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Richard Thompson Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel was originally published in Pioneer Press and the Chicago Sun-Times on September 1, 2011.

In case you doubted Richard Thompson’s impressive credentials as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, he now has an official stamp of approval — from England’s Queen Elizabeth.

The British musician … received the Order of the British Empire in a June 28 ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Thompson spoke with us in a phone interview.

Q: What was the OBE ceremony like?

A: You get to dress up like a 19th-century British prime minister — a top hat and tails. You get your 15 seconds with the queen. She said, “Oh, you’re a musician. That must be marvelous for you.” It’s a great honor.

Q: So this doesn’t make you “Sir Richard”?

A: No, that’s up another three levels or something.

Q: Of course, you’ve had had other awards — and Grammy nominations.

A: I’ve been nominated two or three times, but I haven’t won yet. I’m in the wrong category. I knew I should’ve stuck to polka.

Q: Richard Thompson music is almost a genre unto itself.

A: Exactly. There should be a category just for me, so I can win every year.

Q: Why did you record your most recent album, “Dream Attic,” live?

A: A lot of the feedback I get from the audience is that they prefer the live performance to the recorded performance. So I thought, ‘Well, what if we just cut out the middle process here?’ It’s quite a hard thing to do. The band has to rehearse and learn 80 minutes, flawlessly — or well, a few flaws, just to show we’re human.

Q: Your current tour is solo. How is that different?

A: You can create more stillness in the room. You can pull the audience in towards the music more. And you can put across lyrics better.

Q: You’ve written 400 songs?

A: I think so. Compared to some people, that’s good. Compared to Cole Porter, who wrote 2,000, that’s a bit lazy.

Q: What are the differences between how you play acoustic and electric?

A: If I’m playing solo, then I’m trying to be as orchestral as possible. What I’m trying to do is to render a band performance from a record in a solo format. I’ve never been happy with just going, “strum strum strum.” I’ve always thought the acoustic guitar should hold more possibilities than that.

Q: Is it possible to put in words how you create a guitar solo?

A: Uh. How many hours do you have?

Q: We’ve got about three minutes.

A: That’s tough. That’s a very large question. A small, quick answer would be: You practice shorter phrases. And then when it comes to soloing, you’re putting those bits and pieces together. And you’re inventing links between them. And then if you’re inspired, you’re also playing new things that you haven’t played before. You have the basic vocabulary that you learn through practice. And then when it comes to the actual solo, you’re applying some of those — you could almost call them clichés, but they’re your own clichés. What you’re trying to do is pile these clichés on top of each other in a new and interesting and meaningful way.

Q: Are those the special moments for you, when you realize you’re playing something new?

A: Yes. It’s when you feel that the music is playing itself or the music’s just flying, without you really having to think about it. But we’re talking about very intangible stuff here. The difference between success and failure in a solo is very, very subtle — and possibly can’t be described in our allotted three minutes. (Laughs.)

Photo by Robert Loerzel (2014)

Book review: ‘The Man Who Looked Books Too Much’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 11, 2009.

ManWhoLovesBooks_JKTF.inddThe Man Who Looked Books Too Much
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
(Riverhead)

John Gilkey is a convicted thief from California who bought stuff using other people’s credit-card numbers. There’s nothing especially dramatic or shocking about Gilkey’s crimes, although he did figure out some fairly clever ways of getting away with fraud for a while. If Gilkey had stolen something mundane like groceries or office supplies, we wouldn’t be reading a book about him. Ah, but books were the object of Gilkey’s serial pilfering. And not just any books — he stole rare first editions and antiquarian volumes that are worth thousands of dollars.

So what we have here is a book about a guy who steals books, who’s caught by an amateur sleuth who loves books. It sounds like just the thing you’d want to read if you were, well, a person who loves books. However, Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much does not turn out to be a solid addition to the true-crime library.

Bartlett keeps her story moving along at a good pace with clear, plain prose, but the narrative fails to deliver much in the way of actual thrills. She goes to great lengths to probe the motives behind Gilkey’s obsession with stealing books, constantly asking: Why did he do it? And why is he so interested in old books?

Gilkey’s own answers to those questions are not particularly profound. Bartlett senses that he wants to build a collection of old books as a sort of status symbol, so that he can impress people. Paradoxically, Gilkey can’t really impress anyone, since he keeps his stolen books hidden away in secret stashes. Digging deeper for more insights, Bartlett turns to other books about obsessive collectors and book thieves, and she finds a few relevant quotes.

Judging from her footnotes, Bartlett’s research was pretty thin. For example, instead of quoting directly from a 1985 collection of Sigmund Freud’s letters, she relies on a 2006 book that quotes the 1985 book. Bartlett pulls her most interesting details from other recent books about book collecting, especially Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness, which just makes you want to seek out those earlier works. And her footnotes reveal that she relied on interviews to construct the story of Gilkey’s crimes, without citing any police reports or court documents.

