Thursday, September 09, 2021

Beeswing by Richard Thompson

Memoirs are always about memory rather than about the things remembered. Everyone molds the past in their own heads to fit what has happened since, their own stories of themselves or their hopes and dreams, fulfilled or dashed. No matter how honest anyone tries to be, there's no way to get back to the person you were then: a diary at the time is inherently different from a memoir later.

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice: 1967-1975 is a memoir, by the excellent British [1] guitarist, singer, songwriter, and bandleader Richard Thompson, covering roughly his first decade making music for a living and written more than forty years after the end of the period he writes about. Thompson opens the book explicitly noting, or maybe disclaiming, that this is all based on memory, and that he's spent a lot of time deliberately not looking back on these years.

Is that why so much of Beeswing feels so quiet and detached? Thompson tells the story of these years, relatively personally, but he's not using a memoir to settle scores or give us his version of events. It's all pretty much the same as anyone else has ever said, and he's relentlessly positive about his bandmates and friends, even as he's cataloging the seemingly endless personnel changes in Fairport Convention. All of the departures were relatively friendly, in his telling, and all because of the music that each of them wanted to make at the time. Given how little money was involved, and how it was the late '60s, I believed him, too.

But Beeswing is a short book about eight tumultuous years, and its bulk is spent on those early Fairport days. I'd estimate two-thirds of the book is Fairport, with the last third covering his first solo album and his entire life, marriage, and duo act with Linda Thompson. Well, the subtitle says it ends in 1975, but Thompson at least sketches their career up to 1979's Sunnyvista and hints about '82's Shoot Out the Lights at the very end.

So it's much more interesting the more a reader cares about Fairport and the folk scene of the late '60s: that's what Thompson is mostly writing about and recreating here, that whole world of bands that merged and split and did gigs together, like a traveling mass of amoebas. Readers deeply invested in knowing the inside story of his conversion to Sufi Islam will find some details here, and those who want to know about his life and working relationship with Linda will find only a few.

He's still a private man; still someone who uses wit to keep people at arm's length. I did mention he was British, didn't I? Sometimes stereotypes have an element of truth.

There are occasional flashes of alternative books that Thompson didn't write, or didn't write yet: at the end, he explicates the title song in some detail, and does that, to a lesser extent, a few times earlier in the book. That - a series of essays about songs he finds the most interesting, tracing the sources of ideas and ruminating about what he was trying to say and what the song means to him after decades singing it in public - would be interesting, and might yet happen. And the subtitle certainly leaves room for subsequent memoirs covering later years.

All in all, though, Thompson is not indulging in most of the things people write memoirs for. He's not giving his side of old disputes, arguing for anything in particular, or aggrandizing his role in events. If anything, he's doing the opposite of all of those things: presenting himself as a mostly quiet, still pretty na├»ve young man who wasn't quite sure exactly what he wanted to do but was passionate about doing it as well as he possibly could. That's admirable, and speaks well to the equanimity and mental balance Thompson has at this point in his life - quite possibly due to his Sufi faith, which he has kept to, all these years - but it does make Beeswing feel smaller and quieter than what one expects from "a rock memoir."

[1] Although, amusingly, he's lived a couple of towns over from me in New Jersey for most of the past decade. Not that I've ever seen him - suburbia is a big place packed full of people - but we always imagine our heroes to be living bigger lives somewhere more exciting and further away.

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