Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Richard Thompson & The Art of the Break-Up Song

I’ve not done a comprehensive survey, but over a lifetime of listening to pop music, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of songs in popular stylings relate to matters of the heart. They might be songs of being in love or songs of being out of love. However, both sides of the subject have been a well-mined source of subject matter for tunesmiths since Adam said to Eve, “Wanna hang out?” I’m sure, dear reader and song-fan, there is nothing new in anything I’ve said so far.
I’m sure that someone attempting their PhD has written some lengthy piece on why we continue to listen to the same subject matter over and over again. Of course, there have been other song-writing movements over the last 50 or so years that have proved popular – songs about slaying dragons in Middle Earth (hey nonny nonny), getting high, telling the older generation they suck (funny how Roger Daltrey is still singing  My Generation in his sixties), and transvestisism.  Still, the songs about being in and out of love don’t quite go away.
I came to the music of Richard Thompson relatively late, about 1990. An announcer on Melbourne community radio continually raved how Thompson was the second coming. The claim was that Thompson was a guitarist’s guitarist (Eric who?), a songwriter who could really tell a story and convey a mood, and he even had a wonderful voice. My interest was piqued. I had to look into his music for myself.  I went into a store that had a copy of a new 3 CD Thompson anthology called “Watching The Dark”, and asked to listen to one of the discs.
The first song I heard was called “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven”. This was a moment in my life I will never forget.
Each verse is like a chapter of a great book that hooks you in from the opening line (“We were heroes then, and the girls were all pretty / and a uniform was a lucky charm that bought you the keys to the city”). The song tells the story of a returned World War 2 soldier, who finds that life in peace time affords him none of the respect he is due and he received during the war. He goes from being revered to being ignored by society, not even having a place to lay his head on at night. During leave he would attend dances, and  Al Bowlly, the big band leader, represented all that was good in the veteran’s life during the war. Now Bowlly’s gone, the war is over, and society has ditched our narrator to the dustbin of recent history as they try to grapple with the difficulties of rebuilding their lives after war. Thompson’s narrative is riveting – and I haven’t even referred to his superlative musicianship.
But that’s not the song this article is about.
In fact, I wish to talk about three songs, all connected thematically - they could even be joined to form a concept album - but all taking a very different approach. The start of this article referred to songs covering matters of the heart. So many pop songs, refer to the aftermath of a relationship as a time of great sorrow or a time for the song’s protagonist to move on. Thompson doesn’t take such a simple approach in his songs.
The three songs I wish to address are:
Razor Dance” shows the nasty aftermath of a relationship gone very wrong.
After the death of a thousand kisses
                Comes the catacomb of tongues
Who cans spit the meanest venom
                From the poison of their lungs
Each party to the separation “dances” dangerously around the other one to see what they can get away with, first passive-aggressively, then with full-on aggression as “gravity pulls them in”. The music reflects this tension with Thompson’s guitar playing continuous quavers in an ominous staccato fashion. “Take your partners for the razor dance” Thompson calls, but when does the band call time?
For Shame of Doing Wrong” was recorded by Thompson with his then-wife Linda on vocals, but for me the better interpretation is by ex-Fairport Convention lead singer (and Thompson cohort), the late great Sandy Denny. Thompson himself has sung it live, but Sandy’s interpretation gets to the heart of the matter. The song is sung from the perspective of someone who sees an ex-lover and unburdens herself with complete remorse over having done them an unspecified wrong.  She recalls the ideal times before “we went our separate ways”. There are always constant visual reminders of the good things she used to have, and implores her ex to not pay “for her deceiving heart”.
 On the surface, my description could be about any number of pop songs. However, this is a Richard Thompson song. The complete and utter regret of the singer is completely believable. This ain’t an ordinary “I know I’ve done you wrong, but please take me back” song – it’s a Richard Thompson “I know I’ve done you wrong, but please take me back” song. The singer knows she doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but begs for it anyway. The chorus contains one of the saddest lines I’ve heard in a lover’s lament  - “I wish I was a fool for you again.” When Sandy Denny sang this, and by extension Richard wrote it, you really believe it. The music is mid-tempo and in a major key, bus still somehow maintains the melancholic regret of the lyric.
Then there’s “Tear Stained Letter”. This is a funny aftermath-of-a-break-up song. It’s performed with Zydeco leanings (and was covered by Zydeco star Jo-el Sonnier) and sounds happy. The lyric betrays that with that with the wariness of the protagonist who’s broken up acrimoniously with someone, has decided to get on with his life, but lives in fear for the constant tear-stained letters left under the door. Keep an eye out for your pet rabbit!!! This isn’t a song that says, “We’ve split up, I miss you”. It says, “We’ve split up, now can you piss off?”
Have I mentioned this song is funny? When our protagonist is describing his violent ousting from the couple’s shared lodging, he sings that she “danced on his head like Arthur Murray (if you have to ask, you’re too young – trust me it’s a funny line). This is the only rock song I know of that rhymes “tea” as such: “I like coffee and I like tea / but I just don’t like this fiddle-dee-dee” Listen to the whole song. It’s clever and funny.
So Thompson has taken the one topic, and approached it from three different avenues. There’s the  dramatic approach of a mutually agreed acrimonious breakup. There’s the incredibly sad mournful regret of a relationship that could have continued if not for a wandering heart. Finally, there’s the humorous approach of a man fearing for his life from an unstable ex (that doesn’t read right, but it’s essentially true).
As suggested earlier, these songs can be connected as the one story. There’s the initial mutually agreed acrimonious breakup, followed by a period of mournful regret by one of the partners, but the story is taken up by the other partner who just want to move on without loss of life or limb. A Richard Thompson musical in the offing?  If lesser songwriters can plunder their back catalogue, surely RT has a winner with a musical based on drama, suspense and humour. Richard, if you’re reading this, my management services are at your disposal.

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