When you see Richard Thompson live you know you’re guaranteed a good time. There is audience banter, knockabout tunes and a genuinely warm and celebratory feeling for the whole evening. He has a talent for following harrowing songs like “Shoot Out The Lights” with something light like “Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands”, and ensuring that the lows in mood are always well-balanced by the highs. If you were selective, though, you could build a set of his compositions that numbered some of the most depressing ever written. When Thompson does ‘down’, he can make Leonard Cohen look like a Butlin’s Redcoat.
Of all of Richard Thompson’s songs, I don’t think anything can match “The End Of The Rainbow” for rock-bottom despair (and it has fierce competition). It appeared on his first album with his then wife Linda (nee Peters) – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. The record is generally considered the duo’s best. Linda was well used to Richard’s more gloomy ouevre, but even she was reportedly shocked at “The End Of The Rainbow”. The song is an address to a new born child. Rather than offer succour and hope, it dashes the infant’s dreams. The opening lines set the tone immediately: “I feel for you, you little horror / Safe at your mother’s breast / No lucky break for you around the corner / ‘Cos your father is a bully /And he thinks that you’re a pest /And your sister, she’s no better than a whore“. The song goes on to warn of all the unsavoury characters that the child will encounter, cynically suggesting that “Every loving handshake / Is just another man to beat“. The chorus sounds worn out and defeated. “Life seems so rosy in the cradle / but I’ll be a friend, I’ll tell you what’s in store / There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow / There’s nothing to grow up for anymore“. In no other song that I’ve ever heard have the disappointments of shattered dreams been so poignantly articulated. “The End Of The Rainbow” has music to match its stinging lyrics. It sounds resigned and empty, but never fails to hit a nerve. Sometimes it sounds like the truth. Thankfully, not all the time.