Rumor and Sigh opens with a song dealing with matters in a field in which I have some expertise. SEX!
I consider myself an expert practitioner, a minor philosopher and a serious student of erotic behavior. I approach the subject with a mix of intellect, emotion and sensuality, a combination which diminishes my standing as a sexual scholar but accurately reflects the complex dynamics of sexuality. Scientific sexual research bores the crap out of me because it’s so removed from truth-as-experienced. If you can observe sex or interview people about sex and maintain a total commitment to the scientific method, you’re the last person I’d consult on the subject.
Even with all my expertise, extensive research and artistic-erotic accomplishments, sex still presents endless challenges for me because the process of seduction is subject to thousands of unknown variables. The most challenging aspect of finding new sexual partners has always been the bullshit they’ve stored inside their heads.
My upbringing was a bit unusual because my parents (particularly my mother) talked to me openly about sexuality and answered every question I had, no matter how silly it seemed. In my tale of my sexual development (no longer available on this site), I related my reaction after my mother told me that boys released semen through the same hole that they used for the disposal of urine. I told her that I would only have sex with girls because I didn’t want boys peeing inside me. She patiently explained that it was physiologically unlikely that a man would pee inside me, but it’s always been part of my nature to seek verification through a second source.
So I asked my dad since he had the right plumbing.
Being a contractor, he explained it to me in plumbing vocabulary. “You remember when I fixed that water heater at the Divisadero house? Remember how I showed you the cold water lines and the hot water lines? It’s kind of like that.”
“But we can mix cold and hot water at the sink! I can make both come out at the same time,” his smart-ass daughter replied. He frowned, thought for a minute, and said, “Well, in the body, there’s kind of a shutdown switch. When one’s on, the other’s off.”
“But what if the shutdown switch breaks?”
He laughed and said, “Look, I almost flunked physiology, so I don’t know any more than that. All I can tell you is that I’ve been inside your mother thousands of times and I’ve never peed inside her. Do you think I’d be alive today if I had?” he said with a wink.
He had a point. At the very least, my mother would have whacked off his pecker, and rightly so.
He told me to go to the library and look it up, so I did. I found out that the urethra (the pee line) is obstructed when a guy gets an erection, so as long as he stayed hard I would be okay. Once he shot his wad and softened, an unfortunate piss would become a physiological possibility, but by that time the male would have reconnected with the civilized part of his brain and be more likely to exercise proper restraint and decorum. I began to warm to the idea of contact with the male member, despite its peculiar appearance which made me launch into hysterical giggles at inopportune moments.
Because my parents were open and honest with me, I was able to approach sexuality openly and honestly with intended partners at a very early age. Most of them were shocked by my directness, and I had to shift into therapist mode to get them in touch with themselves (and hopefully in touch with me). Much worse were the guys who thought they knew it all because they’d read the experts in those glossy titty mags, and I had to show them that they didn’t know dick, to coin a phrase. The narrator of “Read About Love,” the kick-ass opening track of Rumor and Sigh is one of those poor know-it-alls:
Asked my daddy when I was thirteen
Daddy can you tell me what love really means?
His eyes went glassy, not a word was said
He poured another beer and his face turned red
Asked my mother, she acted the same
She never looked up, she seemed so ashamed
Asked my teacher, he reached for the cane
He said, don’t mention that subject again
So I read about love—read it in a magazine
Read about love—Cosmo and Seventeen
Read about love—In the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler
What a society! I doubt very much if we’d have all the neurotic-but-otherwise-normal horny people we have today if we disconnected embarrassment and shame from sexuality. We could also avoid the humiliating moments of interpersonal disconnection created when guys like this view women as impersonal objects:
Read about love—now I’ve got you
Read about love—where I want you
Read about love—got you on the test-bed, test-bed, test-bed
So why—don’t you moan and sigh?
Why do you sit there and cry?
I do everything I’m supposed to do
If something’s wrong, then it must be you
I know the ways of a woman
I’ve read about love
This is what great songwriters do: they stimulate your intellect and emotions in an aesthetically pleasing and entertaining way.
This killer opener is followed by “I Feel So Good,” which is not Richard Thompson’s version of “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Instead of a happy tune about “feelin’ groovy,” this is an uptempo dramatic monologue about how good it feels to engage in anti-establishment behavior, especially when you’re a hellion. Our anti-hero is a young (“I’m old enough to sin but I’m too young to vote) ex-con who claims, “They put me in jail for my deviant ways/Two years seven months sixteen days.” He gets his kicks from purple haze, taking people apart and ripping people off. He must be good at it because he is certainly reaping the rewards of his anti-social anger:
Society’s been dragging on the tail of my coat
Now I’ve got a suitcase full of fifty pound notes
And a half-naked woman with her tongue down my throat
And I feel so good, and I feel so good
Oh I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight
They made me pay for the things I’ve done
Now it’s my turn to have all the fun
Well I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight
A question this song raises is one that rarely gets asked in our fear-and-retribution cultures: what is the point of incarceration if all it does is reinforce anger and a desire for revenge? Though this sadistic (in a bad way) loser seems to be expressing exuberant joy, all I hear is the bitterness of a young man who justifies his anti-social behavior by claiming he was simply daring to be different. That’s one possibility; it’s also likely that he is an incurable psychopath, and if that’s the case, society is even less equipped to deal with his kind than it is with the non-psychotic criminal element. When it comes to dealing with criminals, wackos or anyone who dares to be different, modern societies, bound by rule-based bureaucracies and professional dogma, define the word “ill-equipped.”
