INTERVIEW- 1000 years: Thompson's long look at history
Richard Thompson has had two influential careers, one as a member of British folk rock heroes Fairport Convention, and one with the solo projects that followed. The solo acoustic tour that stops at Starr Hill this week will consist largely of material from the latter, but when he calls to chat, he's particularly jazzed about the new DVD/CD triple album that landed him in Rolling Stone in August, thanks entirely to its staggering ambition.
In 1999, Playboy magazine called Thompson with a proposition: they had decided to cash in on the worldwide Y2K hysteria by printing several sets of celebrity picks for the top-ten songs of the millennium.
"Hah! I thought. Hypocrites!" he thought. "They don't mean millennium; they mean 20 years."
So Thompson called them on it, delivering a thousand-year countdown dating all the way back to 1068. The magazine refused to publish his list, but in compiling it he found sufficient motivation for an entire album. 1000 Years of Popular Music is based on a series of sporadic performances of the same name that Thompson delivers in chronological order.
It starts with the oldest known round in the English language and catches its breath 22 songs and 10 centuries later, with Britney Spears' inane "Oops! ...I Did It Again" serving as an oddly upbeat elegy for a thousand years of dignity in the Western musical tradition.
Come on, people. It's not too late to recover, and Thompson is clearly the man who ought to be leading the charge.
The Hook: At what point did you decide to turn it from a celebrity list gimmick into a serious musical undertaking?
Richard Thompson: The Playboy thing was in 1999. In 2000, I got asked to do a show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and they asked me if I could do a show that was different from my usual show, because they were doing a show with that emphasis. I thought that would be an interesting thing to try, and it was a success, so we did it the next year at the Getty. And we got asked to do it again, and it just spread out from there.
The Hook: They're in chronological order on the album. Do you do it that way live, too?
Richard Thompson: Yeah, they're chronological until the encores. I think that's very effective, actually, because it gives it a narrative. I'm always amazed how quickly two hours passes. You kind of get pulled along by time, by history. It's a very strange thing.
The Hook: In preparation for this article, I've been listening to nothing but Richard Thompson for about three days now–
Richard Thompson: That's a terrible thing to have to go through.
The Hook: Tell me about it. But the point is that you have to do a lot of research before you can claim to understand something. How does one even begin to assume a mastery of something like a thousand years of music?
Richard Thompson: I think the answer is that you don't assume mastery of anything. Somewhere in the liner notes I kind of disclaim. I say that we don't know what we're doing. In the end, it's an interpretation anyway. You don't really know what a troubadour song from 1200 sounded like.
The Hook: Somewhere in this territory we're treading is a line in the sand between popular music and high art. Do you think this would have worked if you hadn't specified "popular" music?
Richard Thompson: It meets the aims of the show in a way that's easier for us to grasp as performers, and easier for the audience to grasp. We're lying and cheating. The music wasn't really popular, in many cases. In a lot of cases it's sort of obscure, but it's stuff we like.
The Hook: Which would you prefer to be remembered as?
Richard Thompson: If you're thinking about posterity, you're going to make crappy music.
The Hook: Has this project affected your own writing?
Richard Thompson: Things have snuck in. I find myself regurgitating little bits of Henry Purcell, or little bits of dance music from the 1600s. It has had an influence, yeah, and I think a positive one.
The Hook: In 2003, Rolling Stone put you at #19 on their list of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Would you rather be on a list of the top songwriters?
Richard Thompson: I'd rather not be on any lists, to tell you the truth. If I'm a guitar player, I'm a guitar player within the structure of a song. I like to bring whatever talents I have– as a writer, as a singer, as a musician– to the song form.
The Hook: Can we take another shot at the "1000 years" model but change the subject matter to something else?
Richard Thompson: Okay.
The Hook: One thousand years of upset victories?
Richard Thompson: European Cup in 1967. That's it.
The Hook: One thousand years of delightful recipes?
Richard Thompson: I do have a very good recipe for "Arbolettyf" from about the time of Chaucer, 1340. It's sort of scrambled eggs with herbs in it– delicious!
The Hook: One thousand years of excruciating little annoyances?
Richard Thompson: Do you ever get out of the shower and onto the bathmat, but the towel is hanging on the bathroom door, way over on the other side of the bathroom, so you kind of have to shuffle the bathmat with your feet over to the other side of the bathroom? I find that very annoying. Everything else is fine in my life, and in the world.
The Hook: I usually drip.
Richard Thompson: That's what my son does. That's totally unacceptable.
Richard Thompson and Amy Correia are at Starr Hill Saturday, October 28. $25/$22, 8pm.