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Pop: Happiness is a hard luck story

After decades spent on the cusp of folk and rock, art and commerce, Richard Thompson is still making his mind up about some things. Like the Eagles and New Wave. By Andy Gill
Along the main drag in Brentwood (Los Angeles, not Essex), just a short drive from OJ Simpson's mansion, comes striding Richard Thompson, a lanky picture of health in shorts, beard, and beaming smile. The most extravagantly talented figure thrown up by the British folk-rock boom of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Thompson now resides in both California and London, splitting his time between homes in Belsize Park and Pacific Palisades, the coastal resort adjacent to star-studded Malibu. They're both neighbourhoods he shares with Ozzy Osbourne, he says with a wry grin, though it's doubtful whether Ozzy can stroll quite as unimpeded about his business as Thompson, even if he could squeeze into the shorts.

The dual-option lifestyle fits in well with Thompson's musical personality, which tacks constantly between penetrating folkie songwriter and enigmatic, dervish-style electric guitarist. The two modes are conveniently presented on different CDs on his latest budget-priced double-album you? me? us?, under the rubrics Nude and Voltage Enhanced. "It's kind of a throwback to those Fifties albums, where one side would be called something like `Party Time!' and the other would be `After Dark'," he jokes, adding that it's cheap enough for acoustic fans to throw the electric record away if they want, and vice-versa. Can there possibly be such cavalier customers out there?

Indeed there can: "I get letters from people saying, "You really shouldn't play electric guitar, it's so loud and tasteless," confides Thompson. And vice-versa: "You're wasting your time with that singer-songwriter stuff, you should just play guitar. Why didn't you join the Eagles in 1972?" What? This most quintessentially British of artists, playing with that most archetypally American of bands? Well, yes: apparently, the celebrated California cowboys did once put out a feeler about that possibility, but it wasn't a long enough feeler to actually reach Thompson at the time, and Joe Walsh got the gig.

So, who are Thompson's big influences on guitar?

"Oh, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Glenn Frey..." It's reassuring to note that, although he may spend his time hiking in the nearby mountains and soaking up the California sun, Thompson's humour remains as bone-dry and British as ever.

"He lives in Los Angeles partly because he's married to an American tour promoter, and partly because, at this stage in his career, he does more work there. In Britain, the former Fairport Convention stalwart is still largely regarded as a folkie, an archaeologist of archaic musical traditions; in America, contrarily, he's considered a rock musician, one whose post- Fairport work with his former wife Linda formed the basis of his subsequent solo career.

"I'm sort of New Wave over here, actually," he says, in all seriousness. "Because Shoot Out the Lights [the last Richard & Linda Thompson album, 1982] was the first record we toured over here, we got played on college radio, which got us bracketed along with Talking Heads and suchlike. Our audience here is a much younger audience than it is in Europe, it's a mixture of old farts and new farts, a wider age-range than in the UK."

The mid-Eighties roots-rock boom which enabled bands such as REM to float to the top of the rock pile also helped a little in bringing Thompson to wider public recognition, though as he acknowledges, "I'm not sure I've ever managed to catch a wave, in terms of style popularity."

His sales figures bear this out. Despite ubiquitous critical acclaim, Thompson's best--selling album, 1991's Rumor and Sigh, sold only 250,000 copies; his last release, 1994's Mirror Blue, managed to shift a mere 150,000 - the kind of numbers that would normally have alarm bells ringing in record-company offices, though Thompson seems sanguine enough.

He has, he believes, been "very indulged" by record companies through his career, often treated as a label mascot, in the manner of Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks or Ry Cooder - high-quality artists with low-volume sales, tolerated for their ability to attract other artists to the label. And certainly, sales volumes don't get much lower than those of Thompson's 1972 solo debut Henry the Human Fly which, according to Warner Brothers' in-house magazine, was the worst-selling album in the company's entire history.

The decades spent on the cusp of art and commerce have, however, paid off in less obvious ways. "I'm glad, in some senses, that I haven't been that successful, because it gives you more freedom," says Thompson. "There's less expectation from other people; you're less involved trying to out- think the record company or the audience. I'm basically a folk singer, and what I like to do most in the world is go into a club with an acoustic guitar and sing songs at people. There are a lot of artists who are more album-driven, who can't do that: their whole career lives and dies by how the next album is received. If the next album doesn't get on the radio, they don't tour; and if the album after that doesn't get on the radio, that's the end of their career."

Besides being a widely lauded guitarist and songwriter, Thompson is also the second most famous white Islamic musician in the world, though he deftly avoids discussion of the subject. Asked about his mid-Seventies conversion, he claims he was attracted by the food: "I'm serious! I just thought, these people must be all right, because the food is incredible." He does, however, acknowledge that it's an unusual religion for a white man in America. "The Black Muslims certainly think so. It's kind of a racial club over here - it's very tenuously connected with the rest of the world of Islam."

Rather than be defined by his religion or his race, Thompson defines himself by occupation, as primarily a singer and songwriter - and, it must be said, an uncommonly incisive one. As usual, his gaze, in the songs on you? me? us?, is unflinchingly trained on the spaces between people, the Gordian knots of stalled relationships, the undercurrents of deceit and recrimination summed up in the opening track title "Razor Dance". Like Woody Allen, Thompson broadly agrees with Ingmar Bergman's contention that an artist has one overriding theme, which she/he spends their life constantly refining and revising.

"That's probably true," he says after a lengthy pause, "but that's not the way you have to think about it when you're doing it. You have to think there's a limitless range of things you can write about. The most rewarding time is when you think, `Here's a song that no one's written before, that for some reason or another - style, structure or theme - no one's quite nailed before. I'd like to think I write about maybe two or three things. You're writing about the human condition, and that's from your own experience, or from an observed position, what you know of your friends or read about in the papers, and the more you know about being a human being - the more mature you become - then the more you should be able to nail it." It seems like a process akin to psychology...

"I suppose it is. Psychology is almost a crutch, until you have insight - though Shakespeare was around before psychology was invented, and just about everything is in Shakespeare. Speaking personally, I don't really know where the dividing line between personal and observed experience and fiction comes, and I don't want to know. It's just fun to write stories."

n `you? me? us?' is out now on Capitol Records (CD EST 2282)