Though we’ve heard from Richard Thompson in this series, today’s song is the first from the duo Thompson formed with his wife Linda. I first heard them with the album that ended their marriage and their collaborative recording career: Shoot Out the Lights (1982), which is indeed a great album of the early Eighties. Then came Thompson’s solo career and I’ve heard all his studio LPs. In going back to Richard & Linda, I've picked a song that was released on a Thompson retrospective, guitar/vocal (1976) that I picked up early in my conversion to CDs. It’s an interesting collection, featuring unreleased tracks of Thompson with Fairport Convention, including a lovely “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” and some live tracks such as today’s cover of a song written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, who had set out to write one of the best songs for cheaters, ever.
The version that the Thompsons provide—which has subsequently been included as a bonus track on the CD of Pour Down Like Silver (1975)—seems to find its inspiration in the version Gram Parsons recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers on The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969). The song was also covered by Linda Ronstadt, on Heart Like a Wheel (1974), by Elvis Costello on the bonus disc to The Delivery Man (2004), and by Cat Power on her EP, Dark End of the Street (2008). But the Thompsons’ version was the first I heard, and is still the best, in my estimation—which means I’d rather hear Linda Thompson sing it than anyone else.
It’s a song for cuddling up with someone you shouldn’t oughta be with. Maybe it’s been covered so many times because there’s a lot of guilty consciences out there trying to come clean.
At the dark end of the street / That’s where we’d always meet / Just a shadow where we don’t belong / Living in darkness to hide our wrong / You and me / At the dark end of the street
Furtive it is, this ode to clandestine love. All about avoiding the eyes of accusers who would know what you were up to if they saw you, out and about with someone other than your significant other. It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong / Ah, but our love keeps goin’ on strong / Just you and me, at the dark end of the street.
The overlapping of the Thompsons’ voices, with Linda on lead and Richard on harmony, creates a gripping effect that no other version I’ve heard comes close to. One suspects that there’s a certain amount of expiation taking place as they—a married couple—perform this song about secretive flings. Lord knows that in the public sphere for most performers there are many temptations and opportunities for actions one might not care to admit to by the cold light of day. Though married, the Thompsons seem able to put out there the thrill and the sadness of the extramarital affair, and the compelling strum and vocal spike of “They’re gonna find us / Someday” makes that public sphere the arena not only of possibility but also of accusation and exposure.
The part, in the lyrics, I find most striking is the part that tries to apologize to one’s adulterous flame: If you should take a walk downtown / And you take the time to look around / If you should see me and I walk on by / Oh, darling, please don’t cry / Tonight we’ll meet / At the dark end of the street. The image of the married lover seeing his/her extramarital lover while they’re both out and about but unable to acknowledge it is sharply drawn and I was reminded of it recently while watching one of those Peyton Place-style furtive fling movies, Strangers When We Meet (1960), starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak as a couple, married to other people, who just can’t seem to help themselves. Or, rather, they do help themselves, to each other.
But that idea of hiding feelings in plain sight is what the song manages to dramatize very economically. In the Thompsons’ version the way they duet back and forth on “just you and me” is powerful, becoming almost hypnotic, a classic rendition of the folie à deux, perhaps, but, still. Somehow the song feels both chastened and determined, elegiac and nostalgic. As anyone might well be about the stirring and satisfying of wayward passions. Perhaps, for some, the effort to keep something even more private than one’s general private life is the spice that brings out the flavor.
We’ll steal away / To the dark end of the street / Just you and me