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Posts Tagged ‘Richard and Linda Thompson’

Another long gap between posts. I have been elsewhere – physically, spiritually and otherwise – but I have finally found some blogging time.

This is not the continuation to the On conformity thread of posts I originally planned, but it does fit into the concept to some degree, so I thought I would write about it while things were fresh in my mind. The trigger for this post was attending a concert recently in Norwich by Dave Swarbrick. Swarb, in case you don’t know, is a fantastic fiddle player with a long performing history in the British folk and folk-rock scenes. After several years of acoustic performance, including as a duo with the equally fabulous Martin Carthy, he joined Fairport Convention in 1969 just as they were becoming serious about their project to electrify British traditional music.

Dave Swarbrick

Having stumbled across (and loved) the music of Richard and Linda Thompson in the late seventies, I “reversed” into listening to Fairport, as Richard had been a founder member of that band. The first time I saw Swarbrick play was in 1979 during Fairport’s as it happens inaccurately titled “Farewell, Farewell” tour …

I’ve seen him many times since – at Fairport reunions, in his own (now defunct) band Whippersnapper, and in duos with Carthy and with Fairport bandmate Simon Nicol. He is a fantastic player – both technically but also because of the fantastic emotion and energy of his playing. I love hearing him, and at the recent gig he was playing as well as ever.

In more recent years, he has faced (and overcome) a number of health problems, at one stage in 1999 waking up to read his own obituary in The Daily Telegraph! Seeing him now, nearly 32 years after I first saw him, led me to reflect on where my life was at at particular times when I happened to see him perform. For all the challenges I have faced, music has been a constant source of solace, joy and affirmation.

This chart shows graphically the personnel of ...

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This recent concert was the first time I have seen him entirely solo. I’ve seen him with Fairport many times, with his own band Whippersnapper, in duos with Carthy and Simon Nicol and so on. So I did reflect on the diverse life routes (i.e. his and mine) between first seeing him with Fairport in London in 1979 and seeing him in March 2011 in the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich.

As well as loving the music of performers one might loosely defined as folk/roots musicians (we could have a long discussion about what that means) I admired many of them as people. By comparison with the often pre-packaged world of pop, it seems to me to take a lot of determination and self-possession to carve out a career focussing on music that is not generally seen as fashionable and make a go of it. In my younger days I was very drawn to these musicians who seemed, to me, to have a strong sense of confidence and of who they were – two things I lacked, struggling with my own identity. So in a way I saw them as role models, but lacked (at the time) the confidence to follow their example.

Swarb has had an eventful and occasionally wild life (hence the erroneous 1999 obituary). The focus of much of my adolescent and adult life has been internal struggle, which used to stop me taking, or at least making the most of, life opportunities. But when I went to see Swarb play last week it was the first time as Natasha, and as he played so wonderfully I could reflect with pleasure that I had finally said “yes” to life, and I am now living it the way I want to. And I am grateful for how music sustained me in those critical times and perhaps, in some profound way, saved me from giving up as I struggled with my identity.

Traditional music no longer always travels down the traditional route. In the era before electronic communication became mainstream – records, radio, television – it was handed down and modified by communities and families. That happens much less now and our relationship to it is more complicated. I’m currently reading Rob Young’s amazing book Electric Eden which explores our evolving relationship to that music (I highly recommend it). As well as being a fantastic player, Swarb has a scholarly interest in the music, which he touched on at the gig in more detail than I’ve heard him do so before, dropping interesting tidbits as he talked. For example he loves baroque music, and mentioned that the word baroque means “rough pearl”, and that the music was originally thus labelled, he suggested, as an insult. Today, of course, it’s become a term of esteem.

That language mutates is not news, of course. But I would argue that while it usually does so “naturally”, sometimes it is in the interest of those in power to impose changes in language and ideas. So listening to Swarb’s between tunes comments I was struck by how meaning can change, and how language can be liberating but also constraining.

