The ex-Fairport Convention songwriter on booze, Irish folk and ‘volatile’ Sandy Denny
Veteran folk-rock guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson is the quintessential journeyman musician. Now 72, his achievements can be best summed up not by Grammy nominations or OBEs (though he has both), but his setlist, a back catalogue that includes classics such as Persuasion, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Wall of Death, Shoot Out the Lights and – perhaps his finest composition – Beeswing, a masterclass in melody, narrative and guitar artistry.
Beeswing is also the title of Thompson’s new memoir, subtitled Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75, which is published this month.
“I think it reflected some of what I felt about the ’60s and ’70s,” Thompson says on a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles. “There was a rejection of the traditional paths of life: you have to go to university; you have to get a job in a bank; you have to become this straight citizen. There were kids dropping out, saying, ‘I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna go live in a commune in Denmark.’ You saw people like Vashti Bunyan, who’d get her gypsy caravan and her horses and go off wandering. The chapter called Beeswing is a summation of that spirit, and it seemed a logical title for the whole book.”
The song itself bears such a feeling of authenticity, of lived experience, this reader felt sure it must have had autobiographical origins. Not so, says the author.
“Fiction is supposed to be the mirror in which you see almost a truer, clearer version of reality,” he says. “I knew a lot of people who fell through society’s safety net, men and women. You thought, ‘Oh, he’s another drug casualty, another guy who took too much acid or drank too much and couldn’t hold his life together.’ It was sad and regrettable but it wasn’t unusual. The female character in the song Beeswing is something I saw a lot of in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Cut to the figure of Sandy Denny, a supremely gifted singer, writer and interpreter of songs who was always going to loom large in any Thompson or Fairport Convention biography. Denny, who died at the age of 31 in 1978, was at once assured, insecure and erratic in her personality. Heavy drinking didn’t help. From this vantage point there’s a temptation to view her volatility through the lens of modern diagnosis. In other words, bipolarity.
“Up and down, mood swings … As you say, we didn’t have the vocabulary for it back then, but volatile, absolutely,” Thompson says. “It’s hard to say how much of it was Sandy’s personality and how much of it was drink and drugs, or a combination of the two. Perhaps it starts out from Sandy being shy as a young girl, and having this ability as a singer, and really wanting to get up on stage and impress people. And like a lot of people who get up on stage, there is a lot of shyness to be overcome, but also an outwardly aggressive spirit.
“I think Sandy was always confident and not-confident about her ability. She would absolutely stand up for herself and say, ‘I’m the greatest’ and a second later she’d say, ‘Or am I?’ So is that bipolar? Maybe it is. She was a serious user and abuser of alcohol and drugs and that will emphasise any innate psychological problems anyway. Perhaps her arc was always going to be a short one. I mean, it breaks my heart to say that, but the way Sandy lived and the way her personality was, perhaps she was never going to be a survivor into old age. I don’t know if there could have been another path for Sandy.
“Also, coming out of folk clubs, it’s a drinking culture, and in the ’60s and ’70s it was a male-dominated culture, and if you were a woman in that world you had to be tough, and hard-drinking, and stand up for yourself and not take any s**t from anybody, and get up in a pub’s backroom and belt it out and believe in yourself.”
Thompson himself was not immune from numbing the nerves with alcohol. “I probably never went on stage sober with Fairport,” he says. “A few drinks before the show would be the way to get on stage, to overcome the shyness and the shock of standing up in front of people.”
He quit the booze when he began studying Sufism in the mid-1970s. He hasn’t had a drink since, and his might be the most angst-free account of drying out in any rock biography, especially considering how contemporaries such as Billy Connolly and Christy Moore have all testified how integral heavy boozing was to the folk club circuit. Thompson, incidentally, has fond recollections of Luke Kelly and the Dubliners.
“I loved Luke, he was just an extraordinary human being. I’ve never met anyone quite like him before or since. As someone said, before you become a great musician, become a great human being, and then you stand a chance. Luke was all of that, and I think he affected everyone who ever met him. He was a great collector of folk songs, a great revivalist of music. Things you think of as classic Irish folk songs, like Seven Drunken Nights – it’s an English folk song that Luke found, and you don’t even think about it, it’s so natural.”
Talk turns to other Irish folk stalwarts such as the Makem family and Liam Clancy, the latter a radical who wasn’t averse to throwing a bit of Baudelaire in among the ballads.
“The Clancys and the Makems were not revivalists,” says Thompson. “They were the continuation of a tradition. Sarah Makem, the mum, she learned songs handed down, handed down, handed down. It’s harder to find those people now, and to connect to that tradition. There’s a few places in England or Scotland where you might still find it, but that authentic connection through hundreds of years, people singing those songs …
“Traditionally it was the tinkers, or the gypsies, who would keep those traditions alive, particularly the women, they would get together at the horse fairs when the men were trading and they would exchange and memorise songs and talk about who was related to who, and who had children and grandchildren, the family lineage, a whole extraordinary culture that kept all that stuff alive, moving down through the generations.”
The last heirs
Now Thompson finds himself among the last heirs of that generation, a troubadour astray in the 21st century, hobbled and housebound by a pandemic. Did the act of reviewing his seminal years for Beeswing teach him anything new about the music, or himself?
“There were things that were painful that I never really dealt with in my life, and I had to deal with those for the book, so that was tough. I found an old diary from when I was a teenager, and I was really surprised by how upbeat, how optimistic it was, because I don’t remember myself as like that. I remember myself as being a typical depressed teenager, hating school, struggling with girls, all that kinda stuff. But it was me, I was an optimistic person. I’d just forgotten about it.”
Perhaps the key moment in the book, the end of innocence, occurs with the M1 road accident that resulted in the deaths of Fairport drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn in 1969. In the immediate aftermath the band repaired to the secluded Farley House in Hampshire to record their fabled fourth album, Liege & Lief. Trauma creates haunted spaces, and folk music is a long-proven repository for griefs and ghosts.
Thompson writes: “Those old songs can really haunt you, with their picked-over sparseness and their occasional lack of logic. Boys can sing girl songs and girls can sing boy songs – it doesn’t matter. The singer is less important than the song. We were starting to connect to a lineage that was ancient, pagan and alive with the dreams of the dead.”
“We were traumatised for a couple of years after the accident, we weren’t really thinking straight,” says Thompson. “I think it’s the reason we had those personality changes. People were just suffering. There wasn’t any therapy really, or if there was, no one said, ‘You guys need to talk to somebody, we’re going to send you to a counsellor, a shrink, to help you deal with the grief.’ It was unexpressed grief.
“I’m too close to Liege & Lief to hear that in the music, but I’m sure it’s in there.”
Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75 is published by Faber & Faber