Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
The problem of small sample size has long vexed researchers. If you are trying to project results from a study onto a larger population, it’s better to have 500 participants than 20. The bigger your group – assuming it’s a representative collection of subjects – the more likely it is that your conclusions will have wider application.
The early Pazz and Jop polls, which returned after a two-year absence in 1974, reflect practically the worst case scenario, since not only were there very few voters (24 in 1974), but they were also mostly male, white, and of similar ages and cultural experiences. The result is that they shared a lot of the same perspectives about music, and this lessened the diversity of the list. Remember: in 1971, they did not include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”, a record that I don’t much care for but which a much larger pool of voters has ranked as the greatest album ever made. This would reach its nadir a few years later when they concluded that Graham Parker made 2 of the top 4 records of that year. That opinion has not come close to standing the test of time.
I questioned whether this should continue as a Pazz and Jop or Not the Pazz and Jop series. I’m sticking with my original intent, but will drop in periodically with more of the nots that I think were egregious oversights by voters of the time. And I’m not sure if there could be a better example of them screwing up than 1974’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” from Richard and Linda Thompson, which did not make the top 30 in that year’s voting.
I don’t know why this wasn’t appreciated for the masterpiece it is on initial release. Richard was known from Fairport Convention, and the airwaves were certainly friendly enough to lame versions of the folk rock that the Thompsons were putting out. It could be one of those records that takes time to grow on you, but I sort of reject that premise, because the first song grabbed my attention and the second ripped my heart out at the 52-second mark, threw it on the floor and stomped on it for the entire three minutes that remained of the track. Is it possible that critics in 1974 were just idiots, so awash in mediocre prog rock posing as art that they couldn’t hear simple unshowy brilliance when it was right there waiting to be recognized? That’s what I’m going with.
Of course, it is actually a rather showy record, with a fanciful mix of instruments – a mandolin here, marching band horns there – played masterfully, and often elusive and allusive lyrics (yet another songwriter wanting us to know how clever he is). It’s a fairly cynical record, populated by con artists (“The Little Beggar Girl”), well-meaning but inappropriate advisors of children (“The End of the Rainbow”: “Every loving handshake/Is just another man to beat” hardly inspires one to get out of bed in the morning – with this kind of worldview, you can see why Richard sought peace in a commune a few years later) and confident but distrustful performers (“I’m your friend until you use me” sings Linda in “The Great Valerio”).
In some sense, the Thompsons, at least on this record, were more two soloists than a true duet, as there is rarely any interplay between their voices, though they did work well together on “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, less so on “We Sing Hallelujah”, where it sometimes feels as if Linda is still learning the words. I don’t find either of their voices particularly pleasing, but they are unquestionably potent interpreters of Richard’s songs: these aren’t pretty songs, and they don’t need a pretty voice. Richard sounds much older than the 24-year-old he was, and for all the folkie elements here, Linda is best represented on a pair of “modern girl in the world”-type tracks. In “Has He Got A Friend for Me”, her work on the chorus is heart-rending: she starts hesitant and lacking confidence, then strong but wavering on the second effort, before retreating into insecurity. Richard doesn’t sing on that track – it would be an intrusion. The title track finds her liberated from the limits of folk ballads, with a modern-sounding come-hither tune about seeking liberation from a ho-hum life.
“When I Get to the Border” is a toe-tapper with the feel of an old traditional folk song, but grounded in the modern by Richard’s guitar and a steady, uncomplicated drumbeat (the unostentatious drum is also a critical element in “We Sing Hallelujah”). The mournful “Withered and Died” is another of those songs that feel like they were already 100 years old when he wrote them, traditional ballads from long-forgotten masters rescued from obscurity for today’s audience. Similarly, “The Little Beggar Girl” is a slowed-down jig – up the tempo and you’d be swirling around the floor.
But all of this pales to “The Calvary Cross”. Richard shows here that he is a true balladeer. After some amiable, sort of rambling guitar (that really sounds like a sitar in places), he hits with three repeated yet subtly different chords, that same steady drum backing him up. The song is dirge-like, spiritual, and rooted in Christian imagery, which may explain why it has such an impact on this lapsed Catholic. (The movie “Jesus of Montreal” similarly wrecked me on the initial watch in 1989 – resisting my innate Catholicism has been a lifelong project, it seems.) When Richard sings “scrub me ‘til I shine in the dark”, I have no idea what he’s getting at, but it doesn’t matter – it feels deeply personal to him, and I want to feel that, too. I know I’m doing a really poor job of saying why this song hits me so hard, but maybe that’s the point: the best art touches us so deep in our subconscious that efforts to articulate that feeling are no more than the wailings of an infant in an unknowable darkness.
It is the rare song that is made better by stretching it out, but “The Calvary Cross” is one such exception. The Spotify version of the album ends with a live version that falls just shy of 10 minutes. It drops the 51 seconds of noodling that starts the album version and jumps right into the three notes that crushed me so. It’s a showcase for Richard’s amazing guitar work, and a compelling argument for his position among the greatest axemen of his day.
All I can really say is that listening to this record makes me happy. I have probably played it 10 times in the past month, and “The Calvary Cross” maybe 10 times more, and even now, as I write these words with those three magical notes in my ears, I am slightly teary-eyed and feel my heart filled with joy. Music has that kind of insane power, and it would be wise not to trust it completely: it would definitely be a bad idea for me to be, say, operating machinery right now, or making an important financial decision. But we need to find joy wherever we can, especially in this darkest timeline in which we live, and so I am thankful for the Thompsons and others who can take me there. Good luck to you in finding your own “The Calvary Cross”. It’s out there, somewhere.