Richard & Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight – Classic Music Review
This review shot to the top of the list because I felt bad about dissing Linda Thompson in my review of Shoot Out the Lights.
I really don’t like writing negative reviews. I mean, who the fuck wants to listen to lousy music, shoddy performances, narcissistic love fests or lazy efforts by musicians who can coast on their fame because they know the fanatics will buy the damn record anyway? By extension, I don’t enjoy singling out substandard work by a musician on a particular album because I know from baseball that everyone can have an off day and going 0 for 4 or getting knocked out of the box after a third of an inning doesn’t mean that management should immediately ship the guy’s ass back to the minors.
On the other side of the coin, I have to call them like I hear them. In relation to Linda Thompson, I felt she mailed in her performance on Shoot Out the Lights, playing to her weakness as a technically limited singer. I still stand by that opinion.
To be fair(er), it’s likely that part of what drove her rather flat contributions to that album was the emotional drain of a crumbling marriage. Some performers deal with those situations better than others, and some like Billie Holiday or Robert Johnson were masters at integrating painful emotions based on traumatic life experiences into their vocal performances. And while duos who can barely tolerate each other are not all that unusual (Simon v. Garfunkel, Rogers v. Astaire, Don Everly v. Phil Everly), a marital split is the acrimonious experience par excellence.
So, to set the record straight and restore balance to the universe, while Shoot Out the Lights was not an album about the break-up as many critics claimed, the emotional strain from the break-up likely resulted in a less-than-satisfying effort from Linda Thompson.
I can’t go back in time and change Linda’s performance on that particular album—but what I can do is recognize her shining moments, and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight features many of those moments. Singers with limited range and variation can compensate with energy, commitment and emotional connection, and Linda’s performances on the album are in perfect sync with its highly varied lyrical content. Some of the songs demand exuberance while others call for bleak despair or bitter cold, and Linda’s vocals are on-point every time. Her vocal performances surpass the efforts of her then-hubby, who certainly took his time going through the voice change most guys complete during adolescence. Richard’s early vocals sound somewhat thin in comparison to the richer voice that emerged on Shoot Out the Lights, but he more than compensates with obvious spirit, outstanding guitar work and best-in-class songwriting.
Those songs feature modern stories and character sketches largely grounded in vernacular and instrumentation of British folk, an approach that gives the listener some comfort by suggesting that the highs and lows of the human experience we experience today are pretty much the same highs and lows experienced by our ancestors. This orientation is clearly demonstrated on the opening track, “When I Get to the Border.” The first two verses could have been written by an anonymous songcrafter of the 18th Century, but when the narrator reveals the reasons behind his desire to escape to a place beyond the border, there’s no question he’s a 20th Century Man experiencing classic Sunday night dread:
Monday morning, Monday morning
Closing in on me
I’m packing up and I’m running away
To where nobody picks on me
As he describes all the wonderful changes awaiting him once he crosses that border (“My troubles will all turn to sand/When I get to the border”), I hear echoes from the conversations I’ve had recently with friends stuck in the USA, who desperately believe in one of two fairy tales: one, if we get rid of Trump, everything will be all right; and two, if I move to (Europe, Asia, South America, Australia) my life will suddenly become immeasurably better. They forget that running away from a bad situation never works unless you have a place you really, really, really want to run to. Richard Thompson cleverly allows the narrator to feast on this sort of one-sided fantasy for much of the song, a subtle hint that his dreams of reaching the Land of Oz are unlikely to bear fruit. The one thing this gent does have to look forward to is a “Salty girl with yellow hair/Waiting in that rocking chair,” an image that doesn’t give us much hope that she’s the British version of Helen of Troy.
