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A Palisades balladeer

You can put him in a sun-dappled Westside cafe, but you can't take the mystic Englishman out of worldly songwriter Richard Thompson.

May 07, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

IN one, a poor woman from the west coast of Ireland flies, to the strains of a lonely Celtic melody, to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis Presley. In another, a British soldier wounded in World War II wanders London, recalling the days when he danced to the music of a long-dead big band singer. In yet another -- the beat is faster now -- a reckless young man who loves vintage English motorcycles and red-headed girls tangles with the law. The law wins.

They're all songs by Richard Thompson, a mild-mannered, middle-aged Englishman often called the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix. "When I listen to him," says Pico Iyer, a novelist who writes often of exiles and emigres, "I hear Thomas Hardy or even the outline of a medieval ballad, about faithless love and lonely wandering, as much as I hear any musician from our lifetime."

What's strange about all these numbers -- which exert a darkly insinuating power despite not being conventionally catchy -- is that they were written by an apparently contented man living on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Today, Thompson, 57, sits in shorts and black denim shirt in a coffee shop in Pacific Palisades, near his home of 13 years. Nearby, teenagers pull skateboard moves in a parking lot.

"I can write a street scene about two characters right here," he says, gazing out at the verdant stretch of Sunset Boulevard, "and they'll end up on a wind-swept moor in Yorkshire. I can't help it. I think the landscape of songs is something you carry around inside you; it's an internal landscape. And I still write in a Celtic style. If I write about American topics, it still comes out in those terms, that musical vocabulary."

In some superficial ways Thompson, who will perform "1,000 Years of Popular Music" at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday, has changed in his quarter century here: His performances have become much more extroverted -- his onstage banter could win him a Vegas run if his songs didn't star hangmen and obscure Scottish accordionists -- and he reputedly plays a mean game of tennis.

But unlike, say, David Hockney, whose paintings became literally brighter after moving to Los Angeles from Britain, or Christopher Isherwood, whose writing warmed to the more open and hedonistic climate, Thompson seems to have largely resisted large-scale changes in his work. His music remains mostly what it was before he moved to California: an eclectic mix of bagpipes and Chet Atkins, Sufi mysticism and Hank Williams.

"It's kind of a transparent culture here," says Thompson, who exudes a sanity and wry humor that don't always show up in his work. "You can live in it and not necessarily be moved or influenced by it. As a musician, I'm not going to suddenly start writing surf music. If I lived in New Orleans I might think, 'I just have to incorporate this rhythm, this melodic shape into what I do.' In California it's more diluted. There are way more strains of culture here."

Thompson's old band, Fairport Convention, dedicated itself to reviving centuries-old British ballads and reels -- and adding a Chuck Berry backbeat. For this folkloric strain they were sometimes called an Anglo-Scots version of the Band. The guitarist's tenure in California, then, is as incongruous as if Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm had moved to England after recording "Long Black Veil."

"He's an enigmatic fellow -- who knows?" says Loudon Wainwright III, an old friend and collaborator. "He's maintained his Britishness. He's a really cheerful guy, especially for an Englishman. Maybe that's because he lives in California?" Thompson has so many influences, friend Van Dyke Parks says, that they give his playing a startling "power of deception" and put him beyond time and place.

"California has loosened up his personality," says wife Nancy Covey. "I've seen the man change, but not the writing. The main thing he likes about California is that he can garden year-round."


'Shoot Out the Lights'

THOMPSON is still probably most famous, if that's the word, for a much-hailed 1982 record, "Shoot Out the Lights," he made with then-wife Linda, as well as college radio hits like "I Feel So Good" and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." His songs have been covered by Los Lobos, R.E.M., X and Sleater-Kinney, and he's a hero to the New Folk movement. Elvis Costello called him "the greatest songwriter Britain has ever produced" and covered him three times. "I was absolutely stunned," Lou Reed said about the bent shards of melody that make up his guitar playing. "I didn't believe anyone could do that anymore."

But long before the tribute records and compilations -- the latest is the five-CD "RT: The Life and Music," which drew 4 1/2 stars in the April 6 Rolling Stone -- Thompson was Fairport Convention's shy, wild-haired teenage guitarist, who'd never been to America.

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