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Tuesday, 22 January 2008 19:18
ImageBy Larry Dobrow - GJD Contributor
When I was but a wee wailer of fingers uncalloused, I had an asshole guitar teacher named Neil. In between claims that he would "soon" enter the studio to record a fusion record with the drummer of The Cars, Neil talked up Richard Thompson. Oh boy, did he ever talk up Richard Thompson, everything from his "awesome dexterity" to his "awesome phrasing" to his "awesome tone." Neil wasn't too creative in his choice of adjectives.

As a result, before I heard anything from Thompson's Fairport Convention days or a single note of the seminal Shoot Out the Lights, I was conditioned to loathe the guy. At least he was easy to avoid outside my lessons. In North Jer-Z in the 1980s, you didn't often hear "When I Get to the Border" blaring from the pulled-down windows of late-model Camaros.
richardthompson.jpgWhen I finally outgrew the glossy metal of my youth, Thompson's name kept coming up in every serious discussion of must-hear players. Fancying myself a budding tastemaker, I took the plunge, buying the then-in-vogue Rumor and Sigh. I didn't love the record from a guitar perspective - the playing felt hesitant, as if Thompson had been asked to reel himself in - but I instantly connected with his songwriting. Yeah, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" gets way too much love from the NPR set, but it remains one of the most vividly detailed and eminently hummable songs of that era.

That, in fact, may speak to the great disconnect in most evaluations of the Thompson songbook: That he somehow gets placed in the category of "astounding guitar players who can't write a song worth a hoot" alongside Carlos Santana and Brian Setzer and Danny Gatton. I'd argue that as sublimely eccentric a player as Thompson may be, he's an even more versatile and observant songwriter, boasting more in common with Elvis Costello than with Eric Clapton.

I realized early on that I wouldn't be able to replicate Thompson's fret-skipping runs - "Back Street Slide," "Shoot Out the Lights" - unless I grew two extra double-joined fingers on each hand. But it didn't dawn on me until I delved deep into his catalog that I have even less of a chance of evoking a relationship as emotionally turbulent as the one in "Just the Motion" or a state of blissless hope like the one in "Persuasion."

Separately, never, ever, ever put 1988's "Turning of the Tide" on a mix CD for your girlfriend. I included it owing to my fascination with its twitchy pace, slyly hooky bridge and bright mid-song guitar explosion, but the girlie chose instead to focus on the lyrics ("How many boys, one night stands/How many lips, how many hands have held you...The boys all say/'You look so fine'/They don't come back for a second time"). She interpreted its inclusion on the mix as my passive-aggressive attempt to determine if she was a trollop. We lasted six more hours as a couple.

Okay, weak tangent. Still, that "Turning of the Tide" can spark such a heated reaction speaks volumes about its incisiveness and bite. It's far from the only song in Thompson's catalog that stings with its dark wit. "I Feel So Good" begins with the anti-romantic salvo "I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight/I feel so good I'm going to take someone apart tonight," while the words "dark" and "cynical" don't begin to describe the view of childhood in his "The End of the Rainbow" address to a young'un: "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."

Then there are Thompson's more playful "response" songs, available on his comprehensive web site, in which he takes apart Janet Jackson and Kenny G They sneer without resorting to easy insult, in the best Dylan way.

I sure wish I could play guitar as effortlessly and joyfully as Richard Thompson. But I really, really, really wish I could write songs anywhere near as well. At some point, somebody's gotta give him his due as a songcrafter/instrumental virtuoso on the level of Jimi Hendrix.

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