Those who control the language of power can use it to define and limit others. Like most trans people, I have transitioned later in life. There is a complex combination of reasons for that – in the UK even though more people are seeking medical help with transition that average age at which they do so, significantly, is not shifting much.

One of the key reasons for that is “othering” by society – as I grew up I realized that the dominant view about people like me was that we were “unacceptable”, weird, freakish, outside the norm. Realizing that’s how society thinks about how you is a hard way to grow up. But another consequence of that is that authorities – particularly in our case governments and the medical establishment – have tended to want to “deal with us” by forcing us into what are seen as the “normal” categories, to make us conform, sometimes by brutal medical intervention. I will say more about this another time.

The point I wanted to finish on, on this occasion, is that the way trans (and also intersex) people are treated in western countries now is still shaped by the history of earlier conceptions of what it was to be trans, of what the best treatment should be, and of social notions of “acceptability” and the need to move trans and intersex people towards perceived “norms” – physically, medically and socially.

There are all sorts of issues here – the power of words to label and limit,  the confusion of sex with gender, and of sexuality with gender expression; the initial conception of transness as a psychological illness; the conception of transness as wholly “in the head” and intersex as wholly “of the body”. Which puts psychiatrists in a dominant position for the treatment of trans people, and surgeons in the dominant position for the treament of intersex people. And also means that the medical establishment tends to think people are either trans or intersex, but cannot be both. And also that trans people want to move from one far end of the gender spectrum to the other. If people don’t fit that particular category, then as far as some medics and legislators are concerned, they don’t exist!

It seems to me that trans and intersex people need to be able to articulate their identities away from that history, and away from top-down definition by “authorities”. And also to recognize common cause with other groups in society who are oppressed or ignored. In future posts, I’ll write more about what I think needs to change.

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Possibly, possibly … Regular readers (bless you, you lovely people) will have read my earlier post touching on my devotion to the music of Richard Thompson. As I type the name I sense those with an irrational fear of the music loosely defined as folk-rock wishing to avert their eyes, but bear with me. It will all make sense and you will come to no harm.

Cover of

Cover of Sunnyvista

In 1979 Thompson and his then-wife Linda released an album called Sunnyvista. It was a difficult time career-wise for the pair. They had withdrawn from the music industry in the late seventies after converting to Islam and moving to a commune in Norfolk, not a million miles from where I now live. When they returned to recording in 1978 punk had been in full swing for two years and was mutating into New Wave and for a time, they struggled to find an audience.

Sunnyvista is seen as one of their weaker albums by the cognoscenti, but despite its flaws I remain rather fond of it. Anyway, among its tracks is a rather good song called “Sisters”, a first person address from one estranged sibling to the other. I played it to death for years and on one occasion in the early eighties my then girlfriend, who by now knew that I crossdressed, remarked that she thought I liked the song because of the title, i.e. because it made me feel “girly”. Well no, I responded, I like the song ‘cos it’s a great song.

Fast forward many years later to the day when I shared my name, that is the name all know me by since transitioning, with my current partner. That was a powerful moment for both of us and I was delighted that she liked my name. A few months later however, she started saying that she knew why I had chosen Natasha – I was inspired by the character Tasha Yar she said, because of my love of Star Trek. Well, again no, although she is a feisty character and the actor who plays her, Denise Crosby, is very beautiful. In point of fact when I chose my name Tasha Yar had never occurred to me, because it never occurred to me that I would ever shorten my name (which I now happily do with friends). I have written elsewhere about the very different reasons why I chose my name (see how I am subtly cross-promoting other blog posts here, dear reader?).

