As you might guess, there's a lot to know about Richard Thompson.
The short background is this: around 1967, Thompson helped found the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra, which soon renamed itself Fairport Convention, a band that in the late '60s acted as the creative taproot of British folk-rock. Fairport alumni showed up in forgotten bands with names such as Trader Horne, Penguin Dust, Matthews Southern Comfort, Plainsong, Fotheringay and Jethro Tull. As for Thompson, he went on to perform as a duo with his then-wife Linda -- they met when Linda sang "The Locomotion" on Rock On, a Thompson and buddies side-project of pop oldies. The record shows that Mr. Thompson wrote the songs and Mrs. Thompson's voice made them accessible. They recorded four albums together, toured, disappeared for three years to start a Sufi community in rural England, then came back to release three more albums. Their final collaboration, and acknowledged masterpiece, Shoot Out the Lights, was released in 1982, and to support it, they toured again, then divorced. After which, according to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Richard Thompson "recorded an album of country-and-Celtic-tinged breakup songs."
What the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia doesn't stress (for lack of space, no doubt) is that Thompson is one of the most idiosyncratically developed, almost uniquely individual and superlatively talented craftsmen -- no, scratch that, every dumbass with a hammer is a craftsman, let's say artisan -- of not just the songwriter's trade and the guitarist's gift, but of the bitter, low-down lyricist's muse as well. The combination of rock instrumentation and Celtic structures doesn't make much sense on paper, but Thompson is way beyond paper.
So why isn't he famous, like Jackson Browne or Eric Clapton, instead of being sporadically revered and generally ignored, like Randy Newman or Warren Zevon?
Who knows? These things happen. And at this point, who the hell can keep up? When your selected discography notes 40 releases, you've either hit by now or you haven't.
Capitol Records (in an example, it might as well be noted, of a major label behaving not only in an artistically impeccable manner, but also a fiscally dubious one) is acting like Richard Thompson could still hit. Of course, the CD they're banking on -- you? me? us?, a 20-track double album released earlier this year -- is, like most of Thompson's work, terrific. Capitol says the CD's first single, "Dark Hand Over My Heart," is getting radio play on Pacifica and AAA radio from Los Angeles to New York, and while that's happy news for Thompson and Capitol, it's almost beside the point. The point is that you? me? us? refutes the Trainspotting Theory, which, in paraphrase, holds that great musicians -- David Bowie, Lou Reed, Dylan, et al. -- have got it for a while, and then, sooner or later, they lose it and go to rot.
Whatever it is, Thompson, almost 30 years into the game, has a head full. Conventional wisdom holds that artists mellow as they age, but someone forgot to put the fabric softener in Thompson's emotional laundry.
you? me? us?'s discs are divided into a "voltage enhanced" side and a "nude" side, a la MTV's plugged/unplugged example, the idea being that you get two distinct albums for the price of one: Thompson raging loud and Thompson raging not quite so loud. Take your pick. Concerning the CD's duality, Thompson has been quoted as saying "if you hate one, you can throw it away," though that's not an option many listeners are likely to act on. "Voltage enhanced" is anchored by "Put It There Pal," a vitriolic monologue to, presumably, a backstabbing colleague, which contains entire worlds of betrayal and revenge before plowing into an atonal guitar solo that's as evocative of hate as are the words preceding it.
Or take "Razor Dance," one of two tunes given treatment on both discs, with its opening salvo, "After the dance of a / thousand kisses / Comes the catacomb of tongues. / Who can spit the meanest venom / From the poison of their lungs?" My guess is that Richard Thompson can.
On "nude," Thompson lets his sentimental side play center with "She Cut Off Her Long Silken Hair," but the running theme remains anchored in jealousy, fear, despondency and ghoulish portraiture. And when the mood lets up enough for Thompson to indulge in some up-tempo romps, they come off sounding like children splashing in the mud while their neighbors huddle on the porch.
you? me? us? will wind up on a bunch of year-end top ten lists, and the acclaim will come as no surprise to Thompson, who's long suffered the praise of critics. It might also, and more important, end up spinning in the disc players of the general citizenry, where, even if it won't eradicate the neglect suffered by much good Thompson work come before, it will at least provide a compelling better-late-than-never reason to start paying attention while Thompson's still got it.
Richard Thompson performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, October 6, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $17 and $26.50. For info, call 869-8427.