” is a strong finish to an album that is hardly the one-dimensional exploration of a breakup that Establishment critics would have you believe. Shoot Out the Lights explores a wide range of the human experience, as do most of Richard Thompson’s subsequent works. Like the boy in “Wall of Death,” Richard Thompson has found his niche; unlike that young lad obsessed with a single experience, Richard Thompson would find himself at home anywhere his creative mind would take him—an aesthetically-oriented wanderer, a “Man in Need” with clear intent to apply his ample musical talent to the challenge of understanding the many facets of human experience.
Shoot Out the Lights is simply the true beginning of one of the most productive and enjoyable journeys ever recorded.
British traditional music purists, their knickers already in a twist over the more radio-friendly sound of Daring Adventures, howled like banshees when the blessed Richard Thompson signed a deal with that devil called Capitol Records.
For those of you who missed it, the reference to banshees is a dig at the Tans courtesy of my latent Irish blood. “Those Brits are always olagonin’ about something,” my grandmother warned me.
In this case, they were olagonin’ (complaining, whining) about a sell-out. In their eyes, Richard Thompson had become seduced by the allure of American dollars and the bright lights of Hollywood. They bemoaned what they felt was a shift from artistic commitment to commercial appeal in the form of “slick” production and rock-driven arrangements. Already appalled by his artistic expansion beyond the boundaries of traditional British folk, they were absolutely mortified by his decision to make records with (gasp!) American musicians.
Hey! I used to be an American! During my thirty-odd years in the USA, I got to know hundreds of Americans—intimately! Based on my quality-of-fuck-o-meter, 60% of Americans are A-OK!
History tells us that folk purists are the health Nazis of music (see Dylan, Bob at Newport Folk Festival, The). They’re also generally full of shite. Look at just five songs Richard Thompson wrote during his Capitol years and tell me again how this represents artistic decline:
- “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
- “God Loves a Drunk”
- “King of Bohemia”
- “Cooksferry Queen”
Any songwriter in the known universe would have sacrificed either a nut or a nipple to have written one of those songs, and I didn’t even include the great songs from this first Capitol effort, Amnesia.
Amnesia is a good title for this album, because all the songs deal with experiences in our lives we’d love to forget: one-night stands, getting played for a fool, lost love, our soulless society, aging, machismo, the American empire, bad advice, arrogant elites, more lost love and the uncomfortable truth that behind a veneer of democracy, we’re all still working for the Pharaoh. As is usually the case with Richard Thompson, the songs are unforgettable. Amnesia features some of his strongest poetry and his complete mastery of rock-style guitar. The only general criticism I have of the album is the overuse of reverb and echo, a common issue with 80’s recordings. Once you get past the occasionally bass-weakening production, though, the quality of the songwriting and energy of the performances are indisputable.
Amnesia opens with an exceptional integration of poetry and music in “Turning of the Tide,” an incisive look into the experience of a woman who banked it all on giving the guys what they want, forgetting that physical beauty as defined by the culture is the most ephemeral state of all, and that the physical practices associated with love do not create it:
How many boys, one night stands?
How many lips, how many hands have held you?
Like I’m holding you tonight
Too many nights, staying up late
Too much powder and too much paint
No, you can’t hide from the turning of the tide
Did they run their fingers
Up and down your shabby dress?
Did they find some tender moment
There in your caress?
The boys all say, “You look so fine”
They don’t come back for a second time
Oh, you can’t hide from the turning of the tide
The picture is stark, unfiltered; the image of “too much powder and too much paint” intensely pathetic; the “tender moment” both fleeting and empty. In describing the object of his temporary affection in such brutal terms, the man in question is also expressing deep self-disgust, as well as helplessness that his need for companionship and relief from the sexual urge has brought him so low. Ironically, the music is upbeat, driving and rather snappy, a musical analogy of how the culture views “casual” sexual encounters. Though they call them “good time girls,” the truth is most casual sexual encounters are awkward at best and intensely painful at worst. Richard is in fine voice throughout the song, subtly adjusting his tone to express the diverse emotional content. His electric guitar fills are typically nimble, making me ache for one moment in my life when my fingers might move as quickly and beautifully as his. “Turning of the Tide” is top-tier Richard Thompson, and an outstanding opening number.
