Biographies of musicians are always dangerous propositions. Too many are tell-alls that insist on concentrating on lurid details and scandal, to the point where the reader forgets that the book is about a musician. Others go the other way, and are so slavishly and obviously creations of the PR machine that they’re essentially worthless as sources of fact. Books of both these sorts tend to cluster around hugely successful acts, and to clutter bookshelves right around holiday time.
Books about less successful or cult acts, however, generally face an entirely different problem. To wit, such titles are generally written by fans. This is not to say that they’re not well-written; the term fan, after all, in no way casts any sorts of aspersion on the researching abilities, writing talents and so on of the authors of the exercises. Even writers are allowed to like music, after all. However, too many books about cult artists are written by those who are already in the cult, and who want very, very much for the reader to join them. Richard Thompson: The Biography falls neatly into that trap. It’s clear from page one that the author really, really likes Thompson’s music, and he wants you to really, really like it too.
In truth, the title of the book is something of a misnomer. Leaving aside the notion of this being “the” biography (though I can’t imagine Thompson ever again granting the level of access Humphries received), the book really isn’t much of a biography of Thompson the man. Rather, it’s a biography of his music. The book goes through every album, every side project and every alternate version with fascinating, exhaustive detail. Humphries does a remarkable job digging up the story behind the legendary “Rafferty’s Folly” version of Shoot Out the Lights, of elucidating the story behind the disastrous “Islamic Tour,” and diving into Thompson’s post-Fairport days as a blithe session musician. However, it is as a biography of the man that the book fails, though at times one gets the feeling that Thompson himself doesn’t mind that much at all.
The book itself is an interesting artifact. The actual text of the biography is 346 pages, and it’s followed by a set of absolutely remarkable indices. Not only does the patient reader get a list of every recording Thompson ever made, he also gets a listing of every recording Thompson guested on and of every cover version of a Thompson song ever recorded. This collection of tidbits is remarkable, a real treasure trove for any Thompson completionist or serious fan.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t necessarily live up to the labor of the last few pages. There are odd shifts in font from paragraph to paragraph. The printing and binding are a bit sloppy (in one place, all of the capital R’s vanish (strange for a book on a man named Richard) and the spine makes an ominous cracking sound whenever the book is opened too far. The editing, though, is really the most troublesome bit, with one spot in particular standing out as egregious. In a discussion of the Salman Rushdie incident, a reporter corners Thompson (a devout Muslim) and asks for his take on the matter. The response, as related by Humphries, is: “Eventually forced into a corner and asked if Rushdie should be executed, Thompson prevaricated: “If they handed me the gun…I wouldn’t shoot him.”
This reader, at least, hopes that Humphries simply misused the word “prevaricated,” and that Thompson would not in fact pull the trigger in that hypothetical situation. However, the passage as a whole is disturbing, no matter what the interpretation one finally chooses.
The bulk of the content of the book, thankfully, is far less controversial. It focuses, as previously noted, on Thompson’s music. The early pages, focusing on Thompson’s family and home life, are breezy and short, but once a boyfriend of Thompson’s sister, Pamela, teaches the boy to play guitar, it’s all over. From that point on the amount of biographical information per page steadily decreases while the copious attention paid to the music increases. By the time we reach Thompson’s involvement in Fairport, the bulk of the material is devoted to which songs the band played, where they played them, and with whom they
That’s not to say that the material isn’t interesting. Indeed, it’s endlessly fascinating. Hearing about Fairport opening for Pink Floyd, or about Yes doing a benefit gig for the surviving Fairports after the infamous and fatal van crash brings home a painful realization to the reader of how different the music scene was during the embryonic days of Thompson’s career.
From there, the book jolts to the period Thompson spent with his first wife, Linda. Again, there is a dearth of actual biographical material; the whole courtship and wedding gets wrapped up in a handful of pages, and then it’s on to an exhaustive look at the Henry the Human Fly album. There are some fascinating glimpses of the period the Thompsons spent in as Islamic commune in England, especially some remarkably candid comments from the former Linda Thompson and music industry peers who worried about the effect Thompson’s submersion in a religious lifestyle would have on his music.
Humphries also begins, at this point, trying to read Islamic themes into a large portion of Thompson’s musical output. In some cases the reading is enlightening, in others it comes across as forced. The section winds up with the masterpiece (and disaster) that was Shoot Out The Lights. This is perhaps the finest section of the book, complete with Thompson’s romance with American club manager Nancy Covey, the disastrous tour, the abortive live album and a brief but insightful digression into Linda’s life and career after the tour (and the marriage) finally staggered to a halt. Here, where the weave of musical and personal is impossible to untangle, is where we get the best sense of what lies behind Thompson’s music. While the biography takes pains to lay to rest the notion that the breakup was in process during the recording of the album (going so far as to explain the logic behind the ominous-seeming cover art), there is still an overwhelming emotional intensity to the stories behind and around the album.
The biographical section of the book winds up with a look at Thompson’s solo career. We are treated to quotes from reviews, lineups and notes on album production, as well as peeks into side projects, guest appearances and so on. There’s also a fair bit on the business shenanigans behind Thompson’s label-hopping ways. The deletion of Small Town Romance from Hannibal’s catalog, for example, turns out to have been a request of Thompson’s as part of his contract settlement with that label, though thankfully Ryko restored it to print a few years back.
Closing out the solo section of the book is something of a summation, though perhaps less of one than die-hard Thompson fans might hope for. Thompson himself remains something of an aloof and mysterious figure all the way through the book, dismissing his earlier work as “rubbish” or “just a tune,” and never letting the reader close except in brief flashes. (His dismissal of The Pogues, for example, is remarkably quick and cutting.) It is left to his family and compatriots to try to fill in the blanks, and it’s clear that they’re not quite sure how to go about it. Long-time collaborator Dave Mattacks wonders aloud why he’s good enough to tour with, but not good enough to work with in the studio any more, while Clive Gregson reiterates what we’ve spent the last 340 pages learning: “He’s a hard person to get to know in the way you know your best friend.” Linda confirms that “he is detached,” and longtime collaborator John Kilpatrick notes “I don’t think he actually needs anybody.”
The final summation, though, is left for Pete Zorn, who notes that “the more you work with Richard, the more you get worried about how little you know about him.” Unfortunately, the reader is left with that nagging feeling as well, which is presumably not where most folks want to be after pounding through 300-plus pages of a biography.
The fault, really, would seem to be Humphries. While Thompson is not the most communicative of subjects, Humphries seems more than willing to fill in the gaps with his own takes on things, including a curious slam on long-standing Thompson supporters REM. He also works hard to make Thompson look good, which makes things like the revelation on page 327 that Thompson fathered an illegitimate child in 1970 seem like awkward attempts to hide a great man’s blemishes. The work Humphries has done to bring the secrets of Thompson’s music to light is admirable, but his efforts to elucidate more about the man are, sadly, less so. One suspects that he would have done better to let the man speak (or choose not to speak) for himself.
In the end, anyone who is more than a casual fan of Richard Thompson’s work will find The Biography to be a worthwhile read. Fans of Richard Thompson himself may be a bit more frustrated, but then again, there’s not as much in this book for such devotees to latch onto.