Monday, 13 February 2012

A Heart Needs a Home

For the past couple of weeks I've been obsessing about Richard and Linda Thompson, and in particular their beautiful song A Heart Needs a Home.

Richard and Linda first met around 1969.  Richard was already famous as the guitarist and sometime songwriter with folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, his guitar playing reportedly the reason for their initial recording contract.  Linda, then performing as Linda Peters, was a struggling singer,  recording advertising jingles and doing folk club gigs in the evenings.

In 1971 Richard left Fairport, seeking more scope for his own songwriting.  In between earning his living as a session player he recorded his first album, Henry the Human Fly, with a band that included Linda as a backing vocalist.  By the end of 1972 the couple were married and officially performing as a duet.  Richard had found his muse and Linda her voice and a set of songs to sing.  Of course it was not an entirely equal partnership.  Richard wrote the songs, played guitar and shared the singing.  Linda merely sang.  Still, her beautiful clear contralto enabled Richard's songs to go to places they never would have if he was writing for himself.  None of his solo work sounds like this.

Then something else happened.  Early in 1974 Richard, and perhaps also Linda, converted to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.  This was no shallow, whimsical flirtation with religion.  From 1975 to 1977 they withdrew from the music industry and lived on a Sufi commune.  While Linda was less enthusiastic than her husband (commenting later that the main thing she learnt in the commune was to stay away from cults) Richard remains an active Muslim to this day.

Not that you'd necessarily know it.  Unlike his more famous contemporary Cat Stevens, Richard neither changed his name nor wrote overtly religious songs.  Yet you can hear a subtle change in his songwriting as his faith deepened.  Earlier offerings were in the maudlin tradition of the English folk ballads he had helped Fairport Convention to transform, like The Poor Ditching Boy.

I was looking for trouble to tangle my line
But trouble came looking for me
I knew I was standing on treacherous ground
I was sinking too fast to run free

With her scheming, idle ways
She left me poor enough
The storming wind cut through to my skin
But she cut through to my blood


Soon however, he adopted the Sufi method of writing to Allah as a lover.  As a result, the songs can be heard as simple love songs.  The couple's "coming out" album, Pour Down Like Silver, contains many such songs.  Its centrepiece, Night Comes In, carries all the longing of mystical worship and, for those who know, the Sufi tradition of sacred dance as as a medium for mystical union.  The closer, Dimming of the Day, one of the most covered of Richard's extensive catalogue, evokes the sorrow of separation shot through with the hope of future reconciliation. Allah is never mentioned and the songs could simply be sung of a human lover.  Yet the love was purer, more holy, than anything they had sung before.

No song expresses this love and longing more directly and simply than one of the first, A Heart Needs a Home, recorded on their earlier album Hokey Pokey amidst other, more worldly offerings.

I know the way that I feel about you
I’m never going to run away
I’m never going to run away
Never knew the way when I lived without you
I’m never going to run away
I’m never going to run away

I came to you when no one could hear me
I’m sick and weary of being alone
Empty streets and hungry faces
The world’s no place when you’re on your own
A heart needs a home

Some people say that I should forget you
I’m never going to be a fool
I’m never going to be a fool
A better life, they say, if I’d never met you
I’m never going to be a fool
I’m never going to be a fool

Tongues talk fire and eyes cry rivers
Indian givers, hearts of stone
Paper ships and painted faces
The world’s no place when you’re on your own
A heart needs a home


They could be singing this song to each other, that beautiful serene couple seemingly oblivious to anything beyond the song they are singing.  Or they could be singing it to their God, lost in contemplation of things too holy for this world.  Perhaps Linda sang to Richard while Richard sang to Allah. 

It was too good to last.  Perhaps it was never really that good.  The religion that liberated Richard oppressed Linda, a reluctant convert pressured into a subordinate role by the leaders of the community.  By 1982 their marriage had disintegrated, its painful last rites acted out on stage in their final tour.  Linda literally lost her voice and has only sung intermittently since,  afflicted by dysphonia brought on by the stress of the breakup.  Richard kept on writing and recording to continuing acclaim, but his acerbic bite and pessimistic gloom returned.

Yet songs have a life of their own.  Time passes, people change, what was true once can be true again.  We look for love in all sorts of places, and we are often disappointed, but it takes a lot to make us give up.

Jet plane in a rocking chair
Roller coaster roll nowhere
Deaf and dumb old dancing bear
I'll change this heart of mine
This time, this time

Sea cruise in a diving bell
Run a mile in a wishing well
Soft soap and nothing to sell
I'll change this heart of mine
This time, this time

Here comes the real thing
I've been waiting, for so long
For so long
I've been looking for a love like you.


(If you like, you can read more about Richard and Linda Thompson here.)

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