With his reminiscences on falling in love with British (and Irish) folk and folk-rock while an American serviceman stationed in London, Peter Obermark delighted followers of the Facebook Richard Thompson group, and a few more when they were reproduced here.
I invited Peter to write more. I was not wrong. This is quality writing and, I hope, the first of many fruits ...
I arrived in London in the summer of 1975, a 19 year old US Marine corporal assigned to the tiny Marine security detachment that guarded US Naval Headquarters, Europe.
Enlisting in the Marines on my 17th birthday, I spent the first two years training at various military bases in the American south. I was a small-town kid from Kentucky, had never travelled outside the southern United States, had never in fact lived anywhere that could be called an actual city.
And waking up on that early July morning, and realising that I was in London-‘effing-England ... well, it was both wildly exciting and terribly disorienting. The Marine Corps might just as well have abducted a giraffe from some Kenyan savannah and plunked it down in Trafalgar Square.
Food was a challenge. In the pre-Thatcherite UK, “British cuisine” was an oxymoron, and I would stare at restaurant menus in bewilderment at the assortment of damp, organ-meat pies offered up.
Surveying the steak-and-kidney pie option at one restaurant, I asked a waiter if I could order it, and could they just leave out the kidneys? The waiter’s withering reply: “No, Yank—it bloody well wouldn’t be a steak-and-kidney pie if I did that, now, woodit?” A couple of months in, I discovered Indian food, and it was a good job I did; otherwise, I might have starved to death.
Ultimately, music became my salvation. I have written recently about rummaging around Soho record shops in my off hours, and how that led to my discovery and love of traditional English and Scottish folk music, as well as the folk-rock bands that were part of the London music scene in the 1960s and 70s.
Looking back now, nearly a half-century later, I’ve pondered what it was about all of that music—folk-rockers like Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, Steeleye Span, as well as the more traditional English, Scottish and Irish music—that so quickly and thoroughly pulled me in. Much of the appeal, I think, was that it was music about outsiders, people on the fringes of society: drunks and prostitutes, poor wanderers and outlaws, lonely souls and hungry beggars.
These themes spoke powerfully to a teenaged Marine from rural America. I was a socially awkward loner, bookish and introverted in a military culture that looked scornfully at such attributes. I was an outsider, too, and the folk and folk-rock music I was discovering during those years in London felt as if it had been written for me.
Then and now, when I listen to this music, I’m also struck by how subtly it captures the essential messiness of all human beings, our curious, churning stew of noble and sordid impulses. This is an element that, for me, is nearly always present in Richard and Linda Thompson’s music from this period, and in RT’s later solo work as well. The narrators in songs such The Great Valerio, Night Comes In and (going now a bit past my London years) Shoot Out the Lights seem to be in a state of constant war with their own hearts, and resigned to the casualties that will inevitably ensue.
The fragility of love; the human heart at war with itself; our endless capacity for self- delusion, and the knowledge that even the greatest treasures will ultimately bring both joy and disappointment—these were the enduring themes that drew me to the folk and folk-rock of my years in the UK. They still do today.
On the subject—ahem—of human foolishness, I’ll confess shame over some of my boisterous and boorish behaviour in London as a young Marine. I was generally a quiet and well-behaved sort, but strong drink was not, as they say, my friend. I couldn’t hold it, and since I usually pub-hopped alone, there was no one to serve as a check on the nonsense I might get up to when I had a few under my belt.
One spring evening in 1976, I was drinking whiskey and lager at a pub near the Hampstead cemetery, reading a tattered copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, getting steadily drunker, when I overhead a group of young Hooray Harrys at the next table arguing vehemently about some sports team or the other. Thinking to ingratiate myself, I leaned over and interrupted their conversation with the old Willie Rushton joke about how rugby football could only be discussed properly in Welsh. The Harrys were not amused.
The fight was on, and I lasted a minute or two before the four of them put me down for good. I woke up, still drunk, in the West Hampstead jail. A good-natured Bobby came back after a while to check on me, and told me that the duty NCO at the US Marine detachment had been notified (they had found my military ID card in my wallet during booking). Someone was coming to post bail, but I’d have to answer a public drunkenness and disorderly behaviour charge at a later date. I had a split lip, my nose was off centre, and I had somehow managed to lose my shirt during the altercation.
My bare torso was swaddled in a thin blanket. I was pretty certain that my forthcoming promotion to Sergeant was now officially quashed.
Waiting for my bail, with nothing to read and no one to talk to, I quietly began singing The Great Valerio*. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight had been spinning on my turntable a lot at that time, and I cherished every song on it. As I got near the end, I realised that someone was singing along with me:
So come with me to see Valerio As he dances through the air
I’m your friend until you use me And then be sure I won’t be there
I looked up to see the friendly Bobby, looking wistful and bemused as we finished the final verse together. “Great record, that,” he said. “Surprised you know it.” We ended up talking for the next half hour about British folk-rock. Like me, he was a big Fairport Convention fan, and had all of the post-Fairport RT/Linda stuff as well. We argued about Henry the Human Fly (he had mixed feelings; I loved it).
Our talk ended when a couple of my fellow Marines arrived to post bail and take me home. As I left the cell, I surrendered the blanket around my naked torso. The Bobby placed one of those heavy wool Metropolitan police cloaks around me, and fastened the faux-gold chain across the top. I looked like young Sherlock Holmes after a three-day bender.
I was spared a court appearance (charge/s dropped). Also, I did not get promoted to Sergeant, but I still have the cloak. It remains a prized possession.
Peter Obermark: 'I'm the ginger on the far left. Blessed Sacrament Church near King's Cross. I was best man when one of my fellow Marines got married to a young Irish woman'