Folk-rock grande dame, still damned grand…
When Martin Scorsese heard that Linda Thompson was singing a version of “Paddy’s Lamentation”, as heard in his Gangs Of New York, he apparently asked, “Is she still alive?” It was a reaction that pleased her immensely. “Martin Scorsese thinking I’m dead,” she writes in the sleevenotes to her fourth solo album, “is as famous as I’m ever going to get.”
Contrary to word on the street in Tinseltown, the 66-year-old remains very much of this earth, though a knack for dealing in property and antique jewellery drew her attention away from music in the decades since her divorce from Richard Thompson in the wake of 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights. Her occasional works remain rock solid and sparkly, though, with her voice – Nico-harpy stark and Anne Briggs elemental – as fragile and fearsome as ever.
Severely limited by dysphonia – the same vocal condition that ended Shirley Collins’ singing career – Thompson might have called it a day after her ill-pitched 1985 solo debut One Clear Moment, had it not been for her children; her son Teddy Thompson engineered her 2002 return with Fashionably Late, while family friend Rufus Wainwright supplied material for the similarly low-key Versatile Heart five years later.
Kin and kindred spirits continue to play a huge role on Won’t Be Long Now – trad: arr star guests include Martin and Eliza Carthy, John Kirkpatrick and Gerry Conway, while a campfire stomp through Anna McGarrigle’s “As Fast As My Feet” features three generations of Thompsons: Linda, her three children, and grandson Zak Hobbs. However, unlike previous outings, Linda Thompson feels like the director here as well as the leading lady.
She supplies herself a riveting opening close-up with the self-penned “Love’s For Babies And Fools”, ex-husband Richard providing a suitably gaunt acoustic backing to a Bakelite-brittle lyric. Slowly unreeling a character study of a cruel narcissist (“I will never try to please you or abide by your rules,” she sings), Linda Thompson excavates the yawning hollow that lurks beneath those monstrous defences (“but before I ruled love out, I searched every north and south”).
Doomed and disastrous romance stalk every corridor – something of a surprise to Thompson given that, in her own words, she has “hardly spent a moment of my adult life UNMARRIED”. Sweethearts set off to sea and never return (“If I Was A Bluebird”); nuptial hopes remain eternally unfulfilled (“Never The Bride”), and spouses prove to be barely worth the wait (the unaccompanied traditional, “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”). Familiar enough territory for the woman whose voice graced misanthropic key texts as “Withered And Died” and “Walking On A Wire”, but there’s no disguising the cool delight with which she wraps her spider-silk around the darkest corners.
There are shafts of light, not least a merry salute to her one-time Home Service boss John Tams, under whom she helped create the score for the National Theatre’s extraordinary mid-‘80s production of the Mysteries. But it’s the misery, painful and unredeemed, that suits Linda Thompson’s faintly masochistic proclivities best. It’s no accident that the ancient mariner who narrates her bleak shanty “Never Put To Sea Boys” concludes his tale of blood and death on the high seas with the line: “And now I am an old man I wish, I wish that I could be/Once more upon the docks me boys/ Prepared to put to sea.”
Odd, then, that Won’t Be Long Now should end with a slightly grim twinkle rather than a Taxi Driver-style bloodbath. An unconventional gift from Teddy Thompson to his mother, the closing title track is a light-footed waltz along the banks of the River Of No Return. “Life’s short and getting shorter,” smiles Linda Thompson, adding, “Take care with your words and don’t go with regret.” With barely a syllable out of place, it’s a philosophy that Won’t Be Long Now lives by.
Two of your three children are on the stage; did you encourage them?
Not at all. Who needs the competition? Like almost every mother, I wanted them to be doctors or particle physicists. Damned genes.
Your son Teddy is your main co-writer – how do you work together?
We bat ideas around on the computer. I recently sent him lyrics to a music hall song (I’m bonkers about that era) and he point-blank refused to do the tune. He’s over my Vaudeville obsession.
Love’s For Babies And Fools is extraordinary. Have you reached a stage when you and Richard can be comfortable in each other’s company?
Extraordinary you say! I’ll take it. It’s going so well with Richard. We may even get back together. No, not really. I just see him as part of the family now.
What was Tim Buckley like as a flatmate? Was he more handsome in person than Nick Drake?
It’s a tie! They were both beautiful to look at, and to listen to. Strung out, uncommunicative, tall; I love those attributes in a man.
There are a lot of cold, faithless men on your records; do you feel that you lived through a particularly sexist time?
Faithless men and women have existed since time immemorial. In my day, it was usually the men who were unfaithful. I worked with a lot of married musos who had a girl in every port. Now, even the older ladies – Madonna, I’m talking to you – seem to have schoolboy boyfriends. Good luck to them.
INTERVIEW: JIM WIRTH