October 23, 2002




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last exit
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LINDA THOMPSON MIGHT be chagrined to find herself the subject of a column that in a previous incarnation was called "Shoot Out the Lights." That was the title of the final recording she made in 1982 with her then-tenuously-attached husband, Richard. Featuring such songs as "Wall of Death," "Walking on a Wire," "Just the Motion," and "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed," the LP was a certifiable classic. Rolling Stone gave it the number 24 slot on its 1987 "Top 100 Albums of the Last 20 Years" list, and in 1995 the Spin Alternative Record Guide ranked it number 45 among the top 100 alternative albums. (I admit partial responsibility for the latter, having written the Richard Thompson entry.)

Thompson's memories may be understandably less than fond, however. She made Shoot Out the Lights while pregnant with her third child by a husband who had already decided their marriage was over. Then she was dragged, literally kicking and screaming, on stage for the only Richard and Linda Thompson U.S. tour, to sing songs about strange affairs, thieves stealing into hearts, and hearts needing homes. On a recent edition of NPR's Fresh Air, Thompson told Terry Gross that she got through the ordeal by "washing down antidepressants with vodka." As I recall from the putative couple's legendary San Francisco show at the Great American Music Hall, her custom cocktails didn't dull the transcendent quality of the performance. The instrumental sturdiness of Richard, Simon Nicol, Pete Zorn, and Dave Mattacks had a lot to do with that; Linda's emotional intensity was more pivotal. The famous bottle-throwing incident notwithstanding, she dug into her ex's lyrics with unbridled passion. As producer Joe Boyd is quoted as saying in the liner notes to the 1996 anthology Dreams Fly Away: A History of Linda Thompson, "It was as if Richard had spent six or seven years writing songs for Linda to sing when he left her."

But that was 20 years and many therapy sessions ago. Thompson's present view of that rocky time may not be colored only with bleak and doleful hues. After all, despite being married for nearly two decades to Steve Kenis, she still goes by the professional name she adopted in 1973. And in interviews now she grants that she was blessed by Richard's pen with an amazing wealth of material to sing.

That she is talking about it at all is remarkable. Of course, that's what you do when you put out a new album – Fashionably Late (Rounder) – and it's been 17 years since your only other solo recording (1985's One Clear Moment). But Thompson has long suffered from a condition called hysterical dysphonia, a kind of grossly amplified stage fright that renders the anxious sufferer unable to speak, let alone sing. Her ailment dates back to the early '70s and became acute and totally debilitating in the late '80s.

Thompson found her voice again in 1999 when Pere Ubu's David Thomas insisted she sing in Mirror Man, his theatrical production inspired by the 1915 Edgar Lee Masters poetry cycle "Spoon River Anthology." Thomas has called his work "a roll call of voices retrieved from all those ghost towns that lie just over the horizon," a description applicable to Thompson's Fashionably Late as well. Rather than modernizing herself, the 54-year-old Thompson returns to the brooding style of acoustic-based folk rock upon which she built her reputation with Richard, drawing heavily on the multiple talents of their son Teddy, plus those of such veterans as drummer Mattacks; bassist Danny Thompson; guitarists John Doyle, Martin Carthy, and Jerry Donahue; fiddlers Richard Green and Eliza Carthy; and keyboardist Van Dyke Parks.

If there was an upside to her dysphonia, it was that Thompson didn't strain her vocal cords over the past 20 years. With the slightly open grain of aged hardwood in her voice, she still sounds exquisite negotiating that emotionally narrow but subtly rich range she shares with June Tabor and the late Sandy Denny. Writing or cowriting most of the material, she proves both competent at crafting the stern, Celtic-influenced sad songs she has always claimed as her "speciality" and capable of addressing the past with wit and compassion. She got Richard to sing and play lead on the opening track, "Dear Mary," and enlisted Teddy and daughter Kamila to close the album with a "tribute" to their dad, singing, "Here's to the man that we thought was dead, singing like he's got a gun to his head.... Here's to the dreams that went awry, and to the tears I could not cry, for it was long ago that I said good-bye, to that dear old man of mine." Linda Thompson performs with Teddy Thompson, 9 p.m., Thurs/10, Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F. $20-$22.50. (415) 885-0750.