Richard and Linda Thompson, whose 10-year marriage and musical partnership ended in 1982, were a decidedly low-profile couple by rock standards. In fact, they were a low-profile couple by monastery standards. Despite their lack of flamboyance and fame, the Thompsons' private life was watched by the faithful with the kind of fascination usually reserved for a Rod and Britt or Liz and Dick.
"I suppose it's inevitable, in that people like gossip," Richard Thompson, 35, said resignedly as he prepared to start the U.S. tour that brings him and his new band to the Beverly Theatre tonight. "To me, it's unnecessary, and it's a little distracting from the music. Especially when people think songs are specifically about things in your personal life. I think that's a dangerous assumption."
Maybe Thompson's term gossip trivializes the situation a bit. After all, it's on a slightly more exalted plane than common, People magazine couple-watching. In their seven albums, Richard and Linda Thompson established themselves as one of pop's most admired duos. Emerging from England's folk-rock movement in the early '70s, they fused traditional modes with rock and pop elements, creating austere, evocative songs of love and betrayal and haunting expressions of deep spirituality.
Although they never gained wide commercial success, the Thompsons had secured a solid following among pop cognoscenti by the time of their breakup. And rather than indulging in mere gossip, this following seemed to insist on interpreting the Thompsons' art through the couple's private lives, and on trying to read the story of their relationship in their songs.
"I think it's a mistake," Thompson cautioned during a phone interview from New York. "It's a thing they wouldn't do to a novelist. They wouldn't do it to a poet even. They certainly wouldn't do it to a film maker. They wouldn't do it to an actor who was playing a role.
"If you're on stage and you're singing, 'I did this and I did that,' does this really mean that you're talking about yourself, even if you're singing someone else's song? It seems a bit literal. It almost seems a convenient peg for people to hang their own emotions on."
To compound the over-interpreting, last month saw the release of both Richard's "Across a Crowded Room" album and Linda's first solo LP, "One Clear Moment."
Said Thompson: "I thought, 'Oh dear, people are going to review these albums together.' And sure enough. . . . As far as I know, it (the simultaneous release) was a coincidence."
While Thompson acknowledged that the songs on the critically acclaimed "Shoot Out the Lights" album "probably" addressed the end of the marriage, he added a disclaimer: "I hope I wouldn't be so crass as to write songs that are directly autobiographical. On the whole, it doesn't seem that interesting. There are exceptions, but it's a broader process. You write from a writing persona, which isn't the same as your own persona. You have to broaden out your experience and what you see of the experience of other people into something perhaps more dramatic or more accessible.
"You can read things in the paper, you can see things happen to friends of yours that are very moving, you can meet people on the subway, you can see someone walking down the street, and if you're on the ball, then you get the song."
Although he's only 35, Thompson is close to membership in rock's 20-year veteran club. The son of a Scotland Yard detective, he was 16 when he teamed with his pals Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings to form the Byrds-inspired Fairport Convention. The group went on to electrify and update the traditional music of the British Isles, hitting its artistic and commercial peak when the late Sandy Denny was the lead singer.
While Fairport was a big deal at home, the group gained only underground notice in America, and eventually Thompson's urge to experiment led to his departure in 1971. He released his first solo album, "Henry the Human Fly," in 1972 and began attracting a following made up of Fairport folk followers and new fans attracted to his enigmatic lyrics, whimsical but challenging character and distinctive guitar style. He married Linda Peters, a backup singer and friend of Denny's, the same year, and the pair's first collaboration, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," came out in 1974.
Despite the Thompsons' impressive musical output in the ensuing years, things didn't come easily for Richard. "I found the '70s, on the whole, a fairly difficult time," he said. "I don't know if that was because it was hard to recover from the '60s and the expectations of the '60s. It took me until 1979 to really get back on my feet. The '70s was a bit of a downturn for me, or a very confusing time anyway.