Thursday, February 19, 2009

“Read About Love” / Richard Thompson


So where has Richard Thompson been all my life? If you believe his musical persona, he’s been kicking cans around in some grubby back alley of love, being utterly clueless.

That’s the conceit of this gem, a wonderfully crafted little number that’s like a Venus flytrap of dramatic irony. In verse one, the singer remembers being 13 and quizzing his parents and teachers about what love really means. The lines hammer away on the same note, a rush of words over a background of propulsive electric guitar and almost tribal drum whacks; Thompson's slightly harsh ordinary-guy voice make this goofus kid sound even more hamfisted. Of course, being proper British folks, they blush and stammer and refuse to answer. Somehow they know right away he’s asking about sex, not love.

Did they get him wrong? Oh, no; it IS sex he’s intent on, and when he gets no answers from them he resorts to his own research: “So I read about love, read it in a magazine / Read about love, Cosmo and Seventeen / Read about love, in the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler.” I love how the backing singers chime that repeated phrase so intently, while Thompson throws in further details in spasmodic jerks of melody (and don’t we all know what a 13-year-old boy does with a copy of Hustler?) Convinced that he now knows it all, he boasts, “So don't tell me I don't understand / What makes a woman and what makes a man / I've never been to heaven but at least / I've read about love.” His faith in the printed word is touching, isn’t it? But the poor schmuck, you gotta pity him – a little learning is such a dangerous thing.

In verse two, his older brother comes to the rescue with a book, and not just any book: “He gave me a book, the cover was plain / Written by a doctor with a German name,” no doubt one of Kraftt-Ebbing’s scientific works on sexual perversity, books so serious they were written partly in Latin. Scientific they might be, but the practices they describe are anything but normal love. And he, of course, reads it seven times until he’s got it by heart.

By the time he swings into the second chorus, things get a little scary: “(Read about love) Now I've got you / (Read about love) where I want you / (Read about love) got you on the test-bed, test-bed, test-bed” – he sounds downright predatory. (Does that “test-bed” have straps?) This is the opposite of love, it’s just cruel and unusual lust.

And it still doesn’t work for him. He whines in frustration, “So why / Don't you moan and sigh / Why / Do you sit there and cry?” It’s comical, yeah, but I’m feeling for this girl. “I do everything I'm supposed to do,” he insists bitterly, then sneers, “If something's wrong, then it must be you.” Wow. Ladies, raise your hand if you’ve ever been behind closed doors with somebody dysfunctional like this. Extra points if you’re married to somebody dysfunctional like this.

And then, in the last verse, you have to feel sorry for this loser again, lost in a tangle of buzzy guitar and those punishing drums: “When I touch you there, it's supposed to feel nice / That's what it said in reader's advice” – he honestly wants to give her some pleasure. Is it his fault he’s so out to lunch? “I've never been to heaven but at least / I've read about love.” If only he didn’t hang quite so wolfishly on that last “love”….

Read About Love sample

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