Tasha Yar

Image via Wikipedia

In both cases, these are perhaps examples of my nearest and dearest trying to “make sense” of me. I wrote in my earlier post about how people who know me but are not close to me maybe try to do this. Those who are close to me face bigger challenges and I guess, quite reasonably, look for signs and information  that will help them make sense of my transness. In both the cases above, I would argue that they reached erroneous conclusions. And yet, and yet …

I am reasonably “typical” in coming to transition later in life. Although the legal position in the UK is better for trans people, and although people do transition at a younger age – very young in a few happy cases – the average age is not really budging even though more people are seeking medical assistance. I think this says something about society’s perceptions of gender variance, and how hard it feels to become visible even with better legal and employment protection; about how difficult it is for us to come to terms with ourselves, in the deepest sense, in these circumstances; and how hard it is to dismantle the way of living many of us construct for ourselves to try and “cope” with our gender variance and carrying on living in our birth gender, which often seems, given the pressures and dangers involved, the only option.

I’ve also written about how the consequences of those pressures pushed me into a state of denial (plug, plug, pluggity plug!). Again, I am far from atypical in this respect. But now, fifteen months since transition, I ponder quite a lot about the relationship between my female identity and my male identity. This is a very tricky issue to write about, not least because the relationship, and my thinking about it, continues to change. One thing to ponder is the authenticity, or otherwise, of the male identity I chose, eventually, to walk away from. But for the moment, let’s talk about the balance of power inside my wee head, in terms of how things are now, and how they used to be.

I accepted who I am, at a deep level, in May 2008 and then started to do something about it, leading to transition in July 2009. The fact that such “milestones” exist tends to play down the complex process of personal development that leads to them, and leads away from them. At the moment, fifteen months post-transition, things are pretty good. My female identity, and my ability to feel positive about it, continue to develop and my male identity continues to diminish, although given how many years it shaped my social being and thinking I can still feel it rattling around in there. At this remove the male identity is often associated with worries, and negative thoughts. One way I sometimes think about it is that the male identity formed, at least in part, in a way that could protect the core, true female identity, but also keep it submerged, away from risky view. Whether the male identity was therefore ever “genuine”, despite the fact I lived as male for decades, is a very complex question which a blog is ill-suited to contend with. See me in the bar later.

I suppose the key distinction in how different things feel might be described as follows:

  • In the present I am increasingly confident as a woman and feel myself allowing some habitual behaviour and thought processes I had as male recede and fall away. Natasha does not need to “protect” the male self, I can let him fade, while retaining those elements I still value.
  • As a young person I became confident enough to function successfully as male, but part of that was suppressing and repressing my true self, which involved a lot of effort and stress. However successful I became in other regards, I kept having to suppress Natasha, to categorize her and put her away, hidden on a dusty shelf.

For me therefore, rather than the upfront relationship to the song “Sisters” that my ex-girlfriend inferred, it was a much more shadowy and uneasy relationship with manifestations of femaleness as I encountered them. As it happens I love Linda Thompson’s voice, not just because she’s a great singer but because there is a kind of raw, tender undertone in some of her performances. I think as a younger listener I understood that in part as being about her openness of emotion and openness about being female, and responded to it very deeply, but almost had to suppress my response as soon as I felt it, or make it about something else. Her struggle could not be my struggle.

But guess what, it was and is. I have always been female but now, thank God, I can own those feelings, not push them down, aside, out of the way. Every day that sense of self feels new, exciting and presents new challenges and opportunities. As a younger person, it was the singers, not the songs, that I held on to, even while I hid my feelings, even to myself. Thank goodness those strong, female voices were there for me growing up, raised in song. Finally, tentatively but increasingly strongly, my voice can join theirs.

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… is the title of an “official bootleg” released on cassette many years ago, featuring the work of Richard Thompson, both with and without his former wife Linda and other collaborators. The choice is an ironic collusion between RT and the compilers, given that a lot of non-fans describe his music as depressing. And it’s true his lyrical content includes war, death, failing relationships, jealousy, bleak encounters below the Calvary Cross etc. But it’s also true that it’s informed by traditional music, whose lyrical content often includes war, death, failing relationships, jealousy, witchcraft and magical transformation, encounters with the Devil etc. On a personal level, his is the body of musical work which means the most to me. But I am not here to convert you. That either will or will not happen. 90% of those who sample his catalogue either hate what they hear or become complete converts … there seem to be very few non-committal responses. This post is not quite as much of a digression as some, as it’s about how, by the time all my chums were heading off to university and I wasn’t, music was becoming incredibly important to me.  Although I will drone on a bit about RT as well …

