British folk-rock guitar virtuoso recalls his early years in a new memoir.
BY DAVID LUHRSSEN
I sold guitar strings to Richard Thompson. The 6-string virtuoso busted some during sound check and my concert promoter friend rushed him to the music store where I worked. Thompson was unassuming, friendly, happy to be helped out of a last-minute jam. The show was only an hour or two away.
The person I met that night is evident throughout his memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Thompson was at the younger end of the generation of British musicians who found their way in the postwar rubble of the empire, inspired in large part by the intriguing sounds emanating from the states. But only in part. In the tentative advent of his first band, Fairport Convention, Thompson played songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but was also aware of the British folk tradition at this doorstep.
Thompson was fortunate to have grown up in London where in the course of a few months he saw Larry Coryell, Magic Sam, Ornette Coleman and Conway Twitty. It was a rich seminar and as his guitar style coalesced, he began to “borrow from the jazz greats” and “steal ideas from Debussy or Stravinsky” while “trying to play with the intensity of Albert Collins.”
Unlike most rock autobiographies, which read as if ghosted by hack city reporters on deadline, Thompson writes with beautiful grace. Beeswing brims with stories many musicians will relate to, including the early band house and road trips with five to a van. But how many young musicians can say that Jimi Hendrix came onstage with them and jammed? “He seemed personable, likeable, a little shy,” Thompson recalls—not unlike my memory of him in that music shop long ago.