If fate should break my stride


I love the song.  We're capable of making (and hearing) much more abstract or grandiose forms (operas, the symphony, or whatever LaMonte Young is doing that takes four hours to perform), and those forms are infinite in possibility, but the song is tight and grounded.  The artist has to create a context, sketch out the landscape, fill in the outlines, come to a point, and then wrap everything up, and usually within three to five minutes at that.  

I'm not here to say anything bad about Beethoven's 7th Symphony, but it's hard to find a rendition of "The Maid Freed From The Gallows" that's longer than four minutes, and there's a whole world in there.  A song's a bubble of self-similarity keeping entropy at bay.  Pete Townsend called "The Punk Meets The Godfather" (on Quadrophenia) "a mini-opera with real characters and a plot," and even though the song itself is just okay, that description has really stuck with me.  Even a song that barely even makes sense, like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," can be a mini-opera with real characters and a plot.  "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine, I'm on the pavement thinking about the government," and you're on your way.

Good songs can stay alive a long, long time.  You might listen to Led Zeppelin singing "The Gallows Pole" and think, "gee, this song from the seventies seems kind of dated," but it's really a song from the 17th century, brought down to us via Leadbelly and Robert Plant.  Nearly everyone has heard "Greensleeves," and that's from the 16th.  Joe Jackson's "The Man Who Wrote 'Danny Boy'" is all about a songwriter hoping that just once in his lifetime he'll be able to write a song so good that forever people will remember him for it, with the irony being that no one remembers who wrote "Danny Boy," the song outlived the memory of its composer.

If we even get another three or four centuries, I'm pretty sure people then will still be singing Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning 1952."  It is a mini-opera with real characters and a plot.  It has sex and death, crime and punishment, violence and unconditional love.  It crams years of narrative into four minutes. Like George Wesley Bellows's painting Stag at Sharkey's, it's all a blur of movement, a real picture of something that probably never happened quite this way but always has and always will.

Whatever else Richard Thompson has accomplished in his long life - and it's been a lot - he wrote this song, which, like the best ever death-metal band in Denton Texas, will in time both outpace and outlive you.  If you haven't heard it, and you don't know about James, Red Molly, and her fine motorbike, I envy your first chance at hearing it.  This song is a pearl without price.


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