Earlier in my childhood it had always been important to me, but not in any thought out way … I just liked what I liked! I obsessively played records on our Decca Deccalian gramophone, with a red pickup for 33/45RPM records and a green one for 78. It looked a bit like this, only off-white. My grandmother also gave me a defunct wind-up gramophone, which I still have (keep meaning to get the spring replaced). Later, like many in the UK, we graduated to the fabulous Dansette, our model quite like this but pink with long, spindly detachable legs.

You may recall my dad scared me off pop music for a while around the age of nine. If you sampled my list of top tunes around that time it would have include a whole bumch of different stuff, including:

  • early Beatles;
  • the Monkees;
  • Sandy Nelson’s single Let There Be Drums (still fab);
  • a bit of Cliff Richard and the Shadows;
  • Beethoven’s Für Elise (heard a fellow pupil play it at school and was thrilled when I could play it myself);
  • Barry Gray’s stirring music for Gerry Anderson‘s TV puppet adventure shows;
  • Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop‘s electronic realisation of the Doctor Who theme, a legitimate work of genius hidden in plain sight on mainstream television. Strike that – actually a work of genius embedded in another work of genius (the programme itself);
  • and pretty much the full contents of Lonnie Donegan‘s A Golden Age of Donegan Volumes One and Two on Pye Golden Guinea.

A fairly mixed bunch of stuff – I just followed my ears. So there had always been stuff I liked, and I have described how I became a bit more interested in pop and rock in my early teens and had, by the fifth form one genuine musical obsession (The Beach Boys). At around that time I started to buy the music press – NME (New Musical Express) always and Melody Maker quite often – and was informing myself by listening around more widely and reading the NME, in particular writers such as Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray (CSM) and Mick Farren. If you weren’t reading it at the time, read Nick Kent’s book Apathy for the Devil to get a flavour. Punk was also just on the horizon – I’ll say more about that another time.

OK, this could become link city so I’ll try and calm things down. But it’s hard to understate how, feeling detached from my parents and confused about my identity, music became so important to me (an experience a lot of non-trans kids also have around that age of course). But also this “meta-discussion” about music from people who seemed to have informed opinions – the NME writers, John Peel on the radio, Bob Harris on the Old Grey Whistle Test – I devoured it all. From a fan perspective at the time both performers, writers and DJs seemed to reek of certainty and confidence. I think that’s one of the reasons I idolised them, because I felt so powerless and they seemed to be having enjoyable, mould-breaking lives. From an adult perspective I now know it wasn’t as simple as that, but then … also the notion that this music, or at least some of it, was important, that it meant something and stood for something. Equally though, Nick Kent and CSM were something like rock stars themselves, and a lot of what they liked I didn’t like at the time. I was looking for something to call my own …

Then two things happened very close together. Peel was a bit eclectic, but there were often even more aural surprises on BBC Radio London’s almost forgotten show Breakthrough, presented by a chap called Mike Sparrow. I had always been vaguely interested in good guitar players – as opposed to the ones who are either all technique or all sentiment. My school chum P– played guitar and was always trying to get me into Led Zeppelin, which was OK but, you know … Then while idly listening to Breakthrough one evening the most arresting guitar instrumental track I had ever heard wafted across the ether. I’d never heard playing like it, and my ears pricked up immediately. Afterwards Mike Sparrow said this was by somebody called Richard Thompson. I missed the title of the track but it was almost certainly The Pitfall/The Excursion, which is only to be found on a now long-unavailable compilation.

