That's what David Byrne says about Richard Thompson's lack of success. A fine song-writer, a virtuoso guitarist and an affecting singer, Thompson has everything Eric Clapton has, except the fame and the wealth. But now he's getting the tribute-album treatment, and he may just be about to become fashionable

IT HAS been arranged that I should meet Richard Thompson in a cafe near his house in Hampstead. I arrive there before him and it's noisy and crowded, so I ask the waitress for a quiet table near the back, and explain that I'm interviewing someone . "Anyone famous?" she asks. I'm not quite sure how to answer. Richard Thompson is famous among other musicians for his superb song-writing abilities and virtuoso guitar-playing; he's famous if you happen to be a fan of English folk-rock; he's famous am o ng music critics as someone who should be more famous. But does he qualify as famous, full stop? No, definitely not.

So when Thompson arrives - a balding 45-year- old with a trim beard, wearing jeans and a denim shirt and a suede waistcoat - no one in the cafe takes any notice. There's not even a nudge-nudge "who's that bloke in the corner, doesn't he look slightly familiar?" And the waitress doesn't give him a second glance: in fact, Thompson has to wave his arm for quite some time before she comes to take his order (a cup of coffee). If there was any justice in this world, Richard Thompson would be just as rich and successful as Eric Clapton or Van Morrison, and a lot more so than some people you could mention (Phil Collins, for example). But he's not, partly because excellence is never automatically rewarded in the music business; and perhaps because there is alsosomething a bit off-putting about him. His songs - which are written with intense emotional conviction - are sometimes scary, sometimes depressing; he writes about psychopaths and mental illness and failed love affairs and his Muslim faith. He sings in a precise, angular English accent, and he draws on English traditional folk music, which tends not to go down very well in this country: he was a founding member of Fairport Convention, whom many people now sneer at as a bunch of Sixties has-beens in woolly jumpers.

If he was Irish, Richard Thompson would sell more records - record-buyers like their traditional music to have a Celtic tinge, perhaps because we remember the embarrassment of being forced to sing twee versions of Olde English folk songs as schoolchildren. If he was American, that would be even better: starting out as a folk-singer never did Bob Dylan any harm here. And if he looked slightly more modern, that might help. Elvis Costello writes clipped, intense ballads too, and no one accuses him of beinga boring old folky.

Luckily for Thompson, the Americans are less scathing about English folk-rock. It was in America that his career gained a second life: he was signed by Capitol Records in 1988 after a less than satisfactory relationship with various British labels. Soon after, he was named Rolling Stone magazine's guitar-player of the year, and a recent album, Rumor and Sigh, was nominated for a Grammy in 1991. It is ironic that this most English of musicians now releases records complete with American spellings.

As part of its campaign to make Richard Thompson better-known, Capitol is putting out a "tribute album" next month, made up of cover versions of his songs by artists ranging from REM, one of the most popular bands in the world, to the venerable gospel group the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The accompanying press release contains quotes from some of the participants, including David Byrne, the former leader of Talking Heads, who says, "Personally, being somewhat jealous and envious of Richard's song-writing and guitar- playing, it is somewhat satisfying that he has not yet achieved household-name status. It serves him right for being so good." Doubtless this is supposed to be a joke, but it has an element of truth. Richard Thompson is too good for his own good, too good to be really successful. Even with the muscle and money of Capitol (part of EMI) behind them, his records have yet to sell more than a couple of hundred thousand each, which is better than before but still nowhere near smash-hit level.

His friends say that Richard Thompson doesn't care. The singer Clive Gregson, who has known him for 15 years, and played guitar in his band until 1992, says, "He's never been interested in being commercially successful. He's smart enough to know that if he sells a certain number of records, he can stay in business. But on the whole he does pretty much what he wants to do - and just keeps going."

Thompson himself says more or less the same thing; except in one respect. He hates having to do interviews to promote his career, and then being asked questions about his personal life: about the crash in 1969 which killed his girlfriend and Fairport Convention's drummer; about his conversion to Islam in the Seventies; about his acrimonious separation in 1982 from his then wife and musical partner, Linda Thompson. But he's not famous enough to say no to all interviews.

"If I was as successful as Neil Young," he observes with a certain longing, "I wouldn't have to do any interviews, and no one would have to know anything, and that would be fine. But the fact is, I have to deal with the media, so I have to answer questions about myself . . . and I'll keep fending them off. I'll keep lying as much as possible to preserve my sanity."

THE PROBLEM is, Richard Thompson's life is a dramatic one - just as dramatic as the lives he writes about in his moving narrative songs - and people are often interested in knowing something about him. He probably realises this and as a result, despite his obvious humour and intelligence, he is an edgy person to interview. I start by asking him what he thinks of the new tribute album, Beat the Retreat. "Oh, I don't know," he says somewhat dismissively. "It wasn't my idea."

