Linda Thompson: Scenes From a Rock & Roll Marriage

The singer-songwriter learns about the pains of love

Linda Thompson performing on stage as part of Folk Roots New Routes in London, UK on March 30th, 2008. Credit: Philip Ryalls/Redferns/Getty

Love is strange. As a kid, Linda Thompson gave up a career as an actress to pursue her love of music. Then, as a musician, she subsumed her artistic identity in the encompassing vision of the man she loved and later married, Richard Thompson. And when Richard was drawn toward the austere Sufi Islamic sect, Linda —– hardly a sackcloth-and-ashes type —– dutifully followed. At one point, in the spirit of such undertakings, the couple gave away most of their material possessions: clothes, guitars, furniture, jewelry. "Everything went," Linda says.

All this for love. And then, in 1982, when Linda was pregnant with the Thompsons' third child, Richard returned from a short solo tour in the States and announced that he'd fallen in love with an American woman and that the marriage was over. So there she was, left with —– what?

Some answers can be found on One Clear Moment, Linda's first solo album, in which she's taken the obvious subject at hand – the aching sense of betrayal attendant upon a marital breakup – and fashioned it into a series of sometimes shimmeringly beautiful pop songs. The album was recorded last year, and now that some healing time has passed, Linda seems not so bitter as some of the songs sound.

"Richard and I see each other," she says, sampling the last of the season's new Beaujolais in a sleek midtown-Manhattan wine bar. "Yeah, we see each other, and we're okay." She seems very lapsed-Sufi in her fine fur coat and new punk-fluff hairdo, and she harbors few regrets. Even when she and Richard divested themselves of all their possessions, she says, "that wasn't so bad. There's a tremendous freedom in getting rid of things, especially things you like. But I gave away my heart, you know? My being. And that was bad." Now she'd like to get some of it back.

The world seemed a lot less complicated back in the late Sixties, when a disenchanted teenage actress who called herself Linda Peters was just getting into folk music. She had been born Linda Pettifer, in London. Her father, Harry Pettifer, was a vaudevillian – magician, song-and-dance man – and her Scottish mother performed as Vera Love, Speciality Dancer. ("I don't know what that meant exactly," Linda says. "I've always been afraid to ask.")

Linda was raised in Glasgow, where the music she listened to was predominantly black and American. "In depressed areas," she says, "everybody listens to black music. Nobody listened to 'folk,' or Peter, Paul and Mary. We listened to, you know, Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. That's what I thought music was. I had no idea there was such a thing as British music. I thought music was American."

Linda's showbiz parents sent her to drama school, and she subsequently worked as a child actress in television (most notably on the original edition of The Avengers). But she never really enjoyed acting, and by seventeen she had drifted away from it. One night around that time, she went to a London folk club called the Troubador, where she heard a celebrated trio of traditional singers called the Watersons. Linda was knocked out –— so much so that she got up onstage herself a week later, sang an unaccompanied folk song and "got a really good response." Among those responding was a local folk singer named Paul McNeil, who, according to Linda, "was so good looking. He said, 'You're a smashing singer.' And I thought, This is definitely the life, you know: men come up and say how wonderful you are. And I started singing with him. It must have been 1969 —– eons ago."

The conflation of folk and rock in London at that time had produced a burgeoning underground scene, much of it centered on UFO, a club run by entrepreneur Joe Boyd. UFO played host to the nascent Pink Floyd, to American interlopers such as the Grateful Dead and to Fairport Convention, a band that Boyd produced. Linda fell in with the Fairporters, who included among their number an extraordinary guitarist and songwriter called Richard Thompson. Linda did not connect immediately with the mercurial Thompson (in fact, one of her first boyfriends in that period was another of Boyd's protégés, the doomed guitarist and songwriter Nick Drake, who subsequently died of a drug overdose).

"Richard was unbelievably introverted then," Linda says. "Basically, he went out with women who picked him up, put him over their shoulder and took him home. I like men like that, 'cause I'm quite forward." As she recalls it, their initial attraction to each other may have been due not so much to mutual artistry as to simple sexual chemistry. "I think he saw me in a low-cut dress or something," Linda says with a laugh.

Richard and Linda married in 1972 and honeymooned in Corsica. "It rained the whole time," she remembers. "I should have known then."

Given the spiritual cast of many of his lyrics, Richard's subsequent attraction to Islam seemed very much in character. "He was already the most unworldly person that you could imagine," says Linda. "I mean, people would pay him, give him checks, and he'd put them in his pocket and never cash them. So he met some people who'd become Muslims and he liked what they were and he became a Muslim."

And so did Linda. Sufism, she explains, is essentially about "oneness, about going toward your higher self, as opposed to your lower self. One of the sort of maxims is that if you turn to the world, it'll run away from you, and if you turn your back on it, it'll come to you. There's certainly something to be said for renouncing; I'm just not sure that we did it in the right spirit, you know? We did it in a very Christian way, which was natural, because we came from that kind of background. So we went to it in a very punishing way: no laughing, no drinking, no talking, no loving – nothing, you know? We denied ourselves everything, hoping that outer contraction would cause inner expansion. I went into it with the thought that it was like cough medicine – that it hurt me so much that it had to be good for me. Which is stupid. Stupid."

