/, Folk, Rock, Singer-songwriters/1952 VINCENT BLACK LIGHTNING by RICHARD THOMPSON Story by John Butler


John Butler
Melbourne Recital Centre
March 2014

Says James, to Red Molly, “Here’s a ring for your right hand.
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man;
For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen.
I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine.”

I’m standing at the end of a long queue talking to a complete stranger. We both agree we never do this sort of thing.

Myself, I’ve generally abided that warning about meeting your heroes. But this is Richard Thompson! How often do you get to meet a bona fide legend? A bona fide legend who is signing CDs after his gig.

My new insta-friend and I agree. The situation highlights the vicarious justice of the music game. How can you be as good as RT for so long and still need to be flogging merch? Bob doesn’t need to. Nor does Neil. Which is just as well, as it’s hard to see either having the inclination. Tom Waits could probably get away with it, but doesn’t need the dough. This is definitely not an activity for everyone. Imagine if someone organised a Van meet-and-greet? It would be hilarious. Or calamitous. Probably both.

RT’s just never had the kind of hit that sets you up financially. He’s written many classics, but never quite struck upon the mysterious alchemy of chart success. He’s always maintained a self-deprecating humour about this lack, but still, there must be times you’d like to scream. Being a musicians’ musician is all well and good, but it doesn’t of itself pay the bills.

A ballad about a motorcycle might have come closest, but it was never issued as a single at the time. By Thompson standards, which admittedly can be pretty dark and complex, this song is lyrically straightforward. A classic tale of outlaw love and its consequence, the adventures of James Aidee and Red Molly would make reasonable claim to be the greatest motorcycle song ever. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning has long been a staple of a live set that has a stellar repertoire at its disposal. He’d slayed with it again tonight in his opening acoustic set.

No Thompson song is ever just about the lyrics. There’s always the considerable matter of his dazzling guitar work. A guitarist friend had accompanied me this night, but left before I’d made my late decision to join the queue. Aside from pure technique, my friend reckoned RT’s distinctiveness came down to the choices he made. What he put in, and what he left out.

Insta-friend and I discussed all of this while we waited. As the queue dwindled, it occurred to me I was soon to be facing a few choices of my own. I was about to come face to face with Richard f…ing Thompson. What to say? Do I attempt wit? If it fell flat, I’d need someone to shoot me there and then. If I was to gush, surely I’d embarrass us both. RT had shown great patience working his way through the queue. My moment of truth was fast approaching. Unlike James Aidee, my bravado was evaporating.

Insta-friend was up before me. It didn’t help that he handled the occasion like a pro – all glib patter and easy conviviality. Bastard! I knew there was something about him I didn’t trust.

Shit! I’m up….

You’ve probably guessed how the rest went. I couldn’t have choked worse if six dentists had simultaneously stuck their implements down my throat. The power of speech deserted me. For one dreadful moment I thought I’d be reduced to communicating like Mr Ed. Was it two stamps for yes? Or just one? Eventually, I managed a few mono-syllabic grunts. A weary RT eyed me like he suspected brain damage. I mustered a wan smile for the obligatory photo op, took my signed copy of Acoustic Classics, and shuffled abjectly on my way.

So much for meeting your heroes. Philosophically, I’ve been rather Nietzschean about the experience. It certainly didn’t kill me. I don’t listen to RT albums any less. In the spirit of a Thompson song, a grim humour has been rallied to the memory. But has it made me stronger? I suppose that question will linger until RT is next in town. I might have to invoke James Aidee for that gig.

Well he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys.
He said, “I’ve got no further use…for these.
I see Angels on Ariels in leather and chrome,
Swoopin’ down from Heaven to carry me home.”

And he gave her one last kiss and died.
And he gave her his Vincent.
To Ride.

John Butler has spent many nights treading the sticky carpet. You will usually find him down the back, or to the side.

By |2018-11-13T09:00:27+00:00November 3rd, 2017|Acoustic, Folk, Rock, Singer-songwriters|9 Comments


  1. Louise November 3, 2017 at 8:26 am - Reply

    So accurate! And beautifully expressed. I know the feeling. Sometimes we should leave our heroes on their pedestals.

  2. Andrew Gaylard November 4, 2017 at 8:16 am - Reply

    I get to see RT most times he comes here. I wish he’d bring a band more often.

    Apart from his obvious guitar chops, he has never sung better than he is singing now. When he performed “A Love You Can’t Survive” in Melbourne a few years ago I could not believe how much power he is capable of when a song demands it.

  3. Bruce November 5, 2017 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    I’m as tempted to gush about this piece as about RT himself. What a perfect meeting of artist and fandom. At Vinyl Connection I’ve written well over a quarter million words on albums and artists and I’d be damn proud of this one. Thanks.

  4. Andrew Gaylard November 5, 2017 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    It was remiss of me not to express the feeling of empathy and nostalgia that John’s piece evokes. A lovely piece of work, and I suspect very representative of RT’s following.

    John, you’re not by any chance the same John Butler who taught at the Gordon in Geelong in the 1980s?

  5. John Butler November 7, 2017 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Thanks for the kind comments folks.

    Louise, despite disgracing myself, I’m not sorry I got to meet RT. What doesn’t kill you….

    Andrew, I think the same economic necessities that see RT signing merch also mitigates against the band on most visits. Besides, I think he as a compelling solo performer as I’ve seen, so I don’t really lament the absence. And no, I’ve never taught in Geelong. Did work at Brighton Secondary for a decade.

    Far too kind Bruce. But who am I to argue? :)

    Cheers, all.

  6. Smokie November 14, 2017 at 1:27 am - Reply

    Never meet your heroes.
    A truism if ever there was one.
    Loved it, JB.

  7. John Butler November 14, 2017 at 10:34 am - Reply

    Cheers Smokie. You’d reckon I’d have a bit more composure at my age.

    Ah well….

  8. Joe O'Keefe April 4, 2018 at 10:05 am - Reply

    ‘Strict Tempo’ instrumental LP by Richard Thompson….it plays to his incredible strengths.

  9. John Butler April 4, 2018 at 11:15 am - Reply

    An oft overlooked gem, Joe.

    But when it comes to RT, I reckon it’s pretty much all good.


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