It's obviously part of Capitol's plan to make you famous, I say. "They've already failed in that," he replies, even more dismissively. "They're obviously wasting their time. Hmmmm."

He is more eloquent when talking about the musical influences of his childhood. He grew up in north London - Tufnell Park and Archway; his father was a Scottish policeman who had left the Borders and moved south to work for the Met. "My family was at least semi-musical," he says. "My father was a keen music fan. He liked Scottish music, he liked jazz. He had some good Django Reinhardt records, Duke Ellington records.

"My father played guitar a bit, there was a guitar lying around the house, so I just picked it up. I used to get some help from my sister's boyfriends. When I was 10, she was about 15, and her boyfriends used to come round and play `Peggy Sue' and stuff

like that, so I learnt a few chords, a few Shadows riffs. And I took some classical lessons when I was 11 or 12, which was very useful."

He joined Fairport Convention at the age of 17, when he was still at school. By the end of 1967 they had found a manager and producer, Joe Boyd, and signed a record deal. "We weren't ever very successful," he says. "The first record we put out, we were really proud of, our first single. And I thought, `this one is going to jump up the charts'. We sold about three copies. And I thought, `damn it all, I'm never going to get excited about any record ever again' - and I probably haven't. Maybe that's a badthing - far too pragmatic. But it knocked the stuffing out of my optimism at that point and I thought, `obviously you have to be successful on your own terms and so we may as well do that'." In 1969, when he was 20, Fairport Convention came close to spli tting up after the motorway crash that killed Thompson's girlfriend, Genie Franklin, and their drummer, Martin Lamble. "We did think about giving up for a while after that," says Thompson. "We wondered if we had the spirit to carry on." But the band did continue, and gained increasing musical confidence and maturity. As Joe Boyd says, "In the aftermath of the accident, they made a decision to do something very English, and to create something very English. It had to be big enough and important enough to justify the group staying together."

By the early Seventies, the inevitable Musical Differences had emerged. The bassist, Ashley Hutchings, felt the band should continue to concentrate on its traditional folk repertoire, rather than the new songs written by Thompson and Fairport's lead sin g er, Sandy Denny. Hutchings left (and formed Steeleye Span); and then Thompson departed at the beginning of 1971. Soon after, he met Linda Peters, who became his wife and musical partner.

In their 10 years together, the pair made a series of critically acclaimed albums. In 1974, they converted to Islam, which a friend said, "is a very strange thing for a Western woman to do. It was Richard's idea, and Linda did it not wholly unwillingly".

Thompson says that he has never followed the Muslim belief that women should be kept in purdah. "A lot of that is really Arab tradition," he says. "Very little of that is Islam, very little indeed. Islam came as a liberation for women when it arrived 1,400 years ago. Women were way below horses and camels in the Arab world - seriously, they were well down in the league table - and it elevated women at the time."

He has been accused of writing aggressively anti-women songs, which is probably unfair. He writes of betrayal and loss and cruel partings, but the men in his songs are just as capable of behaving badly as the women. Indeed many of them are psychopaths

(like the crazy neighbour in "Psycho Street", on Rumor and Sigh, who pours petrol through a letter-box, throws a match after it, and then videos the fire). "I think psychopaths are interesting as people," Thompson says. "A psychopath has the lid off. I think that's what's appealing about them as human beings. It's the same as people who are desperate or lovelorn or adrift in the Atlantic hanging on to a piece of wood. It's the extremes which are interesting - and where people reveal themselves, reveal their humanity,"

Thompson is not entirely happy, however, at being cast as a glum melancholic (though it was his own fan-club that put out a cassette of his songs entitled Doom and Gloom from the Tomb). "It's labouring the point, really," he says, but then admits that "there's something very appealing about sad music, and I think most music is sad - most of the music I like, anyway. It is a way of dealing with sadness, rather than wallowing in it - and a way of sharing it. As a songwriter, through looking into yourself and having courage, you can express the unexpressed. You can say things that need to be said, but that people don't always say. You can hold then up to an audience and say, `look, this is inside everyone, this is a common experience, let's

have a look at it in the comfort of our living-room armchairs, or in the comfort of our theatre seats' - and it's a pleasant way of dealing with this, let's deal with it as entertainment."

This attitude may go some way to explain why Richard Thompson is not filling stadiums. I have a friend who went to see Richard and Linda Thompson play in a Cambridge lecture theatre in 1977. "It was extremely intense and gloomy," he remembers. "She sat on a stool and looked miserable. He stood up and looked miserable. We sat behind little desks and watched. It did have a strange charisma all of its own - but it wasn't very rock'n'roll."