The Thompsons' life in the London Sufi community began in a series of squats, deserted buildings without electricity or much in the way of other amenities. Since few others in the community had any money, the Thompsons were encouraged to donate theirs. "We just basically gave all our money away," says Linda. "Or he gave all our money away."

The commune's social structure was sexist-ascetic. "The men and the women were separated," says Linda, "and if you talked to a man, you had to keep your eyes down." Children were allowed no toys, and the Muslim "schooling" they received was, in Linda's words, "a lot of guilt." The Thompsons already had one child when they became Sufis, and Linda gave birth to their second in the commune – an experience she describes as "fucking awful. No doctors, no hot water, nothing. It was just a nightmare." As for child care, that, along with cooking and cleaning, was the exclusive province of women. Muslim men, Linda says, "eat quiche, but they don't change diapers." In addition to all this, there was much slaughtering of animals for food, much chanting, much fasting. And no fun. Lots of that.

The leader of the commune was an Englishman who styled himself a sheik, and he eventually moved his flock to remote Norfolk, some 100 miles from London. There, he continued to encourage Richard in his antimaterialism. "Richard didn't want to work anymore, he didn't want to earn money. He wanted to turn his back on the world," says Linda, "and he did."

Linda was not entirely buying this plan of action. For a while, she tried to get Richard to teach her to play the guitar, "but he'd say, 'Look, I'm trying to forget about music. Don't make it more difficult for me.'" Finally, she contacted her old Fairport pal Ashley Hutchings and started singing in a new group he'd formed, called the Albion Band. This news was not well received back at the commune.

"Richard got so cross," Linda recalls. "He told the sheik, who summoned me up to his huge, stately home. He said, 'You can't do this. You can't go against your husband and go against the community.' And I was dissolved. So I gave it up. It was a real number. I didn't speak to Richard for about six months."

After some two years in the Norfolk commune, Richard suddenly decided to leave and return to music. "He came to the realization," says Linda. "I didn't. I had stopped thinking. But Richard's very strong, and when he decides something's right again, then he just does it wholeheartedly."

He apparently fell in love with another woman the same way. In the Muslim view, such things are preordained; and, as Richard sang on a later solo album, "hearts do what hearts will."

"I think he'd just held himself in too long," says Linda. "He went to California to do a tour for the first time in years and he had —– surprise, surprise – a good time. And he thought: What have I been doing? For years I've been sleepwalking. He had a ball. And it was just far removed from this closed Muslim thing that we'd gotten into. You know, when you've been with somebody for ten years, and you've treated them a certain way and they've treated you a certain way, it's almost impossible to break the habit. So, as I will tell the children one day: It's better to come from a broken home than to live in one."

The Thompsons separated, but still were obligated to play several North American dates together to support Shoot Out the Lights. Richard and their friends urged her not to go. "But I thought, 'Fuck it,'" Linda says. "And I was glad I did that tour. Because for the first time in my life, I was . . . well, I was too annihilated to care about singing, so it was very free."

To describe that tour as stormy might be an understatement. Sparks flew onstage and off, and during a stopover in Canada, Linda crowned Richard with a Coke bottle, ran out and stole a car and went for a wild-eyed joy ride. Fortunately, no one pressed charges. "I think the police took one look at me," says Linda, "and saw that I was completely mad." She looks back on that eruption as a therapeutic outburst. "After I hit Richard on the head with the Coca-Cola bottle, it was fine. I suddenly went from being this lady with three children —– covered in scarves, with my eyes turned to the ground – to stealing cars and living on vodka and antidepressants. And I felt fabulous! Hitting everybody. You know, people'd say good morning to me and I'd say, 'Fuck off.' It was great therapy."

But she also realized that she'd have to begin putting her life back together. "I left Richard in Los Angeles," she says, "'cause he was gonna stay with his girlfriend. And on the plane back, I got my antidepressants and threw them down the loo. I thought, well, real life has to start again, and I ordered a Perrier and started to sober up."

After returning to London, she took a job singing in a National Theatre production of Don Quixote that starred Paul Scofield. Before long, she felt strong enough to strike out on her own as a recording artist. She called up an old friend, an expatriate American multi-instrumentalist and singer named Betsy Cook, and began working on songs with her. Cook's husband, Hugh Murphy, produced One Clear Moment, and the result is a striking step back onto the road to artistic recovery.

Linda's life is busy these days. She's reportedly struck up a new romance with a London-based American movie agent and she recently appeared in a National Theatre production of the medieval York mystery plays. Her voice is as hauntingly pure and moving as ever, and she's working on her song-writing. "As far as songs are concerned," she says, "you can't get any better than Richard's. I love them, and I love to sing them. But you couldn't compete on that level."

On the evidence of One Clear Moment, it's obvious that Linda has her own kind of songwriting talent And she's determined to pursue it, to find her place in the scheme of things again. Still, there will always be critics. Even her pop-fan kids sometimes get into the act. "A couple of weeks ago," Linda recalls, "my son said to me, 'Why can't you write a song like "No More Lonely Nights"?'" Linda chuckles at the idea. "I said, Well, I'll try, darling, I'll try.'"