I had just also become a fan of the music magazine Zigzag, which hovered between fanzine and prozine (a place where I would find myself hovering, some years later!). A bit of a bad time to become a fan actually as its distinctive approach to seventies rock was about to be swept away when it was relaunched as a punk rock zine. And yes, I will still have something to say about punk later. Not today, reader …

The very last pre-punk issue of ZigZag cover-featured Richard Thompson. Inside was not an interview, but an article about the records he had made to this point, solo and with Linda, since leaving the band Fairport Convention. The description of them, and particularly their lyrical content and themes(I had only heard his guitar playing at this point) sounded so intriguing that I fairly rapidly acquired the five albums in question. After devouring Brian Wilson’s back catalogue in the mid-seventies, these records (all of which I found stunning in different ways) were another huge musical education. But obviously just saying that I cannot make them so for you – it was a particular time, place and experience.

Thompson has Scottish roots, but he grew up in North London, not far from where I lived as a child, and became a teenage musical prodigy in the sixties. I know a lot of obsessive fans from all over the world, but I wonder in some ways whether that slightly shared background gives my appreciation of his stuff a particular perspective. He grew up in same kind of suburbs I did, and in interviews has often talked about the importance of escaping them. So maybe that idea is a big part of it for me, because in the summer of 1977 I could see no way out of the ‘burbs for me, but his adventurous music perhaps represented that possibility of escape to me most of all.

Besotted with the Thompsons, I then worked backwards to Fairport. I noticed that the key Fairport albums were produced by a chap called Joe Boyd, and followed his name to albums by other (sometimes connected) artists … The Albion Band, John Martyn, Nick Drake (who I stumbled across in 1979, you latecomers). Boyd, an American, returned to the US in the mid-seventies to work for Warner Brothers and the end of the seventies found me following that further aural trail. That led me to Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Maria Muldaur. Great songs and great musicianship were the mark of a Joe Boyd record – I think he used to say his role as a producer was to get out of the way of the performance, so as much of it could make it onto vinyl as possible. And Warners had lots of other interesting artists not produced by Boyd – Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Little Feat, Loudon Wainwright (actually Loudon was on virtually every other label under the sun but I have to mention him) … and I just kept on exploring.

Many of those artists, as well as writing their own songs, were closely connected to the various strands of Anglo-Saxon (and sometimes Celtic) traditional music, an amazingly rich seam which English people in particular know very little about. But these are amazing songs, you should know about them. History is written by the victors they say, but folk songs are written by the rest of us. So from Fairport and the Albions off I went to those who mined the English tradition even more deeply … Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris.

This rich tapestry of inter-related artists and music means more to me than I can say. At my most isolated emotional time their stuff was all I had to hang on to. The Thompsons, Wainwright/McGarrigles and Waterson/Carthy are musical family dynasties within this wider group of musicians. Their own family lives have been rocky from time to time but another haunting element for me was the sense nonetheless from them of supportive family bonds, and what I felt as the absence of such bonds for me. As it happens Linda Thompson was the first professional musician I chatted to, in 1978. Tale for another time, but a lovely woman.

Full circle … a few weeks ago, as part of the fantastic Meltdown music festival in London which RT curated, I attended the concert staged in memory of Kate McGarrigle, who died last January. Many McGarrigles and Thompsons performed in all sorts of (sometimes very unexpected) combinations, as did Jenni Muldaur (Geoff and Maria’s daughter), and Emmylou Harris, and Nick Cave, and Neil Tennant, Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren … It was brilliantly performed but incredibly emotional for both artists and audience. You can sample a slight taste of the night thanks to fan videos here.

When I spoke to Linda in 1978, she was warm, and lovely and funny, and I was shy and starstruck, and little suspected how yet more difficult my life was to become. Since then I have seen Richard play many, many times. The two of them split up around 1982 but I have also been to some of her (relatively rare) solo concerts. But when I saw all those amazing performers at Meltdown in June, I was sitting in the Royal Festival Hall, proudly myself at last, blessed with a loving family and friends and the most at ease I have ever been, after all these intervening years. So that night held special resonance for me and I’m sure for lots in the audience in many different ways. Rarely can there have been such a direct emotional connection between those on stage and off. Tears were shed by almost all – you should have been there.

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