Tuesday, September 7, 2010

“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”: Lyrics That Tell Us What We’re Not

> An examination of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” lyrics, and what they tell us about ourselves

Here’s a deceptively simple question: What makes “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” such an incredible song?

My relationship with Richard Thompson’s most-popular tune has always been an uneasy one. I love it, but I don’t know why. On a passive listen, it seems like a fairly vapid, melodramatic love ballad. In a word, it’s cheesy. Yet I can’t listen to it without the risk of my chin quivering.

For years, without having devoted much thought to the matter, I offhandedly assumed its old-world Irish vibe just gave it a romanticism that resonated with me (yes, Richard Thompson is British; but the song feels Irish). Half the blood in me can be traced back to Ireland...but I need go back only as far as the late ‘70s to tap memories of drunken relatives singing “Danny Boy” or “Harrigan” or some such folk song. Anytime I hear a Celtic-sounding guitar or the flitty drone of bagpipes, I well up by reflex. Mix in lyrics about star-crossed lovers and a young man’s death, and you have an effective recipe for drawing the melancholy out of me — whether the art snob in me likes it or not.

But the song is much, much more than that.

For those of you who don’t know the song or its tale, I’ll give you the synopsis:

Girl (Red Molly) meets Boy (James) when she notices his cool motorcycle (a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning) > Some unspoken courtship happens > Boy proposes marriage to Girl, but discloses to her in earnest: “I’m a dangerous man / for I fought with the law since I was 17, / I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine. / Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22, / and I don’t mind dying but for the love of you.” > They marry > Boy gets shot during a robbery > On his deathbed, Boy sums up his existence: “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world / beats a 52 Vincent and a red-headed girl” > Boy dies, but not before handing the keys to his prized motorcycle to Girl/Wife.

On the surface, it’s a ridiculously simple story that’s fraught with dubious morality. James is an unyielding criminal, for one thing. If he robbed for some known purpose — like food or rent, or even a certain desperately wanted motorcycle — that would be one thing. But none of these are the case. At the start of the song, James already has his motorcycle. And by the second verse, he has his girl, too. These are the only two things that matter to him. So why, if he truly loved Red Molly, would he not change his ways so that they could have a life together?

Because his one-dimensional existence is exactly what she loves about him. And by extension, it’s what we love about him, too — because he’s everything we are not.

James is a sort of Nietzschian Übermensch (“Superman”). He has no fear of pain or death. He has no kids to worry for. He never stresses over money. He suffers no regret. And he certainly doesn’t envy someone else’s possibly greener grass.

James is who he is.

Now, I understand how underwhelming that sounds. So what, right? Each one of us is who he is, right? Wrong. We are all, each of us, someone else. And none of us really knows who.

The renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris was once asked about the interview process. Specifically, he was asked why he believed people were willing to open up and speak honestly to a camera. “I’m not sure we truly have privledged access to our own minds,” he said. “I don’t think we have any idea who we are...we’re engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are.” The interview process, he believes, is a means by which some portion of that access may be granted. Like meditation or counseling, it’s a process of isolating yourself from the outside world — and the nonstop bombardment of stimuli it projects — to let the white noise fade...and then listen to what’s left. The truth.

But even for those of us who can get there, personal truths are only glimpsed in moments: the profound dream, the Freudian slip, the breakthrough on your analyst’s couch.

I remember the night I first heard “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” I was sitting at the bar in the Khyber, alone, waiting for my friend T. My memory of this stands out for two reasons. First, upon hearing this song I’d never heard before, I had the distinct suspicion I’d known it all my life. The feeling was comforting and strange at the same time.

The second thing I remember continues to embarrass me to this day.

T. was late. The opening band was about to go on. More and more hipsters were floating into the place and congregating in little groups. My self-consciousness started to build. I felt like a pariah sitting there by myself. (The brunette by the jukebox with the tarantula tattoo, is she giggling to her friend about me?) I couldn’t take it. So I looked down the far end of the bar, as if I saw someone I knew down there, and pitched my eyes up as if to say, “Hey!” I even lifted my glass and air-toasted the invisible man. It was pathetic. I couldn’t simply sit there, my pure lone self, and wait for my friend. No. To avoid the secret mocking of strangers (which probably wasn’t even happening), I had to act like someone else — a cooler, more-social version of myself, a version who ran into random friends wherever I went.

Erroll Morris argues that we can’t truly know ourselves. But the harsher reality is, we can’t even be true to who we think we are. That alternate version of Greg I adopted at the Khyber: I did that for strangers. And I’m certainly not alone; we’ve all done something like this, and not just under the tension of an uncomforable social situation. We pull out different versions of ourselves in different day-to-day contexts. Which you are you when you’re with your boss? Your father? Your priest? Your most-successful friend?

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is: Life is suffering. The second is: The origin of suffering is attachment. Maybe the complexities of existence can be reduced to those two simple statements. Each of us has attachments. We’re attached to what we love, what we fear, what we find inspiring, what we find boring, what we feel is right, what we feel is wrong, and on and on.

James is the opposite of us. He does not suffer, even after a shotgun blast to his chest. For James has managed to do what we, as well-rounded real-life humans, cannot: he’s avoided all the trappings and obligations and existential weights of the world (save for two: his motorcycle and his red-headed girl). He even owns his own unique vision of death: “angels and ariels in leather and chrome / swooping down from Heaven to carry [him] home” — as if it’s almost charming to him; you can picture him smiling as the lights go out.

The richest irony is that, only through attachment can we connect with James. Through our attachment to song and lyrics — to the mysterious art of music — we can embody his perfectly reductive and enviable soul, if only for a short time. For the 4:43 we’re listening to this song (or the 5:16 of the live track above), we vicariously exist as James does: with complete, unbridled freedom.

Kris Kristopherson wrote, and Janis Joplin famously sang, that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” And that’s the difference, right there. We always have something to lose — some attachment we’re desperate to hold on to. We love “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” not because of its romanticism or its melancholy. We love it because we love the impossible idea of what James is: a way we’ll never be.




Stephen Buckley said...

No, you're wrong. The reason we love the song is less about the narrative and more about the singing. If you listen to Thompson's phrasing he has that ability Dylan has on 'Blood on the Tracks' that tantalises the end of any particular line with only a hint of poetic or rhythmic resolution. Take the line 'and if fate, should brake my stride then I'll give you my Vincent, to ride' - the 'ride' barely makes it onto the tape and you immediately get drawn into the urgency and drive of the next part of the story. The guitar interludes between the verses only serve to heighten the sense of unease and hint of fear that the song is weaving around you. The line you have quoted - 'I've robbed many a man' etc - the phrasing here is astonishing as Thompson takes you down the scales to the point where you are not sure where the melody could possibly go. So, it's about the resolution. Secondly, like 'Tangled Up In Blue', it's brilliant because your brain films it for you: think of a young Laurence Harvey as James and Sarah Miles as Molly and you've got the greatest British 'B' movie from the 1950s that never got made.

Greg Ippolito said...

Other than your first two sentences, I agree with everything you wrote above.

Can we really measure the impact of lyrics vs. music/singing on our psyche? It feels like the two often — and certainly in this case — create a synergy that makes a song greater than the sum of its parts. My argument is that certain nuances of this song’s lyrics have likely been overlooked. Like a car that’s breathtakingly quick, for which you always credit the engine’s horsepower, but rarely, if ever, consider the vehicle’s aerodynamic design or light weight or incredible torque, etc. “Vincent” is a spare, lyrical masterpiece masquerading as a quaint and beautifully finger-picked ballad.

As for Tangled Up in Blue: “She was married when we first met / soon to be divorced / I helped her out of a jam, I guess, / but I used a little too much force” — those lyrics don’t even need music or urgent phrasing. That’s pure, economic, punch-in-the-gut poetry right there. That Dylan (and later, Thompson) could bring it to another level through song just makes it all the more awe-inspiring.


Dee said...

You got me thinking of ballads. Two of my favorites (geez alert) are Tom Rush's "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" about the Galveston flood of 1900, and "Joshua Gone Barbados" about a sugar cane cutters' strike on St Vincent. Listen to the way he uses the acoustic guitar on "Flood" to whip up the pain & fear. They're on the same greatest-of CD, which includes a lovely rockin train song, "Panama Limited."

JD said...

My chin quivers as well.
Not because I relate to your Nietzschian Ubermausch, as much as I have recently restored & ride a Vincent Black Lightening 1952.
Thompson didn't choose a Vespa to title or tell his story.
Your examination is clever & well thought out, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Boulter's Canary said...

I'd dispute your comment about the Irishness of 'Vincent' - it is a classic example of an English highwayman ballad, such as the traditional Salisbury Plain - lyrics here: - http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/lloyd/songs/salisburyplain.html.

Kerthialfad said...

I think it is a highwayman type song. Before I really listened to the lyrics, I thought it was a traditional song about a horse race. It has a very traditional antique, classic feel to it, which is part of it's genius.

I want to know the name of the motorcycle brands he mentions: "Now __________ and Triumphs and Nortons wouldn't do, they don;t have the soul of a Vincnet 52". The first one sounds like "Falla-setts", but I've seen it printed as "Greeveses". Any help out there?

Boulter's Canary said...

Velocette - a small British motorbike manufacturer. They made the classic 'noddy bike' used by the Metropolitan Police in the 1950's. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velocette

RT puts in different bikes at different times, depending on his mood: I've heard him sing "Indians, Harleys, Greaveses, Nortons....."

Greg Ippolito said...

I've never seen a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning firsthand, let alone ridden on one. So I'm in no position to judge.

But I've always been partial to Indians. They just carry a retro bad-ass vibe like no other.


The DoorKeeper said...

Interesting read. I get the Irishness of the song and it's cinematography. If red haired Molly isn't Irish ...
And that line "... on any such like", where is that the vernacular?

I also understand where you're coming from with the 'James the hero' idea. He lived his life as he saw fit. The life he wanted. Went ahead and took what he wanted with a charm and a smile. A gentleman rogue if you like. ".. and he pulled her on behind and off to Boxhill ..."

I think Sgt. McCrae is the unnoticed hero here, though. The fella who calls Molly to the hospital. He makes the magic possible. The magic is where James, enraptured, sees the Gates of Heaven open, and in the midst of that vision Molly arrives and makes his moment complete. He smiles and he is able to give his most precious possession to the person he loves most in the world, knowing that it will be loved just as much and cherished. He kept his promise as a gentleman (rogue).

I agree with JD, too about the Vincent. As a 12 year old boy i knew that the Black Lightning was the epitomy, the Holy Grail of British Bikes (and British Bikes engender sometimes irrational love at the best of times). That was before i heard the story of it breaking the 150 mph landspeed barrier ridden by a man in his swimming trunks (to lessen the drag). Craziness.

So the song brings together all these magical forces into one perfect moment. Gets you right here.

Btw can we have 'angels on Ariels', please, because they wouldn't need ariels!

Richard said...

Velocette also made some pretty hairy sports bikes too - the Thruxton for one - as well as the mild 'Noddy Bike' the Police used.

I've heard RT sing "Beezers, Triumphs and Nortons wouldn't do". The Beezer is the BSA, standard British motorbike, more mainstream than the others and definitely not the stuff of legend or romance. Apart from the Gold Star, of course.

Anonymous said...

too bad this doesn't have a lyrics on it.

dickies scrubs

Dr. D said...

Good analysis, but for me--and just my take--it's two things: Richard Thompson's powerful singing, and the passion of James for the Vincent and Red Molly. James knows he's not going to live long and says as much--and he accepts that. And he dies, much like in Marty Robins' El Paso. The passion for Red Molly and the Vincent are greater than life and he hands her the keys, and gives her the Vincent to ride. Intense feelings amplified by Richard Thompson's voice and guitar. It's as simple as that. I'm not an emotional person, but I tear up during this song.

the old man down the road said...

Hello all, I just found this while trolling for covers of Black Lightning. I really enjoyed the post, but on a certain level, you're all full of it. IMO, RT is just a (magic) guy who as a little kid was old enough to see the first bikers - leather and jeans - and also hear Carl Perkins. Seems simple (but we all know it's not).

sunbeamtim said...

bckground notes for reference :
boxhill is the largest motorcyclists meeting point on the southern outskirts of london , basically where the open roads start . for hard working south london lads in the fifties and sixties , a manx norton , bsa gold star or triumph bonneville was the ultimate aspiration , and an escape to boxill on the bikes the high point of a dull life .vincents were a very expensive bike , beyond the pocket of a working man .james is the classic rebel , living the life that most of us can only dream of ,living fast , dying young .
my take on it is that rt has taken a classic cowboy song of love and loss , with a hill billy picking feel , and dumped a heavy dose of south london right on top of it . pure genius , and reminds me of heading down there on my honda 100 and learner plates , and later a triumph , morini , guzzi , indian , and sunbeam ,armstrong ,bmw .never did rob a bank , so couldnt afford that vin .
greeves made high quality handbuilt trials machines .

Yerpal said...

I named my daughter after this song when she showed up with ginger hair. She laughs at the song but I know one day probably after I'm gone she will understand a little more about her old dad and smile.
Motorcycles touch the soul with the danger and thrill and that set us apart from the bean counters in hi viz vests

Dana Lambie said...

My girl is my james. I am her molly. She is dying of cancer. No vincents in the stable. We have never riden together. She would have robbed banks for me or been my sidehack monkey if we would have met sooner in life. She is coming home soon before the end. I told her; "make a wish baby". I dont know what she wished for but a ride on a black lightening and robbing a bank are both on her bucket list. Sweet Lorraine, the love of my life for far too short a time! Dana

Anonymous said...

Kerthialfad The motorcycle mentioned in 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was Greeves which is a British bike. It is frequently misspelled in many of the online lyrics you'll find. Some singers have used Beezers which is a nickname for BSA, instead of Greeves as it was officially written by Richard Thompson.

Anonymous said...

I've also heard Richard Thompson sing Beezers instead of Greeves. I guess sometimes he feels like changing the lyrics. Either one sounds okay and they are both British bikes. There really isn't a right or wrong.

Anonymous said...

My cousin had a Vincent Black Shadow when I was a kid. I used to sit on it and pretend I was riding it. It was supposed to be the fastest production motorcycle made and was said to be outlawed in several states because the cops didn't have anything fast enough to catch them. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Black Shadow was a step up from the Black Lightning.

Marji from Penguin said...

So beautiful and poignant. Thanks.

Liam Og said...

The Irish/Celtic sound stems from the alternate tuning Thompson uses on his guitar. It's called DADGAD (differing from standard tuning which is EADGBE). The drone quality of this tuning can be reminiscent of the drone on traditional Irish Uileann pipes.

Peter said...

So the burning question is: did Molly ensnare and rat out James just to get her hands on his bike? Funny that Sgt. McCrae would call Molly directly about the shotgun blast.