Monday, 28 February 2011

Richard Thompson: Holy Blues

I have been reading, with much interest, the estimable Greil Marcus’s Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010. On the cover is a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle – ‘Why read anyone else’s work on Dylan?’ Well, you would do so given the fact that such a figure as Dylan is liable at any time to inspire more than just one worthy interpreter; furthermore, because for every one sentence of Marcus’s that you might agree with, there’s liable to be another that will have you dropping your bacon sandwich. To take just one from the latter subset: Marcus’s Village Voice dismissal of Oh Mercy (1989) as ‘shapely and airless’, characterising Dylan as an actor who was merely hitting marks chalked by producer Daniel Lanois. Well... apart from any dissenting listeners’ views, Dylan’s Chronicles would seem to suggest otherwise.
I must digress, though, because really I want to say something about Richard Thompson. Bear with me...
The scholar-journalist/filmmaker/bon viveur Kevin Jackson is, among his many claims on artistry, the authorised biographer of writer-director Paul Schrader, and it was in this capacity that in 1991 he filed a set report from New York for Sight & Sound concerning Schrader’s movie Light Sleeper. One of the many fascinating cineaste-matters discussed between the two therein was Schrader’s quest to score his movie with a sequence of songs that would have both an authorial connection and a linking, pervading soulfulness to them. Schrader first called upon his friend Bob Dylan, for whom he’d once directed a promo clip. The hope was that Dylan would license a number of songs, chiefly from Oh Mercy. But Dylan wasn’t having it. Thus a short-order head-scratcher for Schrader, on which Jackson tried to be of some assistance in proposing alternatives. Who could deputise for Bob Dylan? Van Morrison? ‘Too Irish’ was Schrader’s understandable opinion. Richard Thompson? ‘Maybe too English’ was, if I remember right, the final Schrader ruling...
But just as it’s no shame for George Eliot to be compared with Tolstoy even she’s adjudged to suffer slightly by the match-up – it’s quite true that in Richard Thompson England has a musical treasure/songsmith-guitar hero to set by the finest the world might offer. Somehow I managed to miss that he was lately made an OBE. The Old Kit Bag is my favourite of his recent albums, 'Gethsemane' (below) my favourite song thereupon. Thompson is of course a practising Muslim, and his faith has never inflected his work quite as thoroughly as Dylan’s did his c. 1979-1981. But the cadences of the preacher are present always, nonetheless.

No comments: