This is not the post I intended, largely because no one seems interested in allowing me to post a link to Linda Thompson performing her sublimely beautiful song (I can’t even find the lyrics). There are lots of covers, but I refuse to listen to them because they cannot possibly do justice to what Thompson does with this song. That might be closed-minded of me, but you don’t know because there’s a darn good chance you’ve never listened to the original.
Linda Thompson is best known as half of the husband-wife duo of Richard and Linda Thompson. Their album Shoot Out the Lights is one of the best albums ever made, full of piss and vinegar, fearful and paranoid. Most of that was Richard, who is one of the angriest dogs in the kennel. (He is also a brilliant guitarist and songwriter.) The most gentle moments of that album came from Linda, whose voice is as clear as a ringing bell, a pure and perfect instrument. Her solo career is a little less consistent, due in part to some health problems related to her voice. In 2002, she returned to the music scene after a long absence with Fashionably Late. The album was filled with folky, vaguely Celtic sounding songs, all good, but none as outstanding as “No Telling.”
“No Telling” is a wonderful little story. A man, “just a crazy old man”, walks into a ballroom in a small town somewhere, and orders a drink, “they paid him no mind.” He is depressed, ready to die, “he was weary of living the days of his life, and tonight was the last he could stand. He’d shut out the future, he’d shut out the past, and even the present was running out fast.” While he sits at the bar, the glittering “Queen of the Ballroom” gets up to sing “for the very last time” for her hometown crowd. It’s a love song, and there’s “No telling what a love song will do.” Thing is, with all that foreshadowing, I kept waiting for something horrible to happen. Depressed stranger, all the emphasis on this being the last song she sang. I was waiting for him to pull out a gun and start shooting. Maybe I’ve been conditioned by one too many mass shootings, but she sets it up so beautifully.
Because nothing happens. And everything happens. “As she started to sing for the very last time, he trembled as he stood there alone. And the pain he’d been holding inside for so long just fell from his heart and was gone. It was only a love song, simple and clear, but he bowed as it shook him with every last tear. And he cried from relief, and he cried half from fear. No telling what a love song will do.” He is set free from his despair by the sound of her voice. Transformed, in fact. Because then music changes, and you get the rest of the story. “I think she got married, to a stranger they say. Just a crazy old man who come passing one day. And the whole town still dances, and the music still plays, no telling what a love song will do.”
The gentle, offhand manner Thompson delivers these lines in incomparable. I cried the first time I heard it, almost every time I hear it, because I understood how that old man felt, how the music lifted him from the darkest place imaginable and shined a light on him. The idea that you can be set free by music is the one thing I will always believe in.
Buy it here. Hunt it down somewhere else. Don’t let yourself be sold some inferior cover. Listen to Linda Thompson weave this little bit of aural magic herself.