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Pop Music

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

His first night in America in the late '60s ended at a party at Phil Ochs' canyon home, and that week he saw John Lee Hooker, Little Feat and a steel band arranged by Van Dyke Parks. "This is the strangest place," he wrote in a postcard. "There are no pedestrians, but it is so beautiful and so ultimately decadent...."

"I think like anyone else who comes to Southern California," he says now, "I immediately recognized everything," from TV and movies. "It seemed a bland place, unbelievably spread out."

One visit is best remembered by fans for a concert recorded during a week at the Troubadour in '70. But Thompson recalls those shows as an "indentured slavery" to the club, since the bar bill exceeded the band's $1,000 fee. Needless to say, Thompson never thought this was the place he'd end up. For a decade, several years of which he retreated from the world with a group of London Sufis -- he's still a practicing Muslim -- he didn't come to California at all.

But in 1982, he and Linda toured on the harrowing "Shoot Out the Lights" record, fighting while playing heart-rending songs, their marriage disintegrating onstage at the Roxy and elsewhere. When the "tour from hell," as it was soon known, ended, he moved in with McCabe's Guitar Shop booker Nancy Covey, into her Santa Monica studio apartment. And his house in North London became a place for summer and Christmas retreats.

"My girlfriend, who became my wife, was from here," he says, on why L.A. became home. "And for economic reasons, I had to work a lot in America. I'd just gotten divorced, I had to feed two families at the same time, so I had to economically step up a level."

As his '80s records began to come out, a murmur began, especially from folkies, that Richard Thompson had become "too American." Most artists scoff at this kind of criticism. Thompson thinks they may have been right. "I did get too far from my cultural roots. I was just having a good time, not really thinking about the consequences. But I was in L.A., recording in L.A. studios with American musicians, and I suppose it started to sound a bit more American."

It was hard to resist his thrill at the setting. "It's a very exciting thing to walk into a studio like Capitol B, to know that the Beach Boys recorded here, Gene Vincent did 'Be Bop a Lula,' the Bakersfield Sound was recorded here...."

This appreciation of the city and its tradition came slowly to an Englishman who jokes that Paul Revere's ride is too recent to count as history. "I see the character now; you have to look a bit under the skin. A few streets over there," he says, pointing to the Temescal foothills, "the Keystone Kops used to film. That's just unbelievable."

These days, Thompson lives, during the half of the year he's not touring or in Britain, like a typical cultured Westsider: He resides in "a classic Los Angeles '30s cottage," loves the deserts and mountains, and enjoys regional architecture like Spanish revival and the ranch house. He hates it when Art Deco theaters are knocked down or houses are built to the lot line.

"For a Brit, this is a great place, especially on the Westside. You've got a little fog to keep the temperature down and remind you of the old country. I like it because it's a bit sleazy, a bit greasy around the edges. You've got the music industry and the film industry here: There's a few people here who are definitely in the entertainment business for the wrong reasons. I'd rather have a pinch of decadence," he says, "than the more bland vibe of Northern California, where everyone's a bit too nice."

Still, he's mostly steered clear of Hollywood: His best film score is for Werner Herzog's hip but small "Grizzly Man." Thompson leaves satiric songs about L.A. to Randy Newman. And while Los Lobos played at his wedding and he enjoys the work of Frank Gehry and California cuisine, he's hardly gone native.

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A 'cult artist,' and that's just fine

ONE reason the city has had less effect on Thompson has to do with a long-standing artistic mission that has made his music more distinctive -- and guaranteed its obscurity in his adopted home.

When Thompson started with Fairport Convention, he attempted to build a distinctly British rock mythology, a way of countering America's dominance of rock's language. "Why should Americans have all the fun?" he asks. "Why should Chuck Berry write all the good songs?"

The problem, he says, goes back to first recordings of American blues and jazz that became popular in Europe and with British intellectuals. American phrases and place names -- from New Orleans, then the wider South and later California -- acquired a powerful and suggestive resonance. "And then in the rock 'n' roll era," he says with a smile, "it's easy to write an American song: You just come up with a couple of place names or something and you're done. You know, 'Cadillac with Tennessee plates....' That's a song right there! But an English song takes a little more work."

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