Note: While Amnesia is 90% high-powered-electrical-romp, the videos I’ve chosen are all solo acoustic renditions, designed to prove two things: one, that Richard is a master of all forms of guitar; and two, that great songs lend themselves to diverse treatments.
“Gypsy Love Songs” is a dramatic monologue with Richard taking the part of a guy “young enough and dumb enough” to fall for a gypsy dancer who relieves him of either his masculinity, money or both. Whether the Mickey Finn in the tale is real or metaphorical hardly matters; this is a tale of man smitten by “Stillborn love, passionate dreams, pitiful greed” and he would have fallen for the babe with or without pharmaceutical assistance. The “pitiful greed” describes both the manipulator and the sap, the man out of his league in a strange culture and the “third generation Transylvanian” hostess eager to feast on his lifeblood. Even the mythical powers attached to the “seventh son of the seventh son” fail him—another male myth blown to smithereens. This is one of two songs where music plays a central role; here the emphasis is the power of music to evoke painful memories (“Don’t sing me no more gypsy love songs”). We all know that experience from the moments when we’re out-and-about and the song that you and your ex called “our song” comes up in the radio rotation. The music backing the lyrics is rough, tough and masculine, with a repeated declining guitar figure setting a tone of ultimate failure.
After a couple of fairly intense songs to get things moving, we dial it down a bit with “Restless Kind,” a mid-tempo number about a failed relationship where the narrator plays the role of the guy who catches a girl on the rebound, only to learn that she’s still hankering for the original. This is not the girl in “Beeswing,” who makes it absolutely clear she can never be tied down to place or person, but the insecure type who has no identity without a man in her life. What’s special here is the arrangement, with soft background vocals and flanged guitars establishing a mood of gentle regret.
To counter the argument that Richard Thompson had “gone yank,” we have “Jerusalem on the Jukebox,” a song that only a native Englishman could have written and only a resident of the British Isles can fully understand. The opening line, “Jerusalem on the jukebox, they talk in tongues on Coronation Street,” refers to the song popularly known as “Jerusalem” (sort of a backup national anthem) and the longest running soap in history, Coronation Street. Having set the table with kidney pie and ale, Richard launches into a commentary on the then-current state of British society in the waning years of Thatcherism, describing a society committed to the pursuit of wealth and image:
At poolside picnics they chant for Ferraris and furs
Their muscle-tone sharpens but their hold on reality blurs
You can have your cake and eat it, and never have to puke up a thing
Jerusalem on the jukebox, little angels, beat your wings
In the bathroom mirror they try that Joan of Arc look again
Two parts Ingrid Bergman to one part Shirley MacLaine
The wounds of time kill you but the surgeon’s knife only stings
Jerusalem on the jukebox, little angels, beat your wings
Ironically, several of the verses could apply to life in La-La-Land, where he recorded most of the songs on Amnesia. In introducing the song at an acoustic concert at the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle back in 1990, Richard told the audience that the song was about hypocrisy. Since all modern societies share that characteristic to some degree, the song is more universal than it might seem at first glance. Richard’s vocal is a combination of wonder and outrage, sung over a strong, steady beat and a bright soundscape.
Actually, the song on the album with the strongest British flavor is “I Still Dream,” featuring musicians from The Fairey Band, a longstanding brass band who have worked under several different names and are now more famous for their acid brass explorations. The brass band brackets the song, appearing in the intro and fade, giving the song a certain tone of mourning. Unfortunately, that tone is lost in the transition to the more classic studio band arrangement, leading me to side with the purists just this once—this song about an unexpected encounter with an old flame could have been more powerful with much less (the horns, acoustic guitar and hand-percussion, for example).