The great strength of Bartlett’s reporting is the access she received from Gilkey himself. Her interviews with Gilkey are the most fascinating aspect of this book, revealing a self-deluded man who continually finds ways of rationalizing his crimes. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much eventually turns into an intriguing psychological study of the relationship between the author and her subject. Does Bartlett get too close with Gilkey as she tags along with him on visits to a bookstore he had once robbed? Is it her responsibility to tell the police when Gilkey tells her details of his criminal exploits? Bartlett raises these questions without satisfactorily answering them. She seems to feel queasy about becoming a participant in the story she’s writing about.

In the end, no matter how much Bartlett tries to puff up Gilkey’s book thievery into a weighty topic, the story boils down to some rather obvious traits of human behavior: People like cool stuff. Some people become obsessed with cool stuff. Some people become so obsessed that they steal it. And if the stuff you steal is cool enough, someone just might a book about you.

manwholovedbooks

F. Lee Bailey Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 6, 2008.

Husbands suspected of killing their wives seem to be in the news almost constantly these days. A new book by defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Kenosha journalist Jean Rabe compiles some of the most famous spousal murder cases into one bloody roll call of botched crime scenes, outlandish alibis and celebrity trials.

When the Husband Is the Suspect: From Sam Sheppard to Scott Peterson — The Public’s Passion for Spousal Homicides includes short narratives by Rabe on each case, along with Bailey’s commentaries. The cast of real-life characters includes a few suspects Bailey defended, such as Sam Sheppard and O.J. Simpson, as well as Robert Blake and other recent headline-makers.

Bailey discussed the book in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

Q. What common elements do you see in these cases?

A. The most common one in the assassinations — the so-called hits for hire — is that otherwise intelligent people seem to hire the biggest idiots in the world to do the job. I represented some really classy assassins, all of whom, in fact, were trained by the government, and they’re almost impossible to trip up.

Q. But the typical person doesn’t have access to these professionals.

A. They really don’t have access to any specialists in the art. It’s like going in to get your brain surgery done by your local practitioner.

Q. You book also includes husbands charged with committing the murder themselves. They often plan what seems like a “perfect crime,” but then they always slip up.

A. These guys … come up with some cover-up story, like the most typical: pushing the wife down the stairs and having her injured in all kinds of places. … I would call it dumb. You have to add in a quotient that there’s probably a strong emotional factor at the time of the killing, and a lot of this is cover-up. But it’s really shoddy cover-up, in most cases.

Q. What are the common motives in these cases?

A. It’s kind of a selfish alternative to divorce. The stupid mistakes suggest a psychopathic, very greedy person who doesn’t want to pay the legal fees or the spouse’s share and thinks that this is a good way to avoid the divorce — and in some cases, to inherit money that wasn’t his. Money is a large factor in my view. Very few people will kill their wives if they’re not feeling pretty greedy.

Q. Does it make a difference to you whether you believe a client you’re representing is innocent?

A. It does. If I can’t satisfy myself that the client is telling me a straight story, I will almost always suggest that the client go and take a polygraph test. That, probably more than any other reason, has enabled me to compile a much greater acquittal record than most other lawyers in the United States — because I’m picking and choosing innocent people.

Q. Many people believe O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder, despite his acquittal. When you try to persuade someone that Simpson was innocent, what do you emphasize?

A. There are three things that stand independently and are all inconsistent with guilt. The first is the timeline. [In the book, Bailey argues that Simpson did not have enough time to commit the murders, return home and catch a flight to O’Hare, as prosecutors claimed he did.] The second was the demeanor, which is extremely important in cases where people known to be non-criminals are involved in a murder case. And the third was his statement to the police, which I think … no guilty person with his background could possibly have pulled off. He spoke to them for three hours … and never slipped one bit. And a guy who had just killed two people the way these two were killed could never have done that.

Q. How has media coverage of trials changed since 1963, when you persuaded an appeals court that publicity prevented Sam Sheppard from getting a fair trial?

A. The quality of news coverage has diminished, because giants of the print media are no longer being nurtured properly. Television reporting is too often a snapshot. There just is no way to devote an evening newscast to the depth of reporting that would describe in detail what the witnesses had to say.

Q. Your book doesn’t include the case of Drew Peterson of Bolingbrook, whom police have called a suspect, but haven’t charged, in the disappearance of his wife, Stacy. What are your observations of that case?

A. There isn’t any question that the circumstances are suspicious. There also isn’t any question in my mind that, with all of the pressures on the police, they don’t feel like they’ve got enough to get a conviction. If they don’t catch a break, this case could go on forever.

Q. Police have not found Stacy Peterson’s body, but as you write in your book, other people have been prosecuted in murder cases without a body.

A. You don’t have to have a body if you’ve got enough circumstantial evidence, so that is not going to be a barrier to charging this guy. But I’ve got to tell you, when you go to a trial with no body, it’s a powerful argument to point to the courtroom doors and tell the jurors: “You can’t be sure the victim won’t walk through there, can you?”

Q. What advice do you give to innocent people who are wrongly accused on how they should behave?

A. The classic mistake is to put up a false alibi, thinking, “Well, since I didn’t do it, it won’t be any crime to give a cleaner explanation of where I was than the truth, which is: I was out with neighbor’s wife, banging the hell out of her.” This is not the kind of alibi you want to bring to a jury, so a false one is made up. Those inevitably crumble, once the police bring pressure.

bailey