Friday, December 31, 2010

A Thrill Ride That Crashes

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Wall of Death
ARTIST: Richard and Linda Thompson
SONGWRITER: Richard Thompson
ALBUM: Shoot Out the LIghts
YEAR/LABEL: 1982: Hannibal

I think that I became a singer through circumstance rather than choice.
(Richard Thompson)

Somehow, in ways that most of us will hopefully never know, misery produces great art.  John Prine (also on this list) turned out a masterpiece of an album in Bruised Orange while going through a divorce.  Steve Miller's divorce in 1971 saw him churn out one of his best albums (the very underrated Recall the Beginning...A Journey From Eden).  Warren Zevon created a gem in The Wind, even as mesothelioma so ravaged him that he could barely breathe well enough to record the final songs.  And Steve Goodman taught everyone how to live, even as he knew he was dying from leukemia, with his final two albums Affordable Art and Santa Ana Winds.

As their marriage crumbled Richard and Linda Thompson recorded their final album as husband and wife in late 1981.  Shoot Out the Lights was released in 1982 to thunderous critical applause and the sound of two hearts breaking:  the people who made the album.  The songs on the album are hardly happy, even though most of them were written before the couple's marital problems began.  Still, with the timing of the release of the album coinciding with the destruction of the marriage between the Thompsons, one cannot help but read the impending doom into the lyrics (much the way many [including me] see Jackson Browne's The Pretender as a thematic album dealing with his wife's suicide shortly before the album was finished).

The star of the album is Thompson's "Wall of Death," the final song on the album.  The song takes the listener to an amusement park and bypasses all the other rides for the ride known as the wall of death:  a ride where a motorcyclist rides a circle perpendicular to the ground, occasionally as the floor beneath him disappears, relying solely on his speed to keep his tires on the wall.  

The song is loaded with carnival imagery ("beware of the bearded lady") and activities ("and maybe you're strong but what's the use of ringing a bell").  The highlight for Thompson is the title ride.  "You can waste your time on the other rides," the Thompsons sing, "but this is the nearest to being alive."  The line about the death-defying ride recalls the line in "The Hanging Tree" by Marty Robbins, "To really live you must almost die."

Still, one cannot overlook the references to other rides that give the appearance, in light of the couple's split, that it is more than just a fair attraction.  "You're going nowhere when you ride on a carousel," Thompson declares, and he dismisses the symbol of devotion, the tunnel of love, as something that "might amuse you."

After the couple divorced they both enjoyed successful solo careers.  Linda eventually won a Grammy for writing "Telling Me Lies," which was awarded the "Country Song of the Year" trophy in 1989 after Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris released it on their Trio album.  Richard has set the world on fire with his astonishing guitar work and numerous solo albums.


The entire Shoot Out the Lights album (Richard & Linda Thompson) -- it is no accident that this album consistently shows up on "best albums ever" lists.
"I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight"(Richard & Linda Thompson, from I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight) -- a hit in England, Richard once did this live and referred to it as "a medley of our greatest hit."  It's a marvelous song and should have been one of many.
The entire Rumor and Sigh album -- one of Richard's best from any phase of his career, featuring the oft-covered "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," the joyous tribute to old music "Don't Sit on My Jimmy Shands," the sexual adolescent joke "Read About Love" ("I read it in a magazine, Cosmo and Seventeen"), and the dynamite "Feel So Good."
"She Twists the Knife Again" (from Across a Crowded Room) -- if "Telling Me Lies" was Linda's post-divorce "love letter" to Richard, this rocker with bitter lyrics ("I keep my nose clean, I keep my promises...she twists the knife again") is Richard's reply.
"Woman or a Man?" (from Small Town Romance) -- an absolutely hilarious song about a date that turns into a robbery that leaves the singer puzzling about the blonde wig left behind.

Winter's Come and Gone
Where Do I Go to Throw a Picture Away
When My Rowboat Comes In
When I Lift Up My Head
Rose of My Heart
Rock of Ages, Hide Thou Me
Our Town
Old Memories Mean Nothing to Me
Not That I Care
Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's Anymore
My Book of Memories
Lost to a Stranger

A Little Bitty Heart
Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs
Life is Too Short
I Want a Home in Dixie
I Lost Today
Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Train Leaves Here This Morning
Swallowed By the Cracks
Stealin' Time
Starting Tomorrow
Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate
She's a Runaway
Painted Bells
Out to Sea
One More Song
New Delhi Freight Train

Long Way Home
Heart of Rome
Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Entella Hotel
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

No comments: