Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 05: A song that reminds me of someone

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, today's song is also a prime example of a song which never fails to make me sad. It's been a favourite for many years, and for as long as I've been listening to it, it's rarely failed to make me cry like a little girl. But in the last few months, particularly, it's gained an extra poignancy.

The reason it's always made me sad should be fairly obvious - it's got a heartrendingly-beautiful melody, with lyrics which paint a bittersweet portrait of the devastating toll which time and disillusionment can wreak on the hopes and naivety of youth. The live version above is a good one, but there's an additional backing from the Northumbrian pipes on the original studio version which gives it an even more haunting quality. But that's got nothing to do with why it reminds me so strongly of someone.

Many years ago, back when I was a mere high school student, I went to Glasgow for the day with my friend Ben and his family. His father was an architect, and there was an exhibition on display in a gallery in Glasgow which he wanted to see (embarrassingly, I can't remember if the architect on display was Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Rennie Macintosh, which says everything which needs to be said about the depth of my architectural knowledge). Since I was staying with them for the weekend, I got to be taken along.

The exhibit was fine enough, but it's the car journey back which I remember most clearly. Ben and I, as terribly serious, music-fixated teenagers, had been given charge of the music for the journey north, but for the return trip, Ben's father Roger wanted to listen to something of his own choice. Since he was driving, we were really in no position to object, and besides, Ben (who was, obviously, rather more familiar with his father's tastes in music than I was) assured me that it would be fine. The cassette tape he selected contained selected highlights from two albums - 1991's Rumor & Sigh and 1994's Mirror Blue - by English folk/rock guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson.

These days, as anyone who knows me can't really help but be aware, Thompson's music is such a crucial part of my life that it's hard for me to remember a time when I hadn't heard of him. From his early days in seminal UK folk group Fairport Convention, through his collaborations with then-wife Linda Thompson in the '70s and his subsequent solo career, he's been a unique voice for over forty years, never quite achieving true mainstream recognition, but acknowledged by almost every musician who's aware of him as one of the greatest guitarists in the world of popular music. Equally-brilliant at everything from trad folk reels to delicate acoustic ballads and full-bore electric rock (although, unusually, always with his roots in British folk rather than American blues), he rarely fully indulges his virtuosity on record - where the emphasis is very much on impeccable compositions and instrumental arrangements. In concert, though, on the handful of songs where he allows himself full rein as a soloist, he's probably the most spectacularly-gifted musician I've ever seen play.

But as a sixteen-year old, I knew none of this. All I remember is hearing these wonderful songs, listening to the sharp and often hilariously-caustic lyrics, and thinking that I'd never heard music quite like this before. At the time, both Ben and myself were most taken with a different song, the laugh-out-loud funny (and delightfully-suggestive) Read About Love*, but these days, it's 'Beeswing' which really sticks with me. Roger said at the time that it was one of his favourite songs, and today, I'd say the same for myself - the delicate melody, heart-rending lyrics and gorgeous, restrained performance all mark it out among the finest pieces of music I've ever heard, and as I said above, it almost never fails to make me cry.

Roger Wilkinson died earlier this year. I wasn't able to attend the funeral, and I've only spoken to Ben (who remains one of my best friends) a few times since. But whenever I listen to Richard Thompson, and to this song in particular, I remember how kindly he always treated me when I visited his house as a kid, and how much I enjoyed the few conversations we shared in more recent years, as adults, and it makes me terribly sad that he's not there any more.

*Sorry about the somewhat tacky Supernatural fanvideo - it was the only version of 'Read About Love' I could find on Youtube, and it's a song worth listening to.

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