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Folkenrocken: Richard Thompson plays the Rio this Saturday.

Blackberry Beret

The unmistakable Richard Thompson heads to Santa Cruz for a Saturday evening show.

By Richard von Busack

RICHARD Thompson's long career as a musician in folk rock is doubly significant: first as an example that a man of fragrant wit and deep empathy can make a permanent place in a business that discourages staying power; and second because, as a man without heavy radio hits, Thompson proves the race isn't won by the swift.

I liked Hayden Childs' diatribe in his novel inspired by Richard and Linda Thompson's album Shoot Out the Lights, published in the 33 1/3 series. There's something to be said for the raving Thompson fan's wrath at the lack of general public props Richard Thompson has received over the decades: "I think Clapton is the worst kind of mediocrity ... When I overhear Thompson's fans asking each other if it's possible that Thompson is a better guitarist than Clapton, I don't have much faith in humanity's ability to tell diamonds from shit." The rock fan hyperbole explains at least a little Thompson's importance; a close hearing will do the rest. What a marvel it is that we still get the pleasure of seeing him at small venues.

Thompson's own tale is too complex for 900 words, but it would make a hell of an opera. These days, when not touring, he's the host of an unusually useful website with lyrics, questions and quips such as this one: "Busking gets you used to life as a professional musician, i.e. public humiliation, being ignored, and begging for pennies."

SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: Delighted to talk to you. I was part of that frightening 'Tear Stained Letter' mob at Strawberry Music Festival in fall 1990; we wouldn't let you leave without an encore. ... Without giving too much away, what will you be playing on this tour? Maybe you could just suggest some of the dates of the composition, being as you have 1,000 years to reach from.

THOMPSON: Well, um ... it will be a selection of various decades, some new stuff, some freshly written, recent recordings and music, back all the way to the 1960s.

Where did you get the idea for your Iraq protest song, 'Dad's Gonna Kill Me,' which is on your newest album, 'Live Warrior'?

The title is a GI expression [for what happens when the Humvee is blown up]. For some time, I had been trying to write a song about the Iraq war, so I started visiting websites to read some GI poetry and rap lyrics. I was interested in military slang and the sort of language being used.

I see you're going to Kate Wolfstock in Laytonville after the Rio show. Do you have any preferences about playing music outside or inside?

The nice thing in touring this summer is the contrast; you pick up some variety, a contrast between large places and small places, indoors and outdoors.

This fall, you're going to be doing a series of 'Rich and Loud' shows, soloing and accompanying Loudon Wainwright III. How long have you known him, and can you talk about his qualities as a songwriter?

Be glad to. I've known Loudon since the '70s. Normally, I can't stand to listen to confessional songwriters, Joni Mitchell being the exception; they have too much ego to achieve the level of honesty that Loudon does. People know him as a funny writer; he's side-splittingly humorous, but the serious songs are magnificent.

The two of you have written some of the best songs about booze ever.

We're not people who drink much anymore, either. Maybe you have to have the sober perspective before you can really write about getting drunk.

When writing songs, is it the lyrics or the music that comes first?

Some songs start with words, some with music. The lucky songs get both first. Starting up songwriting is difficult. Whichever door you can find and jam open is the one you use.

Do you find that any of your old songs are too sad to listen to, let alone perform?

I don't mind sad--there's a couple songs I don't sing anymore because they're much too melodramatic. A sad song should be fairly sad but dry-eyed.

What strikes you as the saddest song you've ever heard?

"Ebony Eyes" by the Everly Brothers is terribly sad, maybe mawkish. "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" by Randy Newman is a brilliantly sad song. And then, of course, you get into the realm of opera.

I wanted to thank you for your music on the 'Grizzly Man' soundtrack--my favorite film of that year.

I worked on a spin-off of the Grizzly Man film on Animal Planet with the footage Timothy Treadwell shot. We see much more of Treadwell the talented nature photographer, not the insane Treadwell who couldn't see the boundaries. ...

Have you read the novel based on 'Shoot Out the Lights' by Hayden Childs? It's very good, using your record just like Charles Kinbote uses John Shade's poem for the source of 'Pale Fire.'

I haven't read it. It sounds dangerous. Maybe I should read it. ...

What's your opinion of the music industry these days? Is it worse now that it was 30 years ago?

I'm at the point where I don't really know what's going on--I really haven't been in touch for 10 years. The industry revolves around live music; go see the show, buy CDs and get the T-shirt. Any profit for musicians now is in T-shirts. I hope this changes a little--it's great to be an independent musician. And if you can play live, you can get a strong foundation. Live audiences are more loyal than the audiences got from CDs.

RICHARD THOMPSON plays Saturday, June 27, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 advance/$27 door at

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