British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson recounts the 1969 van accident that almost destroyed Fairport Convention in excerpt from new book
By David Browne
In the spring of 1969, Fairport Convention had every reason to be hopeful. Dubbed the British version of Jefferson Airplane, Fairport boasted a lineup that included a brilliant, husky-voiced lead singer, Sandy Denny, and a guitarist, Richard Thompson, who was beginning to blossom into one of his country’s finest and often gloomiest songwriters. The band, which also included guitarist Simon Nichol, drummer Martin Lamble and bassist Ashley Hutchings, had just completed its third album, Unhalfbricking; among its tracks were Denny’s soon-to-be standard “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”, several Bob Dylan covers from his Basement Tapes era, and Thompson originals like “Autopsy” and “Genesis Hall.” The music fused rock and roll with age-old British traditional music, sounding like nothing that had come before.
All that forward momentum halted, as least temporarily, one night in northern England. The band had just performed a show and were on their way home, with Thompson’s American girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn joining them. In this excerpt from Thompson’s Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 (Algonquin Books, April 6th), Thompson writes about that harrowing ride — the worst nightmare for any touring band, including Fairport Convention in 1969.
Life seemed good, and things were going well with Fairport. Our new album was due out soon, and the word was that we would tour America for the first time later that year. On May 11th, Jeannie came with the band to one of our regular haunts, Mothers in Birmingham, a club we played every couple of months. We shared the bill that night with Eclection, another folk rock band with a female singer, Kerrilee Male. Sandy’s boyfriend Trevor Lucas was also in Eclection. Like Kerry, he had come to the UK from Australia. He stood out in a crowd, being tall with a mass of red hair, and he was a fine singer of traditional British and Australian songs. The show went well, with both bands getting a good reception. Sandy rode back to London with Trevor, while the rest of us piled into the Transit van and headed south down the A6 to the M1.
As we neared the end of the motorway, it was starting to get light. Nearly dawn … nearly home. The post-gig euphoria had worn off, and we were tired now. I was sitting in the front middle seat, with Jeannie next to me and Ashley and Martin behind us. Simon was suffering from a migraine and was stretched out on top of the equipment in the back of the van, trying to sleep it off. Harvey was at the wheel next to me. He had been ill with a stomach ulcer for weeks, which had been badly affecting his sleep.
Approaching the last service station at the end of the M1, it was quiet in the van. Everyone was asleep, but being in the most uncomfortable seat, with nowhere to lean, I was struggling to nod off. We were doing a steady seventy miles per hour when I noticed that the van was moving slowly to the right, towards the central reservation [The British term for median]. This was before motorways had crash barriers, so there was nothing to stop us drifting right into oncoming traffic. Nothing except a large pole, that is, which we were careering towards and would hit in about two seconds. I looked over at Harvey, and saw that his eyes were closed. I grabbed the wheel and pulled it hard to avoid the pole, but it was a drastic change of direction and the van’s wheels came off the road. Harvey woke up and tried to correct the steering, but it was too late. We began to roll to the left, and as we spiralled into a long tunnel, all I could silently scream to myself was “NO, NO, NO—THIS IS NOT HAPPENING.”
After a few seconds I was battered into unconsciousness. I felt as though I was floating somewhere high above the scene, and then with a whooshing sound I hurtled suddenly back into my body. I was lying propped up on my elbows, staring at the grass and mud on the embankment next to the motorway. I was finding it hard to breathe, and was almost blinded by the pain in my head. I looked around and saw Jeannie lying a few yards away, upside down, where the embankment sloped down from the road towards a golf course. I slowly crawled over to her. She was unconscious, but frowning, as if she was struggling to remember someone’s name but it was on the tip of her tongue. There were small trickles of blood coming from her nose and in the corner of her mouth.
Otherwise, she looked like she was sleeping peacefully. I felt for a pulse. It was hammering incredibly fast. This did not seem like a good sign. I took a wider look at the scene. Simon had walked up to the road and was flagging down a passing car. Harvey had been flung what seemed a huge distance onto the golf course, and was crying out in pain. Ashley and Martin were out of my line of vision. The van looked as though a thoughtless giant had stepped on it. It must have rolled many times and landed the right way up, squashed like a bug. There were instruments and amps scattered far and wide.
I drifted out of consciousness for a few minutes. An ambulance arrived and paramedics began to help the wounded. I went over to Jeannie again. She looked unchanged, but this time I couldn’t find her pulse. I checked every place I knew a pulse should be. I went over to the ambulance.
“There’s one over here,” I said. “I think her heart has stopped beating.”
“We’re on it,” they said. “How are you?”
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
They felt around my torso. “You’ve broken your ribs, son,” they said. “Get in the ambulance.”
There was blood dripping from my arm onto the ambulance floor. They put a dressing over it. I have no memory of the ambulance ride. I remember a hospital room, a nurse stitching up my arm in a couple of places. A doctor came in.
“That’s your girlfriend?” he asked. I nodded.
“I’m afraid she didn’t make it. Internal damage.” I started saying the word “NO” quietly to myself, over and over.
“And the other lad — I think he was the drummer? He didn’t make it either.” The word “NO” was getting louder, and I was shaking my head. “If he’d survived, he would have been crippled for life. He had severe internal injuries.”
