Song of the Week: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, Richard Thompson

Click to listen to “1952 Black Lightning,” by Richard Thompson

From the first verse of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. Between Richard Thompson’s sonorous brogue and his tight, evocative lyrics, he could probably sing me the ingredients on a container of orange juice and I’d be enthralled. His economy of expression is spectacular. Take the line “red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme,” which sketches in one of the character’s physical descriptions while simultaneously providing insight into the other character’s mindset: most people would say “you look pretty,” but the motorcycle fanatic frames it in his own terms.

The song’s plot is out of a hackneyed romance, but with a uniquely British spin. The song is, in Thompson’s own words, “a simple boy meets girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a certain motorcycle”—the British-made Vincent Black Lightning, which was the fastest production motorcycle in the world in the late 40s. And that, I think, is what makes the song so powerful. Boy meets girl is a time-honored theme, but this song is really a love triangle: it’s boy/girl/motorcycle. By using the Black Lightning, Thompson situates a common theme in an unfamiliar setting, at least for most American listeners, who immediately think Beatles and Rolling Stones when they think about post-war Britain.

Oh, and the guitar playing. The guitar playing! Thompson is a master finger-picker, especially evident in the song’s introduction and the solo break at 1:57. I’m not actually sure how he’s able to fit so many notes in. The phrasing and note choice is vaguely Celtic, reinforcing the tune’s British character. The song’s time is ragged, speeding up and slowing down incrementally, what some musicians would regard as a sloppy mistake but in this instance gives the song a rough, straight-from-the-heart quality to it.

There’s so much more to write about this song, but you should just go listen to it.

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Album of the Week: Astral Weeks, Van Morrison

Whenever Pandora brings a Van Morrison song up on one of my stations, the first line in the “artist description” box reads “Equal parts blue-eyed soul shouter and wild-eyed poet-sorcerer, Van Morrison is among popular music’s true innovators…”

I couldn’t agree more. The man who became a household name with “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Domino,” also gave birth to one of the most beautifully bizarre albums in history: 1969’s Astral Weeks. The story goes that Van went into the sessions with just lyrics and a backing band made up mostly of jazz players. They improvised the songs right there and put them on tape.

What resulted is an album that I didn’t understand the first time I heard it when I was sixteen. It was a dense, inaccessible mass of weird guitar parts, strange time signatures and impressionistic lyrics, and it was the first piece of music that truly stumped me. It was only after repeated listenings, many on starry summer nights, that I finally grasped where the beauty of this album lay.

I’ve always though that Van Morrison is more of a conduit than a singer. Normal people make conscious decisions about what notes to sing and for how long, while Van sounds like he taps into a current of music that consumes and possesses him for the length of the song. Part of the appeal of a typical Van Morrison song, like “Jackie Wilson Said,” is that the band that backs him is rock solid, providing a nice counterpoint to the singer’s delivery.

On Astral Weeks, however, the band is as daring in their playing as Morrison is with his singing. The interplay between singer and ensemble feels so delicate that it could break down at any minute–there’s nothing to ground the performances. It’s incredibly daring and emotional, which is why Astral Weeks deserves to be the first Album of the Week.