Monday, 24 September 2012

Shoot Out The Lights

Speaking of love, a while ago I waxed lyrical about Richard and Linda Thompson at the height of their musical and life partnership, and their beautiful song A Heart Needs a Home.  Well lately I've been listening in a similar slightly obsessive fashion to the last album they made together, Shoot Out The Lights, released in 1982.

Their marriage was pretty much over by the time it was released, as the cover tells you plainly, yet they were contractually obliged to tour in support of it.  Audiences (not to mention the band) got to see the painful last rites live on stage as the couple struggled and bickered their way across Europe and North America before departing for what must have seemed by comparison the blessed relief of divorce. 

Shoot Out The Lights tells the death of their love in seven songs.  Gone are the wide open spaces, tranquil rythms and deep yearning of Dimming of the Day or A Heart Needs a Home.  In their place are insistent broken rhythms, jagged stuttering electric guitar lines and a world of pain and hurt.  Where in previous albums they often sang duets, here there is only one, right at the end. Before that the album is like a dialogue - Richard sings, Linda replies.  Of course we know Richard wrote all the songs, but the exchange of voices makes it sound as though they are having it out right there in the recording studio. 

Richard starts it conventionally enough with the plea, Don't Renege on Our Love.

Remember when we were hand in hand
Remember we sealed it with a golden band
Now your eyes don't meet mine, you've got a pulse like fever
Do I take you for a lover or just a deceiver?
Simple is simple and plain is plain
If you leave me now you won't come back again;
When the game is up don't renege on our love.

Well give me just an ounce of sympathy
Give me my chains of liberty
There's a rope that binds us and I don't want to break it
If love is a healing why should we forsake it?...

Such an appeal to the sanctity of marriage might sound persuasive, but it is powerless in the face of Linda's agonised reply.

I hand you my ball and chain
You just hand me that same old refrain
I'm walking on a wire, and I'm falling

I wish I could please you tonight
But my medicine just won't come right
I'm walking on a wire, and I'm falling

Too many steps to take
Too many spells to break
Too many nights awake
And no one else
This grindstone's wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don't use me endlessly
It's too long, too long to myself

Where's the justice and where's the sense?
When all the pain is on my side of the fence
I'm walking on a wire, and I'm falling.

What are sacred vows, promises made in happier times, in the face of this vertigo?  It is plain that the marriage is doomed, the vows will be dishonoured.  Richard decamps, and in the chorus of Man in Need, a bare four lines, we see the mix of bitterness and vulnerability that have become his trademark down the years.  The first three lines speak with the voice of every aggrieved, embittered male, every jaundiced exponent of anti-feminist backlash given airspace on talkback radio.

Well who's gonna shoe your feet?
Ah who's gonna pay your rent?
And who's gonna stand by you?

Then the bitterness drops away to reveal the deep need that lies beneath.

Who's gonna cure the heart of a man in need?

This peeling back continues, and the next two songs are pure, raw pain.  First of all there is the kind of numbness, perhaps drug-assisted, that comes when you have reached your limit and it feels as if you are at the bottom of the ocean, a world away from your own life.

Blown by a hundred winds, knocked down a hundred times
Rescued and carried along. Beaten and half-dead and gone
And it's only the pain that's keeping you sane
And gives you a mind to travel on

Oh the motion won't leave you, won't let you remain, don't worry
It's a restless wind and a sleepless rain, don't worry
'Cause under the ocean at the bottom of the sea
You can't hear the storm, it's as peaceful as can be
It's just the motion, it's just the motion

And then there's the title track, a masterful piece of downbeat rock'n'roll about the urge to curl up in a darkened room and shut out all the pain, with a bullet if nothing else will do it.

In the dark who can see his face?
In the dark who can reach him?
He hides like a child. He hides like a child.
Keeps his finger on the trigger
You know he can't stand the day
Shoot out the lights.

Keep the blind down on the window
Keep the pain on the inside
Just watching the dark. Just watching the dark
He might laugh but you won't see him
As he thunders through the night
Shoot out the lights.

Although ostensibly about something else - a murder mystery, if you will - the penultimate track, Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?, brings an appropriate symbolic end to to this tale of woe. 

She was there one minute and then she was gone the next
Lying in a pool of herself with a twisted neck

And although the woman is dead, cause uncertain, she inhabits the same emotional landscape Richard and Linda have just passed through.

She used to live life, she used to live life with a vengeance
And the chosen would dance, the chosen would dance in attendance...

Oh she used to have style, she used to have style and she used it
And they say it turned bad when the truth came `round and she refused it

They found some fingerprints right around her throat
They didn't find no killer and they didn't find no note
Did she jump or was she pushed?

Whether she jumped or was pushed, the outcome is the same.  The marriage is dead, and it will not live again in this world. 

In a sense this is the end of the tale.  Yet thirty years later, both Richard and Linda are still alive.  Both have remarried, and there exists between them that kind of truce which divorced couples reach when they share children, not to mention a body of work that continues to sell.  They have appeared occasionally on one another's recordings and in recent years have even done the odd live performance together.  The romance is dead, but so, it seems, is the enmity.

So was it all worth it?  The pain on display here might make you think not.  Yet Gottfried von Strassberg would disagree.

This sorrow is so full of joy, this ill is so inspiriting that, having once been heartened by it, no noble heart will forego it! 

So, I think, would Richard and Linda.  Why else would they have married again?  Even back in 1982, in the midst of the pain, they could close the album with a duet sung in the closest of close harmony.  Its theme is that familiar folk metaphor, life as a fairground; and if you are at a fairground, what would you want to do but go on the most thrilling, frightening and exhilarating ride available, over and over again?

You can go with the crazy people in the Crooked House
You can fly away on the Rocket or spin in the Mouse
The Tunnel Of Love might amuse you
Noah's Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it's the nearest to being free

Well you're going nowhere when you ride on the carousel
And maybe you're strong but what's the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy. Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Oh let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death.

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