Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

When I was 10, I dragged my father out of his hospital bed to take me to the Dallas County Convention Center for a Richard Thompson concert. I had never been to a concert, had no idea what actually went on at concerts, and was, in truth, partly terrified by the idea of attending a concert. (I think I sort of imagined it as a giant orgy, or a rather large buffet.) My father -- a tall and handsome man from whom I get my height and my looks (though we look nothing alike, and I am 2-feet-3) -- had been in the hospital for a couple of days. He was recovering from a stab wound inflicted by my mother, who had been attempting to cut a meat loaf at the dinner table and missed by several feet (she insisted she was referring to the meat loaf when she yelled, "Take that, you bastard!"). But I would not let a stab wound come between me and Richard Thompson. My father was going to take me. He had no choice. If he did not, then I would stab him, and it would not be "accidentally."

In 1978, there was no bigger rock star in the world than Richard Thompson. My bedroom, like those of my friends, was plastered from floor to ceiling with Richard Thompson posters and fan-club glossies and magazine covers. Richard would gaze at me from all directions, keeping vigilant watch over me from every corner. He had just released First Light, which was the fourth album he had recorded with his then-wife Linda Thompson. It had debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, beneath Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers and Elvis Costello's This Year's Model. Since 1974, Richard and Linda had sold 20 million albums; I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight alone moved 15 million units, which amounted to 37 percent of all albums sold in 1974. America had fallen in love with Richard Thompson (and, to a lesser degree, Linda, with whom Richard would fall out of love when she broke a bottle over his head during a concert). His thin, pale, boyish face had graced the cover of nearly every magazine, from Rolling Stone to Time to Good Housekeeping; his Playboy interview in December 1978 took up the entire publication, which featured only one nudie spread that month -- yup, Richard Thompson, posing with only his guitar and a sly, curious smile. Back then, you couldn't turn on a television without stumbling across Richard, singing "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" with Dinah Shore or sitting in the square to the right of Paul Lynde. In November 1977, he guest-hosted The Tonight Show during the three weeks Johnny Carson was off on a ski trip with his wife and three girlfriends. The adoring crowd, consisting mostly of teenage girls and their kid sisters, screamed so loudly during Thompson's Tonight Show appearances, it was decided guests were irrelevant. No one could hear what they said, so Richard would sit behind the desk and perform Chuck Berry songs and old English folk ditties about fairies and trolls.

I recall the 1978 show at the convention center like it happened yesterday, or at least 19 years ago: Nick Lowe, on the verge of his own superstardom, opened with a set culled from his shipped-gold Pure Pop for Now People. Then, Richard came out by himself, played a handful of songs from the quadruple-platinum Pour Down Like Silver, then performed half an hour's worth of material dating back to his days in the boy-and-girl-band Fairport Convention -- despite his insistence in a Road and Track interview that "it would be best if the public forgot about that band, even though we were once more popular than Krishna." I will never forget the crush of humanity, the thrill of being jammed against so many half-naked girls shouting out marriage proposals and other, more lurid propositions. Even now, people speak of that show as the seminal moment in his career -- the moment when a star became a myth. From that point on, each album sold better than the last: When he and Linda released Shoot Out the Lights in 1982, it debuted at No. 1 and stayed there for an astonishing 37 weeks, a record broken only when the Pixies' 1988 debut Surfer Rosa remained at the top of the charts for an entire year. Thompson once said it was his goal to sell more albums than Paul Westerberg and Sonic Youth and the Jam combined -- a feat almost accomplished when, in 1991, his masterpiece Rumor and Sigh sold 53 million copies within six weeks of release.

Still, even now, the release of a Richard Thompson album is treated like An Event: When Capitol Records issued Mock Tudor (the long-awaited "autobiographical" album) last year, the label flew in 500 journalists from across the world to meet with Thompson at his castle in Newport. As a result, he garnered a Newsweek and Redbook cover the same week, something that had not happened since Lou Reed released Songs for Drella in 1992. Though he had threatened to retire in 1992 (around the time of the release of the Sweet Talker soundtrack, which made some wonder whether he hadn't already called it quits), Thompson finds it impossible to leave the stage: His fan base will not allow it, bootlegging even his most marginal outtakes to the tune of $45 million a year (his infamous lawsuit against several Taiwanese "labels" all but redefined copyright law in 1979). But that's why he now plays the smaller venues -- to remain on stage but out of the withering limelight. After all these years, that's the way Richard likes it.

Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky