Richard Thompson has spent his entire adult life on the fringes of stardom. Beginning in his late teens, he has been an influential songwriter and guitarist. Thompson was a founding member of British folk rock pioneers, Fairport Convention. He has also been an in-demand session musician and performed as a duo with his ex-wife Linda. While he has appeared on few hit records, he is acclaimed for bringing a jazz texture to rock guitar and converting traditional British folk tunes to supple rock ballads. Realizing in the late sixties that he couldn’t compete with the guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, which were based in the American blues tradition, he went in the other direction and incorporated Celtic, Indian, and Middle Eastern sounds into his guitar repertoire.
In Beeswing, Thompson’s engaging memoir of his early career, written with the late, Los Angeles-based writer, Scott Timberg, Thompson revisits the inspirations behind his early songs and the difficulties of making it as a working musician. At age twenty, he survived a motorway accident that took the lives of both his new girlfriend and Fairport’s drummer. The band recorded its seminal album, Liege & Lief, in a state of grief. The early years of Fairport were marked by excessive drinking, experiments with communal living, and struggles to make waves in the American market. At times, Fairport played to hostile or indifferent crowds outside their native country. Thompson left the band in the early seventies due to creative differences, but continued to regularly play with old bandmates in London’s small folk rock scene.
Thompson was a spiritual seeker in his early twenties and a few years after he left Fairport, he and Linda fell in with a Sufi community in London. The mystical branch of Islam briefly took Thompson away from the music business before he tentatively started writing songs again to perform with Linda.
He gave up alcohol and lived a more ascetic lifestyle. One of the more entertaining passages in Beeswing involves his hajj to Mecca with four other pilgrims, including a young boy. Thompson was able to reestablish his career in the early eighties when his album with Linda, Shoot Out The Lights, was released to critical acclaim. The couple subsequently divorced, but he remained a devout Muslim. Thompson has worked steadily in the music business since their breakup and has dual solo careers in rock and folk music. Beeswing illuminates both sides of his musical legacy.