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Hard on him

The new Richard Thompson CD is out, so what are you waiting for? Somewhat terrifyingly, it appears to come with a bonus CD, and Amazon claims that “Kiss” by Prince is on that CD. Dig if you will the picture. I’ll report back on that when I know more.

What I know right now is that you can get a limited edition EP at certain retailers, which has a couple live tracks on it, so the healthy thing to do would be to buy it. I did.

One of the live tracks is “Hard On Me.” When Mr. Thompson is touring with a band, there are always a couple of songs that serve as hangers for elaborate guitar solos. When I saw him the first time, it was “Amnesia.” This time it’s “Hard On Me,” and it’s so damned good I want to talk about it.

“Hard on me, hard on me
Why do you grind me small?”

The song starts out as one of his dirges, grim and painful and driven by inexorable drumming and simple blunt chording. Around a minute in, he starts sending shimmering riffs on top of Danny Thompson’s bass, and when he hits the chorus the next time, the first hints of guitar madness creep out, bent notes singing around the edges of his rough voice.

Two minutes in and he’s launched the first solo. It’s atonal, not rushed, climbing up and down the scale and lingering in the spaces carved out by drum and bass guitar. Doesn’t last too long, just a minute, before the space collapses and it’s back to the dirge. Four minutes in, and the band is picking up the harmonies, none of it beautiful and all of it pained and when they fall off the edge of the verse his guitar is there to pick up the pieces.


Danny Thompson steps up, fingering his huge standup bass with unexpected agility. Coming from such a huge instrument, it’s a surprise. It sets the stage for what’s going to happen next.

A heartbeat.

Richard Thompson starts carving out space again, and if you know his music, you know he’s going to keep on going. It’s simple at first, just a riff and another riff on the same theme and a third riff down a half an octave. Plenty of room to breathe.

Then it gets faster, six minutes in, all fancy and frilled and in the middle of the runs he slices big minor key chords like a painter laying down a sunset. That’s the musical range established and it’s off to the races. He fights his way up and down the solo, each note echoed and balanced by another, pairs and triplets and quartets of song too quick to distinguish as anything other than a group. At the top of his guitar’s range, he lets the notes stretch a bit, marking a boundary before diving back into the swamp.

Bass and drums, utterly calm, keeping the rhythm so that Richard Thompson can strain against it. “Hard On Me.” It’s a song about a desperate man, played with a desperate guitar that can’t — quite — break — free —

Nine minutes in, and he’s bending notes into shapes that shouldn’t exist. Bend and triplet and bend and little flurry of sound and it’s amazing that he doesn’t repeat himself. The guitar is frantic, gone from straining against the beat to just playing as fast as it can in hopes that it’ll outrace the trap it’s in. Then, suddenly, he reaches calm. Big fat sustained chords, five of them, returning us to the song. A final dance up and down the range of possibilities. Twelve minutes of passion thwarted. And of course, a last unfinished note that simply dies.

“I swim with emptiness.”

Phew. Before I fall off to sleep, exhausted from listening to that yet again, I’ll note that if you have a Mac you can pick up “Mr. Rebound” and “Fully Qualified To Be Your Man” from the iTunes Music Store as single tracks for 99 cents a pop. Yay!

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