In 1982, the Thompsons released Shoot Out the Lights (the title track of which was apparently written about Brezhnev sending Soviet troops into Afghanistan). It also included "A Man in Need": as the accompanying notes to a recent compilation album say, it is "the perfect opener" for any collection of Richard Thompson songs, "projecting irredeemable emptiness in its litany of details about irreconcilable differences". The American tour that followed attracted far more press coverage than the duo had everreceived before, mainly because Richard Thompson had recently left his wife for another woman. The couple had a small baby at the time - as well as two older children - and there was some doubt as to whether the tour would go ahead at all. But they played to packed houses, and as Joe Boyd recalls, "Linda would sing `A Heart Needs a Home', and there wasn't a dry eye in the audience. You could cut the atmosphere between them with a knife, but it was an amazing performance."

Boyd's record company, Hannibal, released Shoot Out the Lights and he says, "There was a huge demand for it - which was not just down to a salacious interest in their broken marriage. But the divorce gave it an added spin - that extra little bit of velcro that made his name stick to people's memories".

Thompson himself is still bitter about the publicity, particularly the fact that the story of his divorce was featured in Time magazine. "We weren't famous going into it," he says. "We were more famous coming out of it."

I ask him why he thinks people were interested. "It was some kind of story," he replies. "It's always good, you know, a bit of blood. Something acrimonious is always good copy."

Did it make the separation more acrimonious?

"I don't think it made any difference, but I got asked a lot more stupid questions by journalists," he says. "Present stupid questions excepted, of course."

RICHARD THOMPSON, who has a three-year-old son with his second wife, Nancy, has recently become a grandfather. He is about to go an tour with his friend Danny Thompson (no relation); their combined ages are well over 90. But he is, at long last, becoming- dare I say it - hip. David Byrne thinks he's cool; so does Michael Stipe of REM. Thompson is not impressed. "It's not something to live and die by, being fashionable," he says. "I try to be flexible so that I can always make a living. I can tighten mybelt if I need to, and become a humble soloist in a folk club. When the money is around I can expand and take a band on the road and have a good time."

Have a good time? Can this really be Mr Doom and Gloom talking? Is he now happy as well as hip? "Pretty happy, yes," he says cautiously. "I'm a pretty happy sort of person, certainly some of the time. I'm basically an optimistic person. I always have been an optimistic person. Life bowls leg-breaks at you, to use a cricketing term, but if you have your front pad firmly forwards, you can fend off most things."

Having successfully fended off another infernal journalist, it is time for him to leave. As we walk out, the waitress says, "So who was it that you were interviewing?"

"Richard Thompson."

"Who's he?" she says. "One of the Thompson Twins?"

Richard Thompson does not hear this, because he's in a hurry to get to the MTV studios in Camden Town. Richard Thompson on MTV! You never know, he might be famous yet.

THOMPSON AT HIS BEST: A TOP 10: Waltzing's for Dreamers (on the album Amnesia, Capitol, 1988). Contains the quintessential Thompson chorus: "One step for aching/Two steps for breaking/Waltzing's for dreamers and losers in love," and has a tune that the best Nashville writers would die for - but performed with traditional English inflections.

Wall of Death (Shoot Out the Lights, Rykodisc, 1982). Despite the gloomy title, it's a great pop song, with a guitar part that sounds like REM before they'd ever invented themselves (which may be why they've done a recent cover version of it).

Dimming of the Day (Pour Down Like Silver, Island, 1975). The ultimate "please come back, I miss you" song; one of his finest tunes (it sounds like it might be heading somewhere else, which keeps you on the edge of your seat) and a beautiful lead vocal by Linda Thompson.

Shoot Out The Lights (previously unreleased live version, Watching the Dark, Rykodisc, 1993). Intense, viciously unforgiving performance, listing a catalogue of wrongs about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (or any war, ever).

Beeswing (Mirror Blue, Capitol, 1994). One of the most moving narrative folk songs you could hope to hear: lyrical, tender, sad, yet still hopeful. Thompson sings about travellers and a yearning for lost love in the twilight years, without ever sounding twee or dated.

1952 Vincent Black Lightning (Rumor and Sigh, Capitol, 1991). One in the long tradition of pop songs about girls and boys and motorbikes; the thing is this one actually makes you cry.

Down Where the Drunkards Roll (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Island, 1973). A compassionate song about drunks, written by a man who never touches a drop himself, with a tune that feels like you've known it forever.

Cavalry Cross (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, or previously unreleased live version on Watching the Dark). A struggle between the soul and the man, culminating in an extraordinary guitar solo which sounds like John Coltrane meeting a master Highland bagpiper.

A Heart Needs a Home (Hokey Pokey, Island, 1974). Written soon after Thompson converted to Islam, this is a song about finding God, but also a beautifully simple ballad of human love.

Two Left Feet (Hands of Kindness, Rykodisc, 1984). Thompson berates his dancing partner for being deficient in the disco department, to the sound of a warped accordion-led Ceilidh band. A silly song - and great for flinging yourself around the kitchen toon a rainy day.

Neill MacColl Guitarist with The Bible and Christy Moore (and husband of Justine Picardie)

! `Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson' is released by Capitol on 6 February. Richard Thompson has just set out on a British tour which continues to 26 February.

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