The builds and blends on “When I Come to the Border” are simply fabulous. The song opens with very modest acoustic guitar chords cueing the band to enter with low-key backing. The first verse is voice, acoustic, bass and drums; on the second verse, Richard adds some light electric guitar fills. The first smile on the listener’s face takes place at the start of the bridge, when wham! Linda and Richard harmonize over Richard’s mandolin, suddenly turning black-and-white into full color. A mandolin-electric guitar duet adds another smile and more color, creating a new plateau that continues through the end of the verses. The long fade makes the smile permanent as the band takes the piece to an even higher plane, featuring a cornucopia of instruments trading leads and fills—guitar, krummhorn, accordion, concertina, mandolin, tin whistle—that bring to mind the everybody-join-in-the-fun atmosphere of a pub with singing waiters. Rising from its modest beginnings, “When I Get to the Border” turns out to be a welcoming display of the songwriting excellence and musical variety that characterize the album.
Richard Thompson described “Calvary Cross” as a song “about a muse, or about anything. It’s about a drive that you might not want, but it’s there, and you’re a slave to it.” The woman’s “one green eye” indicates she’s a jealous mistress, seeking nothing less than complete control (“Everything you do/Oh, everything you do/You do for me”). The other half of this fascinating creature exists on a the positive pole, one who will “be your light until doomsday.” The balance is described in the line, “My claw’s in you and my light’s in you,” but she immediately adds, “This is your first day of sorrow.” The artist can never escape the clutches of the muse, and the song’s setting under the calvary cross is meant to convey a life of suffering.
Most of the buzz about this song has to do with Richard’s guitar work, particularly in the many live versions available on recordings both legitimate and bootleg (you can sample several on YouTube). The primary solo on the studio version album serves as a lengthy introduction to the song, a twisting, tortured barrage of notes that echo bagpipe and sitar. The deluxe version of the album features a version that clocks in at almost ten minutes and in parts feels more like a duet featuring both Richard and drummer Dave Mattacks in roughly equal measure. The live solos vary quite a bit, but most take place in an extended segment following the verses, where Richard goes deep to connect with his muse, depicting the love-hate affair with stunning work that is absolutely entrancing.
Linda takes the lead on “Withered and Died,” and it’s hard for me not to hear this song about crushed dreams through the lens of a present-day inhabitant of the United States:
This cruel country has driven me down
Teased me and lied, teased me and lied
I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town
My dreams have withered and died
Perhaps “Withered and Died” should become the American anti-anthem of our time, as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” became the anti-anthem for soldiers stuck in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Great songs often express feelings that listeners transfer to other contexts that have no connection to the songwriter’s intent.
In truth, “Withered and Died” has more to do with the dashed hopes and dreams of a young woman who arrives in a new town full of excitement, and her initial impressions indicate the town threw out the welcome mat for her: “Kind words in my ear, kind faces to see.” Things go sour quickly due to a failed relationship, leaving her with a broken spirit, hungering for freedom from her troubles:
If I was a butterfly, live for a day
I could be free just blowing away
While Linda’s vocal is appropriately despairing throughout much of the song, her voice rises to the occasion on that couplet, momentarily floating high above the understated background support to express her one remaining wish. “Withered and Died” is a deeply moving piece, a timeless song about the challenges inherent in the rite of passage from the naive hopes of adolescence to the inevitable disappointments of adulthood.
After two trips to the dark side, something cheerful would be really nice right about now and Linda delivers with her spirited rendition of “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” receiving suitably brassy support from The CWS (Manchester) Silver Band. The desire to swap regimentation for chaos that drives the working masses to bars and dance floors on weekend nights is vividly depicted in both Linda’s vocal and in the lines given to the character she plays. “I need to spend some money and it just won’t wait,” she explains to her escort, revealing herself as a proud and independent woman of sufficient means to make it through the weekend. In addition to close dancing, she is desperately hungry for the release of manageable madness:
A couple of drunken knights rolling on the floor
Is just the kind of mess I’m looking for
I’m gonna dream ’till Monday comes in sight
I want to see the bright lights tonight
Our heroine obviously doesn’t mind the violent potential of the “big boys . . . spoiling for a fight,” as she views mixing it up as just another form of release unique to the male half of the species. More than just a “let’s party” song, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” captures the existential motivation that sends millions of people to Vegas every year—the need to let one’s hair down, show some cleavage and do all the naughty things that are socially unacceptable inside the boundaries of nine to five—all within the safe confines of a non-judgmental environment supported by the sacred commandment, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
I have a dream . . . that someday the Vegas ethic will become the universal imperative of the human race.