The word “NO” was now a scream, and I couldn’t help it. They gave me an injection, and the hospital receded and echoed, turned grey and then black, and the pain stopped. When I woke up, I was in a ward of four beds, with Harvey in the bed diagonally opposite me. If I tried to sit up, the room spun around. My ribs didn’t feel as bad, but I must have been on painkillers. I was unconscious most of the time. Harvey’s leg was in plaster and raised up. I didn’t know what other injuries he had sustained, but he looked bad.
“We were all in deep shock. I found it hard to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes.”
On the second day, Ashley wandered in from another ward. His face was cut, swollen and bruised. He asked me if I had any news of Martin. I couldn’t believe that they hadn’t told him. I couldn’t bear to tell him, so I just said that we had to prepare for the worst. That seemed to be as good as telling him, anyway, and he let out a cry of anguish and walked back to his ward.
There were visitors, but I was not all there. Did my parents come? My sister? I have no idea. I remember the Social Deviants, a band we had shared many a stage with, being upbeat and cheerful — bless them for that. Sandy came in and fainted — not very good for an ex-nurse — and had to be treated herself. The Beatles and the Stones both sent flowers, which impressed the nurses. I was being kept in mainly because of concussion. My ribs weren’t strapped up — they would heal by themselves.
After about five days in the hospital, my parents came to pick me up. I had hardly seen them since leaving home, and it felt strange to be driving with them in these circumstances. They wanted to take me home for a few days, but I got them to drop me at the flat in Brent — I couldn’t deal with questions. Simon was back at the flat, and he was probably the best person to be around — steady, sensible and had survived the same horror, so we each understood what the other was going through. We were all in deep shock. I found it hard to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes, and when I tried to write something to articulate my feelings, I didn’t recognize my handwriting — it seemed to belong to someone else. As a result, I stopped writing longhand and went back to printing, slowly and deliberately. We talked a little about the future of the band, which had been the focus of our lives for the last two years. When Ashley got out of hospital, the three of us went over to Sandy’s flat and had what I suppose was a band meeting. What would we do now?
“We didn’t want to play the songs that we’d played with Martin — it would be too painful.”
The cost of being musicians on the road was too high. As a band we were not really into drugs or hell-bent on self-destruction — maybe that would get us later, as the lifestyle became tedious or if we started to believe our own press. Just being on the road was dangerous, and if you threw in planes and helicopters, there were so many ways we could be cut down in our prime. But it wasn’t as if we were accomplished in other fields and could walk into safer jobs. We were basically not very good at anything apart from being a band. We had to go on — for the memory of Martin and Jeannie, if nothing else.
However, we knew things would have to change. We didn’t want to play the songs that we’d played with Martin — it would be too painful. We decided that maybe this was the time for a new project. We had been moving towards the British tradition — perhaps now we should embrace it fully and make an album of traditional songs played with bass, drums and electric instruments.
When Martin died, he was aged just nineteen. How do you measure a life that short? Perhaps by the effect he had on others, how much he endeared himself to all who knew him and how people still enjoy his recorded legacy. I never saw a negative side to Martin; he had a sweet nature, fitted instantly into Fairport and had developed quickly as a drummer. His hero and role model was probably Jim Capaldi — Jim had a fine sense of swing in everything he did, and Martin aimed for the same. Those tips John Wood had given him were paying off, and his drum sound on What We Did on Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking was stellar.
It is hard to list all the “what-ifs,” but Martin was a special human being, a special musician and someone I have remembered fondly my whole life. His funeral, at Golders Green Crematorium, was tough to get through. I sat with his girlfriend Helen, and when they played “I’ll Keep It with Mine” from our previous album, we cried our hearts out, as did most of the congregation.
My relationship with Jeannie had probably been heading nowhere. I had known her for barely two weeks when she died, and I’m not sure I could have let her run our lives much longer. She was a talented designer and an extraordinary person, and her death froze our romance in midstream, so for a while it seemed more important than it really was. It was easy to idealize it, because it had no end. Joe was given the task of sending Jeannie’s luggage back to her family in the States, and he asked me if I wanted the photographs of her that she’d had with her, head shots and fashion shots. I kept them for a while, but couldn’t look at them.
So the band would carry on. [Fiddler] Dave Swarbrick would join us, we hoped, and we would hold auditions for Martin’s replacement. By throwing ourselves into a new project, we would distract ourselves from grief and numb the pain of our loss. In 1969, no one thought of counseling or therapy. With British fortitude you soldiered on. We were too fragile; to think beyond fumbling forward while leaning on each other for support would have destroyed us.
Harvey recovered following the accident and was still our road manager, at least in theory. He drove us just once more after that. He seemed to think that confrontation therapy would help us all get over the accident, but our nerves were shot and our confidence in him was broken. We had to let him go, and he had to face trial for causing death by dangerous driving. We all gave evidence at the committal proceedings. The last thing I wanted was to see Harvey in prison, but I was having a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy at that point, and was useless as a witness. Harvey received a six-month prison sentence, and I saw him only briefly after that.
From BEESWING by Richard Thompson. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Copyright © 2021 by Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.