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Linda Thompson

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In 1985, LINDA THOMPSON made a startling exit from the folk-rock music scene she helped to invent. Her self-imposed banishment came in response to two intractable realities: her divorce from the guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson, the scene’s leading light, and a rare anxiety-based syndrome called hysterical dysphonia, the vocalist’s equivalent of merciless stage fright. The durable beauty of her recordings with Richard has assured her status as folk rock royalty for more than 20 years. Now she comes to reclaim her territory. Her aptly titled comeback is, of course, several years in the making, the sustained vision of the artist and her producer, Edward Haber, who also assembled the retrospective compilation of her work, Dreams Fly Away, in 1996. Chief concert recording engineer for WNYC, the New York outlet for National Public Radio, Haber captures, rather than manufactures, sound. There are no special effects here, no audio pyrotechnics. Just that voice, and exquisite musicianship. Her dysphonia is under control these days; in fact, she has appeared on stage in recent years with the Royal National Theatre and with the avant popist David Thomas, of Pere Ubu fame. Her children are grown – her middle child, Teddy Thompson, is a serenely gifted musician in his own right, and on Fashionably Late, serves as her extraordinary music partner. She remains obsessed with the deep British folk music that she and her circle reanimated with the electricity of rock and roll. Like all great folk singers - Sandy Denny in particular, Richard’s partner in Fairport Convention in whose shadow she sometimes felt herself to stand - Linda Thompson has an ancient voice, wilting, wounded and wise. She sings with the conviction of an eyewitness of thieves, beggars, drunks, street urchins and circus freaks, spurned lovers and murdering swine, centuries-gone.

The album’s lead-off track, “Dear Mary” - co-authored with Teddy, sung with Richard, Teddy and daughter, Kamila, and peppered with Richard’s guitar wizardry - delivers a knockout chorus in the unmistakable Thompson manner. To hear Linda’s voice in full flower again, after seventeen years of silence, surrounded by her family, is proof positive you can go home again. The song features their mid-register voices locked together, one of the record’s recurrent pleasures, also used to great effect when mother and son trade verses on Lal Waterson’s “Evona Darling”. Thompson’s unalloyed passion for “hardcore” folk (her word) yields a chilling re-invention of the “faux” Scottish murder ballad “Nine Stone Rig”, to which she added several verses; the murder and its aftermath are recounted with stark, journalistic precision. “Banks of the Clyde”, written for her brother Brian, is likewise hardcore, only this time bittersweet, a broken down woman’s wish for home. “Paint & Powder Beauty”, written with the gifted young songwriter Rufus Wainwright, wanders farthest afield. A stylish, theatrical, 40’s-style ballad, the song takes a hard look at an aging call girl from the buyer’s point of view. The languid string arrangement by Robert Kirby, who orchestrated Nick Drake’s songbook, features a viola solo with an ear to the singer’s honeyed register. But the heartwrecker is her own “No Telling”, a composition written a cappella, as she does, a love song that relates the redemptive power of a love song using the medium as the message. The musicians are first rate, chiefly acoustic guitarist John Doyle and bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) in addition to son Teddy. Van Dyke Parks guests on accordion and Hammond B-3 organ; Geoff Muldaur arranged “Miss Murray” for Richard Greene’s fiddle and Parks’ accordion; there are harmonies by Martha Wainwright and England’s current folk princess, former Poozie Kate Rusby. Trad punk fiddler Eliza Carthy lends her spirit to “Weary Life”, and Linda reunites with Eliza’s father Martin Carthy (they made some demos together in 1970). The album also features Fairport veterans Jerry Donohue (solo on “All I See”), Dave Mattacks (drums) and Dave Pegg (acoustic bass, mandolin). The last of the ten tracks, “Dear Old Man of Mine”, is another family affair, only this time the song is clearly about Richard and performed in his absence, with Teddy handling the guitar and their youngest child, Kamila, providing the harmony. Wisdom comes late, dashed dreams yield to time; no hard feelings.

Linda Pettifer was born in London in 1948 to an ex-variety girl who called herself Vera Love, daughter of a vaudevillian. Linda was 6 when the family moved to a nice neighborhood in the notoriously rough city of Glasgow – her mother’s hometown - where her father opened a TV repair shop. Linda appeared briefly in local folk clubs circa 1966, under the spell of “The Times They Are A-Changing,” then left in ‘67 to pursue a degree at London University. Modern languages proved a tough discipline for a girl to maintain if she seriously wanted to be a folk singer. She quit school after 4 months and hit the coffee-houses full time, careful to conceal her day job as a jingle singer from the purists.

She soon found her element, falling in with Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, John Renbourn, and producer Joe Boyd. A sound was born and passions ran high; there were various pairings, musical and otherwise, accidents and deaths. The chronology is murky now, even to her.

With her marriage to Richard Thompson and the release of I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Linda’s name became linked inextricably to her husband’s. She was keenly aware of the reverence for his previous muse, Sandy Denny – a reverence she shared - and that gossip held that anyone could shine given the great Richard Thompson’s songs to sing. But the truth was - and is - that she possesses a remarkable instrument. Certainly her husband knew the spell she could cast and wrote a trove of darkly dramatic songs for her: “Withered and Died,” “Dimming of the Day,” Walking on a Wire,” “For Shame of Doing Wrong,” “A Heart Needs a Home.” She sang them all into the folk-rock lexicon with grace and authority.

Brilliant as the songs and performances were though, record sales were weak. In that particularly cruel cultural ratio, the couple found themselves as impoverished as they were critically acclaimed. Linda’s performance anxieties - present almost from the first but previously manageable – began to deepen; her increasing ambivalence about their struggle only worsened her condition. In awe of Richard and fearful of being eclipsed by Sandy, she began to have trouble starting songs onstage, pacing and coughing, sizing up the mic like an adversary.

Then Richard’s abrupt conversion to Sufism in the mid-70’s delivered them to a squat in Maida Vale. Over several years of communal living, during some of which time Richard was doctrinally forbidden to play, they released Pour Down Like Silver, First Light and Sunnyvista, with their usual crew. Their conversion was genuine, the revelations lasting, but daily life was very hard on Linda; she secretly held on to their London apartment. Altogether they made six records, two of them acknowledged masterpieces (notably, on either side of their conversion); she bore three children and left him twice. In the end Richard fell in love with his present wife, Nancy Covey, and left Linda in May 1982, shortly after the birth of their third child and on the verge of their first and only American tour, in support of Shoot Out the Lights.

Ironically, Linda never sang better than she did on that roundhouse swing through the States. She found herself, fueled with rage, wrecking hotel rooms, kicking the unfaithful guitarist in the shins mid-solo, and singing like an angel. “It was as if,” Joe Boyd remembers, “Richard had written her all these songs to sing when he left her.” Time and Rolling Stone dubbed her the female singer of the year.

She married Steve Kenis in the same year Richard married Nancy; both couples remain together. In 1985 she released One Clear Moment, her first solo recording, with seven of her own compositions. The title track can be heard as a precursor to the grown-woman’s rock that Bonnie Raitt was to distill years later; another ballad, “Telling Me Lies” written with Betsy Cook, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Country Song category. Sales were disappointing however, and by 1989 a formal diagnosis of hysterical dysphonia had been made. The vocal condition was unresponsive to treatment, medical or psychological; musically, she seemed finished. She raised her children, traveled the world with her husband, became a partner in an antique jewelry stall in Bond Street, did studio and theater work, enjoyed some success as a songwriter. Now, with a new album and a new outlook, the possibilities are wide-open. There will be an American tour in October , with Teddy opening each show (“I told him not to be too good”). She’s overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection she’s experiencing, grateful to be surrounded with “young and good-looking” people, her coppery pipes open and clear.

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