That dream is somewhat tempered by the harsh realities of alcoholism and mental illness described starkly and movingly in “Down Where the Drunkards Roll.” Linda approaches her vocal with sad detachment mellowed by obvious compassion for the victims and a clear sense of the indignity of it all. Accompanied only by Richard’s exquisite work on acoustic guitar and chilling bass-range harmonies, Linda relates stories of the fallen in the first three verses—the young bucks who drink themselves into oblivion, the young man who fails in love and is forced to seek a low-priced hooker, and a woman suffering from unknown trauma who finds some kind of validation in the unreal world of the outcast:
There goes a troubled woman
She dreams a troubled dream
She lives out on the highway
She keeps her money clean
Soon she’ll be returning
To the place where she’s the queen
Down where the drunkards roll (2)
The final verse points out the curious similarities between the non-judgmental ethic of weekend nights and the even looser norms of acceptance among people who have hit rock bottom. Those banished from society for their failures, shortcomings and clinical diagnoses are more likely to find comfort among the fallen:
You can be a gambler
Who never drew a hand
You can be a sailor
Who never left dry land
You can be Lord Jesus
All the world will understand
Down where the drunkards roll (2)
Even at this relatively early stage in his career, Richard Thompson’s insistence on writing songs about those whom society would rather forget is uncompromising, and his gift for language results in songs like this that are searing and unforgettable.
Figuring wisely that we need another break from human inhumanity, Richard offers the very traditional “We Sing Hallelujah.” There are many English folk songs that employ a series of metaphoric riddles to describe the human experience; here Richard adds to the genre with a series of metaphors about men (in the outdated, generic universal use of the word). Unsurprisingly, the metaphors all end in disaster: “a man is like a rusty wheel . . . and then he falls apart,” “a man is like a briar . . . he laughs like a clown when his fortune’s down and his clothes are ragged and torn,” etc. The last riddle paints a particularly gloomy picture of man’s existence:
A man is like his father
Wishes he never was born
He longs for the time when the clock will chime
And he’s dead forevermore
As the music clearly communicates good fun with the return of the krummhorns and a joyous group vocal . . . and the chorus is only partially and ironically dreary . . . I’m going to claim that “We Sing Hallelujah” is about the human tendency to see the worst side of everything in life balanced by the opposing force of the human spirit that picks us up when we’re down. The song certainly accomplishes the mission of restoring listener energy after “Down Where the Drunkards Roll.”
The good fun fades quickly into memory with the heartbreaking “Has He Got a Friend for Me,” a tune about a girl who is “clumsy and shy” who believes she wouldn’t attract notice even if she were “in the gutter, or dangling down from a tree.” The line that breaks my heart with its undeniable truth is “And nobody wants to know anyone lonely like me,” for loneliness is often accompanied by auras of awkwardness or desperation that make potential friends wary of offering their company. Linda navigates the challenging melodic line while maintaining just the right levels of the varying emotions; Richard’s acoustic guitar is tender and empathetic; the tin whistle mirrors the thin fragility of the anti-heroine.
Changing costume in record time, Linda transforms herself from future spinster to saucy sprite in “The Little Beggar Girl.” Marked by a traditional full-throated chorus that bears repeating again and again, the peg-legged little wench balances her dependence on contributions from the elite with a tart tongue, delivering pungent asides as the privileged step down from their lofty perches to make their modest donations:
I’ve been down to London, I’ve been up to Crewe
I travel far and wide to do the work that I do
‘Cause I love taking money off a snob like you
For I’m only a poor little beggar girl
Linda really gets into the part, varying her tone from sarcastically sweet and accommodating to screw-the-bastards bite. The chorus is an absolute delight, with Richard entering in harmony as a cue for the listener to sing along. It’s almost impossible not to join in by the third go-round, and melodic structure gives those participating at home lots of opportunity to contribute harmonies or responsive fills.