I have no regrets when it comes to “Don’t Tempt Me,” a brutal exposure of toxic masculinity. Here we find a macho jerk narrator experiencing a panic attack because another guy is dancing with a person he calls “my gal.” My gal? Sorry, fuckhead, but slavery has been illegal for over a century, and a woman is not your fucking property! The little prick (probably true from all angles) goes into a lengthy fantasy of all the violent possibilities at his fingertips:
Oh, I’m a patient man, but it’s out of hand
If there’s one thing that I can’t stand
Get your mittens off my gal
Or you’ll end up as mincemeat, pal
I’ve got friends, mean sons
They’ve got knives, chains, guns
Gas grenades, knuckle-dusters
Lazy Susans, blockbusters
Don’t tempt me, don’t tempt me, don’t tempt me
I’m half way out of my seat
I know nothing about guns except I hate them, so I had to look up the reference to “Lazy Susans,” something I always thought was a turntable for food used by fat people so they could just spin the sucker around to get what they want instead of expending a speck of precious energy on obtaining nourishment. Much to my amazement, the principle has been applied to gun racks, so you Americans can buy all the guns you want and place them in a convenient, spinning carousel, making selection of the murder weapon a less grueling, more efficient process. God bless America!
Richard plays the part to perfection, with his bullshit bravado just falling a tiny bit short of hysteria. Mickey Curry pounds the drums like a caveman on this high-powered rocker and John Kirkpatrick’s accordion adds a piquant and welcome counterpoint to the rock instruments.
Keeping the heat on high, the ensemble gives us “Yankee, Go Home,” and I think my readers are smart enough to glean that this song might just qualify as fervent statement of anti-Americanism. Richard sings the piece with the same intensity he brings to anything he finds outrageous, and the arrogance of the American empire certainly qualifies. The story is told from the perspective of a teenage kid considering the havoc wrought by American military presence. Since there are currently 800 American military bases in more than 70 countries, I think the song should earn the label, “current, relevant and universal.”
G.I. Joe put your gun away
The sun is setting on another day
Why don’t you leave me alone
Yankee go home . . .
You can’t just kiss and run away
There ain’t enough money on a sergeant’s pay
When the dance hall girl you banged’s in the family way
You turned my sister into a whore
With a pair of silk stockings from the P.X. store
Why don’t you leave us alone
Yankee go home
The number one adjective I’ve heard applied to Americans abroad is “oblivious,” but I disagree with that assessment. “Entitled” would be closer to the truth, as many Americans stroll into another country and act like they own the fucking place. As noted above, I would apply the label only 40% of the American population and, hey . . . isn’t 40% the general estimate of the size of Trump’s base? Well, there you have it. This is another hard rocking song, but I’m not complaining, largely because Richard Thompson is usually spot-on in selecting an approach to a song that syncs with the lyrics—and there is no way “Yankee, Go Home” would pass muster as an acoustic ballad.
The acoustic guitar is prominent in “Can’t Win,” but here the full band backing serves a purpose in amplifying the righteous anger in Richard’s lyrics and vocal. A damning indictment of a social structure that protects the privileged few at the expense of the many, there are few songs in Richard Thompson’s catalogue that express disgust with such clarity—especially the disgust with those members of the masses who encourage their fellows who dream of a better life to shut up and take it in the ass:
Oh what kind of mother would hamstring her sons?
Throw sand in their eyes and put ice on their tongues
Ah better to leave than stay here and grieve
And play the game
Don’t waken the dead as you sleepwalk around
If you have a dream, brother, hush, not a sound
Just stand there and rust, die if you must
But play the game
Oh, if we can’t have it,
Why should a wretch like you?
Oh, it was drilled in our heads,
Now we drill it into your head too
They said “You can’t win
You can’t win
You sweat blood
You give in
You can’t win
You can’t win
Turn the cheek
Take it on the chin . . .”
The insertion of the Christian message “turn the cheek” is the ultimate bitter pill, reminding listeners that religion is not necessarily a sanctuary but often another form of oppression. Each section ends with the repeated lines, “The nerve of some people,” lines that Richard snaps off with justifiable bitterness. The background singers form a “chorus of the many,” deepening the expression of righteous indignation at the injustice of it all. Unable to express such boiling anger through an acoustic guitar, Richard rips off an electric lead solo in the fade, mingling blues bends, stutter notes and descending runs that sound like electric tears. “I Can’t Win” is one of the clearest indictments of the fundamental structural issues in modern society, a wake-up call to sleepwalkers everywhere.
Although I love the amplified power that dominates Amnesia, the most powerful song is purely acoustic. “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” is an ageless, aching beauty of a song, one that never fails to bring a tear to my eye. There are many songs about lost love, but no other sad song expresses the debilitating experience of rejection and the desperation of loneliness in such a compelling, heart-searing way.
