King Richard

Renowned British folk-rocker Richard Thompson has never seen fit to fit in

The songs found in The Old Kit Bag range from jazzy reveries to garagey satires, to -- damn the label -- folk rock's "razor-wire geometry." On "Tag Along" Thompson skewers the weekend rocker, someone who "can never commit to a dangerous lifestyle but likes to flirt with it, a useless individual, really." On opening track "Gethsemane," he explores what it means to grow up in England, or anywhere, for that matter. "The person in the song has a wonderfully free childhood," Thompson says, "but as he grows older, the world closes down. He never gets that same sense of freedom. He starts to fail, and life is disappointing."

On the album's most devastating cut, "Outside of the Inside," Thompson, who converted to Islam in the '70s, takes aim at fundamentalism -- be it of the Muslim, the Christian or, perhaps, the bean-counting-capitalist variety: "I'm familiar with the cover/I don't need to read the book/I police the world of action/Inside's where I never look."

Richard Thompson, the most distinctive, accomplished rock guitarist playing today.
Richard Thompson, the most distinctive, accomplished rock guitarist playing today.

"It could be a view from Alabama as well," Thompson says. "I wrote it a month or so after 9/11, at a time when the media was focusing on the Middle East, terrorism and anti-Westernism. I picked icons of culture that were more my favorites than anybody else's. The fundamentalist viewpoint would be very aware of these things. They'll have a love/hate relationship with those icons. American culture is loved around the world; jazz and rock & roll are tremendous ambassadors for American culture. In the end, it's the politics that people outside the U.S. -- and inside, for that matter -- dislike. Charlie Parker, Einstein, Shakespeare -- to a fundamentalist, that would all be worthless -- the last 500 years of Western culture and science would be worthless. But I'm a bit of a fan, myself."

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