You had to be young, really young, and perhaps a girl, to give Tell Laura I Love Her the whole-hearted, weepy, emotional response it deserved.
The song, originally written and recorded by Ray Peterson in 1960 and released in America, was initially judged to be ‘too tasteless and vulgar for the English sensibility’. Yeah, right. Welsh singer Ricky Valance, who died recently at the age of 84, took this on the chin, and took his own swoony, maudlin version of the song to the top of the UK charts in October 1960.
It’s a story song, a tale briefly told. Laura is Tommy’s girlfriend — well, actually, we are told they are ‘lovers’ but that didn’t exercise young minds too much — and he enters a stock-car race hoping to win the $1,000 prize money in order to buy her ‘flowers, presents, and most of all, a wedding ring’.
We thought they would be a young couple, perhaps about 18 years old. A teenage wedding looms! How romantic! But it is not to be. Tommy’s car goes up in flames and as he is pulled from the wreck, with his dying breath he says — yes, you’ve got it.
The lightweight, sketchy narrative with its melodramatic punch provided just the right vehicle for a spot of juvenile angst. As a ‘death disc’, it was sufficiently removed from reality to be truly disturbing, in spite of the BBC’s fear that the record would lead to a spate of fatal road accidents. It was a comfortably tragic story, the details of which didn’t bear or indeed require much scrutiny.
Tell Laura I Love Her was the gateway to stronger stuff. Little did we know that just around the corner, a mere 31 years away, we would be thrilled by the most outstanding of songs about a grieving girl. That song is Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, which he wrote and recorded in 1991.
There are three starring roles in the story of Richard Thompson’s song. As the title suggests, at the core of the song is the Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle, one of only 30 or so of these motorbikes which were made in Hertfordshire between 1948 and 1952.
The proud, besotted owner of the Vincent is a 21-year-old bad-boy, outlaw figure called James Adie. He’s a robber, a self-confessed ‘dangerous man’ who’s been on the wrong side of the law since he was 17. Then there’s his girlfriend Red Molly, who rides pillion and wears his ring on her right hand.
Molly is a flaming redhead in black leather who James has noticed hanging around ‘corners and cafes’ (you think maybe of the renowned 1960s’ Ace Cafe on the old North Circular). They get together when she admires his bike. ‘My hat’s off to you,’ says James, in acknowledgement of her good motorcycle taste, and they roar off to Box Hill, a renowned bikers’ destination in Surrey.
Cycle of life
James accepts that his way of life is likely to mean an early and violent death. The only thing he will regret is parting from Molly. But in a pledge to eternity and as a tribute to the depth of his love, he swears to her that if fate should take him out, ‘I’ll give you my Vincent to ride’.
And fate does break James’ stride, as he is brought down by a shotgun blast in his chest during an armed robbery. At the hospital, Molly by his side, with his dying breath he extols the superiority of his Vincent over other makes of bike. You can keep your Nortons and Indians and Greeveses, which ‘don’t have a soul like a Vincent ’52’. His last act on earth is to give Molly its keys, as he sees the angels swooping down from heaven to carry him home in a procession of leather and chrome Ariels. Even the angels ride inferior models.
From the beginning, you know it can only end one way. The song has the remorseless inevitability of a folk tale. It taps into our collective memory and awareness of traditional tropes — doomed lovers, stand-offs with the law, death-bed declarations. The repetition and the formal use of the girl’s name in the sergeant’s ‘Come down, come down, Red Molly’ have the rhythm and cadence of a traditional story. The hero of the tale is the Vincent, mythic black steed who is bathed in preternatural power and wonder.
Richard Thompson’s consummate skill as a lyricist and musician drive the narrative onwards with such conviction that the familiar English territory and landmarks transcend boundaries. The characters merge with other figures, past and future — Pancho from Townes van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, Neil Young’s Unknown Legend out somewhere on a desert highway, long blonde hair flowing in the breeze as she rides her — Harley-Davidson. Never mind.
1952 Vincent Black Lightning has been performed by many fantastic artists, including Bob Dylan. It’s always great to see it sung on stage, especially by Richard Thompson. Grown men know all the words. They may weep. Grown women, many of whom were in gymslips back in the day when they heard the sad ditty of Laura and Tommy, may weep too, and wonder if the moment has passed for adopting ‘red hair and black leather’ as their signature look.