John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Withered And Died”

Richard and Linda Thompson created one of the saddest love songs ever written.

By - Jun 12th, 2014 10:47 am
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Richard and Linda Thompson

Richard and Linda Thompson

Back when the Byrds, with their new invention, folk-rock, were burning up the charts in America, there was a similar movement that emphasized the “folk” part of the equation, gaining popularity in England. Fairport Convention, was the first to gain acceptance here, if you discount Donovan, who was headed toward pop and rock. Led by Richard Thompson, they managed to make sounding British cool again, and not just when they were speaking. You knew you weren’t listening to Big Bill Broonzy when Thompson sang, his accent was thick. Along with Sandy Denny on vocals, Fairport won hearts as they were breaking them, singing some of the saddest songs ever written. A few years after he left, Thompson married and started releasing records with another gifted singer, his wife Linda. A very complicated soap opera ensued, ending in 1982 on a U.S. tour famous for its acrimony and imploding matrimony. There were ugly fights backstage and and brilliant performances on stage. Go figure.

After they split, Linda Thompson literally lost her voice for two years to an odd condition called dysphonia. Little is known about this affliction (which is related to the yips that plague golfers), but all that stress couldn’t have been helpful. Happily her voice returned and she is once again active. Her stellar reading of this song eclipses two very good versions I have heard. The first is by her ex-husband, who wrote it, and is no slouch as a singer. The other is by Elvis Costello, who some call “The Voice.” He poured honey and vibrato all over it, serving up a nice, knowing cover. But if you want to really feel this song deep down where it hurts, there is no doubt that Linda Thompson’s, in this version, owns it completely.

So, what kind of song is Withered And Died? It’s absolutely desolate and devoid of hope as it tells the tale of a lass, once dewy-eyed, who is abandoned and in free-fall. A love song sketched in unremittingly dark colors. There are plenty of songs on this topic, but somehow, this one always stops me in my tracks. Richard Thompson’s vision is bleak, with dashes of irony and lots of black humor. This one doesn’t seem funny. British ownership of the language can’t really be argued when you hear phrases like “Once I was bending the tops of the trees.” A much better way of say “walking on air,” don’t you think?

The words:

This cruel country has driven me down

Teased me and lied, teased me and lied

I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town

My dreams have withered and died

Withered is lovely word, but it describes something quite unlovely. It rolls off the tongue, but I can’t think of any any other usage in a song. He grabbed the brass ring on this word and must have jumped for joy when he thought of it!

 

Once I was bending the tops of the trees

Kind words in my ear, kind faces to see

Then I struck up with a boy from the West

Played run and hide, played run and hide

Count one to ten and he’s gone with the rest

My dreams have withered and died

 

Silver moon sail up and silver moon shine

On the waters so wide, waters so wide

Steal from the bed of some good friend of mine

My dreams are withered and died

 

If I was a butterfly, live for a day

I could be free just blowing away

 

This cruel country has driven me down

Teased me and lied, teased me and lied

I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town

My dreams have withered and died

 

Although it starts globally with “this cruel country,” it’s far from political and gets personal in a hurry. By the time she is doing the walk of shame, you get the picture — this is someone left hollowed out by bad romance. Hard to believe, but this song is not even the darkest that Thompson came up with — he has another song called The End Of The Rainbow, that goes even further into the shadows. The lyrics to that ditty, said to have been written shortly after the birth of his son, are chilling and cruel. The villain singing them is a monster who might have been created by Randy Newman, if he would only reveal a trace of humor. How’s this for advice to your newborn son?

 

I feel for you, you little horror

Safe at your mother’s breast

No lucky break for you around the corner

‘Cause your father is a bully

And he thinks that you’re a pest

And your sister she’s no better than a whore

 

Life seems so rosy in the cradle

But I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store

There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow

There’s nothing to grow up for anymore

 

Not exactly a hallmark card, is it? These two songs exist at the bottom of Thompson’s murky pool of venom. Along with tales of mistreatment of his first wife, they would color any person’s perception of him. In all fairness, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt. We don’t know the man and it may be his dark humor at his bleakest. It takes a certain amount of courage to write things that will almost certainly alienate a large segment of the population.

The question often asked is, what is so damn enjoyable about these painful tales? Voyeurism is one theory often floated — the ability to experience the drama, at least momentarily, and then continue on our way, unaffected. The element of black humor has to be part of it. Thompson’s is very hard to read, but he claims that, unlike his songs, he is fairly happy-go-lucky.

In this case, it’s the performance, which gives the story a certain distance. It all comes across in Linda Thompson’s steady, unaffected Londoner delivery. She could almost be singing someone else’s woes. The British rockers got the agitation in American music and fed it back with equal intensity. The folkies were on to something that predated Columbus’ voyage and often used a sense of reserve that intensified as it chilled. Their own brand of cool.

Richard Thompson is in town and performs tomorrow night at the Pabst.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Withered And Died””

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’d never heard of dysphonia before (what a terrible thing to happen to a singer, the loss of one’s voice for a prolonged period of time). Thank you too for your constant dedication to lyrics (which I deem so very important)!

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