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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

It didn't much help when the Beatles covered Smokey Robinson and Motown girl groups, and the Rolling Stones tackled Buddy Holly and Solomon Burke. "So this whole body of mythology rolled over European culture," he says, "and for the most part didn't do it any favors.

"It left a gap, if you're an English writer and you're determined to write about who you are and where you come from. If you're a poet, that tradition is unbroken. But there's a real break in the popular tradition, in pop music. Today, a song that's too British is treated like a novelty song. This has broken down a bit in Ireland and Scotland; they're a bit more accepting of homegrown culture."

Not that Thompson hasn't kept trying. For the song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," which later became a hit for bluegrass artist Del McCoury, he started out trying "to find an object that's British and romantic and mythological" and found a vintage English motorcycle that becomes as iconic as the T-Bird was for the Beach Boys.

"It probably became such a habit with me; I stopped crusading about 30 years ago. Now it's just an instinct."

Thompson's instinct has led to a huge body of inventive, deeply felt music. But it also may have ensured his commercial obscurity in the U.S., where he remains a "cult artist."

After the '80s, with its jeering that Thompson had gone American, he began to grow more deliberately British. Even while living in California and enjoying its charms, he began making records like "Mock Tudor," about his North London upbringing, or his most recent, "Front Parlour Ballads," an acoustic album with a lute and Elizabethan keyboard on the cover.

"Over the past few years there's been a reflectiveness on Richard's part toward the old country," says Patrick Humphries, Thompson's biographer. " 'Mock Tudor' was the first record that struck me as Richard-in-exile."

The guitarist says his next record will be "more British even than the last one."

"I'm sure, like Isherwood and Hockney and so many of us who've come from Britain to California, he's found a new light in the West, a sense of freedom and possibility," says Iyer, who like Thompson was born in Britain and spends part of each year in Southern California. "But what impresses me is how little California has affected his work externally."

During the last few years, instead of pursuing surf music, the guitarist embarked on the project that brings him to Royce Hall: It started when Playboy, at the dawn of 2000, asked several musicians to list their favorite songs from the last millennium. Thompson's list ranged from the pre-Chaucerian "Sumer Is Icumen In" to Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again." While there are American songs on the list -- the traditional "Shenandoah," Prince's "Kiss" -- the show, with its medieval round and naughty Italian dance tune, shows how catholic his sense of rock's heritage is.

Despite an enormous presence in America from "Love Me Do" to "London Calling," British rock has lately kept a low profile internationally. The British government has recently set up initiatives to promote its popular music, an idea that would have seemed absurd when the Stones, Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin bestrode the world.

But as Britain lost its empire after World War I, it began to lose much of its musical reach after punk. Thompson's commitment to non-American sources, then, comes when it's much needed but deeply unfashionable.

"Richard Thompson," says Iyer, "seems to be one of those artists sufficiently in thrall to his vision not to be damaged or distracted by the circumstances around him. I suspect he can sit in L.A., London or Outer Mongolia and still outline stories of a lamp-lit port town somewhere in the deep past where hearts and lives are being broken beyond repair."

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