Richard Thompson: Guitar Anti-Hero

Veteran folk rocker Richard Thompson keeps up with the kids

Asking Richard Thompson about the video game Guitar Hero is kind of like talking Wii Baseball with Hank Aaron or getting Jane Goodall's take on Donkey Kong. It might be beneath them, but then again, looking down on something from above tends to help one's overall perspective.

"Yeah, Guitar Hero… well, I don't really know what to make of it," says Thompson, the man ranked #19 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the greatest guitarists of all time. "I suppose if it's a stepping stone to people picking up a real instrument, then I think it's a great idea. If it's just a game and you get your digital applause for a few minutes, then I'm thinking, ‘Are these really the rewards we're after in life?' Even if you're a good musician, you're in music for other reasons—usually—than just to show off on stage and get the accolades. Most musicians who have a longer career just love music and creating music, and they perform relatively modestly on the whole. So, you know, Guitar Hero might be teaching the wrong values, I suppose. If you're a good guitar player, the point isn't to become a guitar hero, you know? I mean, that's never the point."

Clearly, Thompson has never asked Lil Wayne about his guitar "playing" motivations. But don't let the man's Baby Boomer viewpoint fool you. Unlike most of his contemporaries from the late-'60s folk-rock explosion, Thompson, 59, remains as productive and creatively energized as at any point during his career, and he hasn't lost touch with the younger generation, either. Two of his favorite collaborators, in fact, are half his age. They also happen to be his children—son Teddy, who has four solo albums to his credit, and daughter Kamila, who just released her debut effort. Both talented kiddos are the product of Thompson's past marriage to singer Linda Thompson, with whom he recorded a slew of incredible albums in the 1970s.

"If you have kids, it kind of trains you to at least be listening out for new things and new ideas," Thompson says. "I think it's impossible to keep on top of popular music for your whole life, to be that involved. But at least I'm open to new things."

He's also been open to playing guitar on his kids' albums, and, perhaps more fortunately, his children have gladly welcomed him. It's an all too uncommon occurrence of cross-generational family bonding in modern pop music.

"Yeah, I think that's rare in popular music because popular music is much more concerned with fashion," Thompson asserts. "It would seem to be uncool to play with your parents, you know, because every five years there's sort of a new zeitgeist in pop music. Whereas in folk music, where I really come from, it's actually quite common to have music passed down through families. There are a lot of singing families that have been performing for generations and generations. So, in that sense, I'm very comfortable doing that, and I think it can work really well. But you know, I don't mastermind Teddy and Kami's careers. They really are their own people, and I'm just happy to chip in wherever possible. Whatever I can do to help these kids, you know?" He chuckles sarcastically. "These crazy kids."

It certainly wouldn't hurt Teddy and Kamila to use their father as an artistic role model. While many folks might know Thompson best for his guitar chops (Rolling Stone further referred to him as "the greatest guitarist in British folk rock"), true fans and fellow musicians also recognize him as a prolific and wildly imaginative singer/songwriter. In many circles, his more recent solo material is as revered as his ground-breaking early work with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and Linda Thompson, and his devoted admirers include everyone from David Gilmour and Emmylou Harris to R.E.M. and Elvis Costello. Unfortunately, though, when it comes to the public consciousness, Thompson has always been a radio hit shy of major stardom. It's something he's come to terms with these days, especially now that he's free from his old label Capitol and adapting to yet another generational shift—the online music revolution.

"I'm actually a lot happier now," Thompson says. "I just have more control over what goes on a record and how it sounds.... But I think, traditionally, record companies played an important role in developing artists. If that goes away, and it's pretty much gone away, it'd be nice to think there will be something there to replace it. You know, it could be a return to patronage in some form, where you have your wealthy patrons who basically sponsor you, or maybe the fan base becomes the sponsor of the music and puts up the money to make the record. You know, these things are possibilities. But I think the record companies will keep doing the really popular stuff, the dance music and such—the stuff where they can do the tie-ins with Burger King and Disneyland."

And the video games.