You’ll need to save some of the positive energy from “Poor Little Beggar Girl” to get you through the bleakest song of all, “End of the Rainbow.” The song is structured as a dramatic monologue in which a father of a newborn leans over the cradle and imparts his wisdom concerning the life journey awaiting his child:
I feel for you, you little horror
Safe at your mother’s breast
No lucky break for you around the corner
‘Cause your father is a bully
And he thinks that you’re a pest
And your sister she’s no better than a whore
Life seems so rosy in the cradle
But I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore
Gee thanks, Dad!
The father goes on to tell the kid how capitalists large and small will continually rip him off, how his future adult male companions will put a knife to his throat at the slightest provocation, that everyone competes against everyone else and that most of the people who inhabit the world belong to the walking dead. He offers no hope, no helpful advice and not a single sliver of sunshine. The song has made critics somewhat uneasy, and several have expressed discomfort with the world view Richard Thompson expresses in those unrelentingly dreary lines.
Methinks they’re missing the point here. “End of the Rainbow” has nothing to do with how Richard Thompson views the world. He’s not talking here—the father is. Richard is playing a role, capiche? This is a song about parenting, not how shitty the world is. The question listeners should consider once the song ends is, “How do we allow such losers to become parents?” This is a guy who has already decided that his other kid is a worthless piece of crap, so why have another child? He’s obviously not doing well from a financial perspective, so why add this “little horror” to the balance sheet? And because he’s failed, he views the world through a madly discolored lens that convinces him that it’s everyone else’s fault but his own. This isn’t about unplanned parenthood, this is about unthinking parenthood and the traumatic consequences that follow from having a parent who hates a kid from the moment of conception—and the disastrous social consequences that follow.
From a musical perspective, “End of the Rainbow” is a hidden gem without a single superfluous note. The opening passage is an electric-acoustic duet where the acoustic guitar reflects the softly lit environment of a nursery and the electric guitar paints a picture of tense uncertainty with sustained fretboard-initiated vibrato. The chord pattern is relatively straightforward, with all the punctuation found in descending chords that eventually find their way back to the Cm root (adjusted to the Am position with a capo on the third fret).
The chord structure to “The Great Valerio” is more challenging, with the base pattern consisting of altering Bm/Fmdim chords, and an out-of-key shift to C#7 to open the chorus (again, much easier to play with a capo, this time on the second fret). The theme of human fascination with the tightrope walker had been covered a few years before in Jethro Tull’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” though Ian Anderson focused more on the secret pleasure of “being there” when the tightrope walker slips (“Like the man hung from the trapeze/Whose fall will satisfy”), whereas Richard Thompson uses the opportunity to comment on the nature of life itself and heroic projection. Linda’s vocal is suitably cold and detached, and while Richard’s acoustic guitar is typically excellent, I have a strong preference for June Tabor’s cover that opens her album Aleyn. Not only is June a far more capable singer and a practiced devotee of Richard’s music, but the addition of accordion and strings creates a macabre circus atmosphere in sync with the lyrical content.
And that wraps it up for I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, a commercial failure dismissed by the critics of the day now considered something of a masterpiece. The album still gets little in the way of tangible respect; according to Richard Thompson’s website, it is “out of print” in the USA. I attribute the lack of public support to the majority’s desire to hear music that makes them happy and avoid music that makes them sad—or, to put it another way, most people want to hear music that validates their fantasies and want nothing to do with music that deals with their unpleasant realities.
Given that unpleasant reality, it turns out that the real hero of the album isn’t The Great Valerio, but a courageous artist by the name of Richard Thompson.