Richard Thompson Rides Out a Storm on the Staten Island Ferry
After three decades in Los Angeles, the British folk-rock star arrives on the East Coast.
By John Seabrook
“The Storm Won’t Come,” the first track from Richard Thompson’s new album, “13 Rivers,” also happened to be the weather forecast for New York Harbor. Another East Coast storm would stay well south that day, making for a misty morning in the city and a low, gray sky that cast a flat light over the water. In short, it was a good day to ride the Staten Island Ferry.
Larking about in the city has not been an option for Thompson until recently. He lived in Los Angeles for three decades, before moving to Montclair, New Jersey, earlier this year. At sixty-nine, he has the aquiline features and facial hair of an aging knight of King Arthur’s court. Thompson underscored his West-to-East transition by driving cross-country in five days this past January. He passed through many of the places he has long known only from songs. As a songwriter, he said, while waiting for the next ferry in the terminal, “it’s frustrating, if you’re British, to look over and see how much subject matter is built into America.” He added, “ ‘Drove my Chevy to the levy’—you’ve already written half a song!”
In composing his best-known tune, “1952, Vincent Black Lightning”—a kind of biker Child Ballad—he said, “I was thinking, What place and brand names have the same mythology to the British?” His neighbor had a Vincent, a now defunct British bikemaker.
Thompson had not ridden the ferry since 1970, when he was still in Fairport Convention, a seminal band in British folk rock. Les Paul, among others, taught him how to combine the drone of Scottish pipes with the complex harmonic moves on his father’s jazz records. “Did you know that, according to Duke Ellington, jazz and Scottish music are the only two kinds of music with natural swing?” he asked.
The harbor was full of droning sounds that would feel right on Thompson’s new record—mournful foghorns emerging from the mist that hid the banks and the stanchions of the Brooklyn Bridge. On Staten Island, Thompson found a diner up the hill and got some breakfast.
“13 Rivers” was recorded in L.A., before Thompson left the city, but it sounds as if he’s ready for a change. The opening lines of “The Storm Won’t Come” are:
I’m longing for a storm to blow through town
And blow these sad old buildings down
Fire to burn what fire may
And rain to wash it all away
The lyrics have the menace and the mystery of the Scottish Border poets who were on the shelf in Thompson’s family home. After the third verse, which declares, “There is no storm, so I’ll make my own,” there’s a guitar solo, in which Thompson’s right hand follows the Celtic patterns of traditional music, while the left hand does harmonic escape tricks. “When I was growing up, my father had these great records from Earl Hines”—the jazz pianist—“who was the master of skating on the edge,” Thompson said. “He would create inescapable musical knots for himself. ‘How the hell is he getting out of this one?’ But he’d always escape.”
Thompson gets a deep twang from his Stratocaster by grabbing hold of the strings with two fingers while keeping the pick between his thumb and the base of his index finger. “It covers a lot of emotion, a deep twang,” he said. Audiovisually, it can take you out to the moors of Scottish songs or up to the high lonesome of country-and-Western, as heard on Thompson’s improvised soundtrack for Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.” A military-history buff, Thompson scored “The Cold Blue,” a new HBO film made from restored footage shot by William Wyler for a 1943 documentary about the men of the Eighth Air Force.
But why Montclair? The move was prompted by a sequence of events that Thompson calls “family troubles,” involving the end of his marriage and the start of a new relationship on this coast. Fans know something of earlier Thompson family troubles involving Linda, his wife and partner onstage in the seventies. They continued as an act while their marriage fell apart, getting some of their best songs out of the breakup, which can be heard on their 1982 album “Shoot Out the Lights.”
After breakfast, Thompson caught the ferry back. In terms of monuments per minute, the Staten Island Ferry may be the best twenty-five-minute boat ride in the world, but Thompson was lukewarm on the sights. He perked up, though, when a fellow-passenger mentioned that Spalding Gray is believed to have killed himself by jumping from the boat. “Not to add a darker note,” the passenger said.
“As if one were needed!” Thompson declared, looking happy for the first time. ♦