The Furious Gentleman: Richard Thompson, “Tear-Stained Letter” (1983)

Fury is a natural rock theme and the rock vaults are full of shredding vocal blasts of rage.  One expects it.  Certain radio stations provide a constant diet of it.  What impresses me most is not the fury that’s par for the course but the unexpectedly glimpsed fury of a perfect gentleman, under suave control outwardly but inwardly oh so not.

The most gentlemanly of all rock stars, Richard Thompson, writes constantly about, and from, and in, the rage of the romantically disappointed male.  Simply to make this point I might play “She Twists The Knife Again” because it’s totally overt.

“She Twists The Knife Again”

But my #1 Richard Thompson fury hook is in the chorus of “Tear-Stained Letter,” which seems at first—“at first” both historically, at this early stage of his re-started solo career (the first track on Hand of Kindness), and as a first impression for the uninitiated listener—like a good-time romp by an uptempo accordion dance band.  It seems to be a joke, too, on pulp love stories.  Listen to it early on:

Just when I thought I could learn to forget her
Right through the door come a tear-stained letter

“Tear-Stained Letter” 1

But whoever knows Richard Thompson, and whoever has once followed this track and compared the later enunciations of the chorus with the earlier, will hear the song seething with fury on more than one level.  An overriding point of interest is how he comes to let this show:

Cry, cry if it makes you feel better
Set it all down in a tear-stained letter

“Tear-Stained Letter” 2

Now Thompson is almost yelling that two-syllable rhyme hook, and he’s more furious than Metallica. There’s a direct reproach to a woman who abused him, to be sure, but more tellingly there’s anger at the whole damn sticky web of romantic clichés that traps us in this abuse.  And the phrase “tear-stained letter” will stick in your mind from now on sounding outrageous, scorched by Thompsonian scorn.

In almost perfect good-time disguise:

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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