The challenges of the indirect and ambiguous communication that often accompany near-intimate or intimate relationships is the subject of “I Misunderstood,” a sad but strangely sexy number with a wonderfully crisp, clean arrangement and one of Richard’s best vocals. It’s followed by “Behind Gray Walls,” a song that graphically describes a man’s anguish about the institutionalization of a lover suffering from an unknown, incurable mental illness. The imagery here is relentless, describing self-immolation (“cigarette burns down her arm”), restraint (“Tied her arms in the back/Trussed her up in a sack”) and electroshock therapy (“Tied her down on the bed/Seventy volts through her head).” The narrator never forgets for a minute that this poor girl is a human being deserving of our sympathy if not empathy (“Behind gray walls/Somewhere there’s a soul”). Like June Tabor, Richard Thompson has no qualms about singing songs that deal with difficult subjects that people living comfortable lives in advanced societies would rather avoid.
Richard Thompson does have a lighter side, and in “You Dream Too Much” you see it in the various images he uses to describe imperious women who remain unattainable to the average guy. “She had a chassis like an XJS” is a beautiful line, and the repeated response to the narrator’s attempts to secure a little nookie (“You dream too much”) has the impact of a good punch line. The only problem I have with this song is that the arrangement is a bit busy, a sometimes regrettable feature of Mitchell Froom productions. It’s followed by “Why Must I Plead,” a narrative about a man begging his wayward wife to live up to the dotted line commitment of marriage . . . a pretty weak argument, in my humble opinion.
There are times when a songwriter achieves songwriting nirvana, perfectly integrating lyrics, music and theme. These bits of perfection are often characterized by poetic economy, where not a word is wasted and every word brims with power and meaning. “Waterloo Sunset” is one such song, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is another. An archetypal tale of a young man steeped in carpe diem and his chance encounter with a kindred red-headed spirit, the tale unfolds over the beautifully intricate sound of Richard Thompson’s acoustic guitar. The first verse establishes both the relationship and the symbolism of the motorcycle as an instrument of freedom, rebellion and eroticism:
Said Red Molly to James that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, my hat’s off to you
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride
James gives Molly a wedding ring but warns her that he’s not long for this world, given his irresistible drive to live life on the edge—a life that includes a career in armed robbery. But he promises her eternal continuity through the powerful symbol of their shared passion:
Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22
And I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I’ll give you my Vincent to ride
Tragedy strikes when James is shot in the chest during an attempted robbery. Red Molly runs to his side, but as he predicted, his time is about to run out. Still, the eternal bond of the promise remains, its power strengthened by Richard Thompson’s choice to align the image of the open road with the movement of life:
When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I’ll give you my Vincent to ride
James’ dying speech contains equally strong poetry, but what makes that finale work is Richard Thompson’s vocal performance, especially the passion he brings to the lines, “I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/Swooping down from heaven to carry me home.” Let’s dispense with the interpretation and let this masterpiece speak for itself:
Richard then disqualifies himself from a place in my sexual fantasies by expressing distaste for the kinky side of life in “Backlash Love Affair.” Okay, the broad in the song doesn’t come close to my level of sophistication, as she’s into crude gothic metal kink, but unfortunately, I can find no evidence of flexibility on Richard’s part. Damn! We’ll move on to “Mystery Wind,” a mood piece marked by the almost complete absence of melody. Not exactly my favorite number. The same is true for “Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands,” a boisterous tribute to the late Scottish accordionist that fails to grab me.
“Keep Your Distance” is a definite improvement, with a much stronger melodic line as well as a message I embrace with all my heart and soul. If you’re going to be in a relationship, it’s all or nothing: don’t give me any half-assed maybe-baby bullshit! If I ever find a promising male to complete my cozy little life arrangement, the first thing I’ll let him know is “With us it must be all or none at all.” On the flip side, I do not embrace the message of “Mother Knows Best,” which is either a subtle dig at passive-aggressive female control or a denunciation of mama’s boys . . . the archaic metaphors muddle the picture.
He returns to form with “God Loves a Drunk,” another unflinching look at human reality. Sung with intensity over a background of acoustic guitar with a touch of accordion, the song has a chilling beauty to it, despite the ugliness of the imagery:
But God loves a drunk, although he’s a fool
He wets in his pants and he falls off his stool
He can’t hear the insults and whispers go by him
As he leans in the doorway and sings Sally Racket
Can’t feel the cold rain beat down on his body
And soak through his clothes to the skin
This song is purgative for me, as it recalls my life in San Francisco and multiple encounters with the street alcoholic, the kind of man who “screams at his demons alone in the darkness” while the rich and well-fed scurry across the street to avoid any human contact.
As I’ve mentioned several times, I do love artists who dare to be different, and Richard Thompson certainly smashed fan expectations with the closing song, “Psycho Street.” The closest analogy I can find to this piece is “Rhinocratic Oaths” from the Bonzo Dog Band’s The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (Urban Spaceman to you yanks). Part spoken word, part music hall, often dissonant and loaded with as many bizarre images as a Dali painting but with more of the bleakness of Edvard Munch, “Psycho Street” is an absurdist look at an absurd society. It’s a very disturbing song, one you might listen to once or twice for the experience, but it’s unlikely to stay on your playlist for long. I end my version of Rumor and Sigh with “God Loves a Drunk,” as I think it makes for a more coherent ending.
“Psycho Street” does fit in a different sense: listening to almost any Richard Thompson album is an intense experience that demands full listener engagement. I find the experience deeply enjoyable on many levels, and I never leave a Richard Thompson album without feeling intellectually and emotionally stimulated. To borrow a phrase from the sporting world, on Rumor and Sigh Richard Thompson left it all on the field at the end of the game, and I deeply cherish his passion and continuing commitment to push artistic boundaries.