Commentary by Tony Attwood. Research by Aaron Galbraith
Bob Dylan has only played this song the once in public, which is a great shame, since Richard Thompson is one of our greatest innovative songwriters and Bob’s version is extraordinarily innovative in its working of the piece.
And because this song was listed in the Time Magazine 100 greatest songs list. They said it was “a glorious example of what one guy can accomplish with just a guitar, a voice, an imagination and a set of astonishingly nimble fingers.” Famously when Richard Thompson heard Dylan’s cover of the song, he said, “It was a surprise, totally. I thought it was a hoax. I thought it was a joke!”
And to be clear I don’t think Thompson meant this is a bad way – rather that he was just unable to believe that Bob had covered his song.
As we know Bob has performed and shown a liking to many of the old “train leaving town” blues songs, so there is every reason not to be surprised that he would like a song about a motorbike – especially one that has a special place in motorcycle history – it was only made between 1948 and 1962 in Stevenage, Hertfordshire – just north of London. (And I’ll slip in the fact that my partner lives on a road which is just off the Great North Road a bit further north – so I’ve found a link to the song too. I always like doing that.)
Apparently the Black Lightning, when produced, was the fastest bike in the world that was being made on a production line which of course then added a lot to its mystique.
Here’s Richard Thompson performing the song, from the album Rumour and Sigh.
Most of us first who were around at the time came across Richard Thompson when he played with Fairport Convention – one of the great folk bands in the UK in the late 1960s. I had the honour of seeing them in those early days in London and remember, now to my absolute embarrassment, telling Richard he ought to face the audience when he played the amazing solos he could devise at the drop of a hat. He very politely said that if he did that everyone would see what he was doing, and he wanted to keep it secret. I did watch him play a few times when I could see his hands and can tell you I had no idea what was going on.
And of course he evolved as a major songwriting talent, with songs like “Meet on the Ledge”. Later Dave Swarbrick joined Fairport, to give them two outstanding musical talents in the same ensemble. Thereafter Richard Thompson went solo, although his work was not always met with acclaim.
The song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning comes from the album “Rumour and Sigh”, but has never (I think) come out as a single. One oddity is that in his own live performances Thompson has on occasion varied the name of the bike – a sort of Dylanesque thing to do.
Speaking about the song on a BBC radio programme Richard Thompson said, “When I was a kid, that was always the exotic bike, that was always the one, the one that you went ‘ooh, wow’. I’d always been looking for English ideas that didn’t sound corny, that had some romance to them, and around which you could pin a song. And this song started with a motorcycle, it started with the Vincent. It was a good lodestone around which the song could revolve”.
A band was set up using the name of the bike as their band name – and of course they sing the song too…
Says Red Molly, to James, “Well that’s a fine motorbike.
A girl could feel special on any such like.”
Says James, to Red Molly, “My hat’s off to you.
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952.
And I’ve seen you on the corners and cafes, it seems.
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.”
And he pulled her on behind,
And down to Boxhill,
Says James, to Red Molly, “Here’s a ring for your right hand.
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man;
For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen.
I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine.
And now I’m twenty-one years, I might make twenty-two.
And I don’t mind dyin’ but for the love of you.
But if fate should break my stride, then I’ll give you my Vincent, To Ride.”
“Come down Red Molly,” called Sargent McQuade.
“For they’ve taken young James Aidee for Armed Robbery.
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside.
Oh, come down, Red Molly, to his dying bedside.”
When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left.
He was runnin’ out of road. He was runnin’ out of breath.
But he smiled, to see her cry.
And said, “I’ll give you my Vincent.
Said James, “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world
Beats a ’52 Vincent and a Redheaded girl.
Now Nortons and Indians and Greavses won’t do.
Oh, they don’t have a Soul like a Vincent ’52.”
Well he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys.
He said, “I’ve got no further use…for these.
I see Angels on Ariels in leather and chrome,
Swoopin’ down from Heaven to carry me home.”
And he gave her one last kiss and died.
And he gave her his Vincent.
Many of the songs from these series are listed on the Why Does Dylan Like index page.