Opening with two rounds of a simple acoustic pattern in downtempo three-four time, Richard delivers the static melody of the opening line with little variation, a deep cry of mourning that works beautifully with the descending melody of the second line where the narrator expresses his anguish:
Oh, play me a blue song and fade down the light
I’m sad as a proud man can be sad tonight
All he wants is to escape, to become a victim of amnesia, to lose himself in the healing power of music:
Just let me dream on, oh just let me sway
While the sweet violins and the saxophones play
The resolving lines of the verse expands our view of the scene to include the other—a faceless, nameless woman he can turn to for a moment of false comfort:
And Miss, you don’t know me, but can’t we pretend
That we care for each other, ’til the band reach the end
One step for aching, and two steps for breaking
Waltzing’s for dreamers and losers in love
One step for sighing and two steps for crying
Waltzing’s for dreamers and losers in love
The introduction of Aly Bain’s “sweet violin” in the chorus enhances the feeling of melancholy, and his sensitive counterpoints throughout the rest of the song continue to tug at the heartstrings. The second verse deals with the eternal risk associated with falling in love and the search for relief in the sedating power of alcohol and the soothing sounds of music:
Now they say love’s for gamblers, oh, the pendulum swings
I bet hard on love and I lost everything
So don’t send me home now, put a shot in my arm
And we’ll drink out old memories and we’ll drink in the dawn
And Mr Bandleader won’t you play one more time
For I’ve good folding money in this pocket of mine
Once again, the second line is reserved for the narrator to express his sense of loss, but it’s the third line that I find most touching—for it captures the desperate wish to avoid being alone with nothing more than a sense of failure as company. The presence of the woman, bartender and band hardly compensate for his losses, but anything is better than being alone.
In the instrumental passage, Richard takes the first pass with a gentle, respectful acoustic guitar solo before Aly Bain returns with his warm violin. The discipline of these two musicians in respecting the mood and meaning of the song is remarkable. Richard then returns for a partial verse and chorus, ending the song on the final line of the chorus using a diminishing tempo that cues the listener to accept that there really is nothing more to say, no matter how hard we wish for a happy ending. Combining poetic economy, artistic discipline and a moving vocal from Richard Thompson, “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” is one for the ages.
It was probably a good idea not to make “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” the last track, as the lack of resolution would have been deeply unsatisfying. “Pharaoh” resolves that sticking point with a compelling metaphor for modern times. Written during the years when Thatcher-Reagan economic and anti-labor policies transferred most of the power in those two democracies to the financiers and their elite brethren, “Pharaoh” is Richard Thompson’s attempt to wake us the fuck up and realize just how little control we have over our lives. “We’re all working for the pharaoh” may seem an exaggeration in our more modern, civilized, creature-comfort oriented societies, but the painful truth is that the only substantive differences are in dress and in the means of oppression. Physical slavery has been replaced by wage-slavery, and the whip has been replaced by more sophisticated techniques of control—adopt a veneer of competent certainty, scare the shit out of people, fill their ears with bullshit and give them just enough to leave them fat, dumb and drunk:
A thousand eyes, a thousand ears
He feeds us all, he feeds our fears
Don’t stir in your sleep tonight, my dears
We’re all working for the Pharaoh
Call it “culturally-induced amnesia.”
The message is delivered using a fresh soundscape that features a shawm (precursor of the oboe) in the opening passage and a relatively spare but diverse arrangement integrating recorder, splashes of electric guitar and primitive drum beats that call up images of shackled slaves marching to the pyramids. As a closing piece, “Pharaoh” passes all the tests.
We began this piece with an anti-puritan rant and will end with a final argument against such a world-limiting view. Richard Thompson belongs to no particular genre and he owes nothing to any particular tradition. His work has integrated jazz, rock, blues, folk and the traditions of several world cultures. On Amnesia he successfully integrated many of those influences, and if the album comes across as “too rock” for some tastes, get over it. There is more than enough diversity in Richard Thompson’s catalog to satisfy rockers, guitar hounds, avant-garde types . . . and even folkies.
Celebrate the man’s remarkable talents and stop all your olagonin’!