Of all the classic songs Richard Thompson has penned and performed in his legendary career as member of Fairport Convention, the duo (with ex-wife) Richard and Linda Thompson and his ensuing solo years, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” has become perhaps his most-requested.
The song, which originally appeared on Thompson’s 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, tells the story of an outlaw biker in England who owns a fabled 1952 Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle who, dying after a police shootout, gives his girlfriend (“red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme”) one last kiss and the keys for “his Vincent to ride.”
But it’s not only Thompson’s die-hard fans who love the song. The Del McCoury Band recorded it on its 2001 album Del and the Boys—changing the Box Hill location in the original to Knoxville. Most recently, it’s become a much-requested number for New York singer-songwriter Julia Haltigan.
“What initially attracted me to the song was that it talks about a motorcycle,” says Haltigan.
“It's hard to find a well-written song about motorcycles that isn't cheesy,” she notes. “Then you realize it's a perfectly written tragic love story that brings chills down your spine. I've literally been brought to tears myself while singing this song, as though the tragic events and moving sentiment were happening to me. He's a rebel who robbed his way to owning one of the most beautiful motorcycles, and when his lifestyle finally gets the best of him, he gives her the bike as a token of their young undying love.”
“I mean to me that's right up there with Romeo and Juliet,” she adds. “In fact, as a biker myself, I think I'd appreciate that gesture more!”
Haltigan, incidentally, rides a 1970 Triumph Bonneville.
In “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”’s original lyrics, Thompson states that other famous bikes, specifically “Nortons and Indians and Greeveses”—though other makes have been cited in performance--“won’t do.”
Mark Wenner, frontman of the venerable D.C.-based harmonica blues/roots band The Nighthawks, is a motorcycle collector who owns six Indians at last count (“I just sold the seventh”), and was likewise drawn to Thompson's song, though circuitously.
“The first time I heard it was a live album version by folk musician Greg Brown,” says Wenner. “I thought, ‘This is cool as s—t!’”
But like many others, Wenner is most familiar with the McCoury version.
“I was actually at a concert one time where Del paused and said, ‘What do you all want to hear?’ and I couldn’t have been prompted more! I’d bought tickets for all my hoodlum biker buddies, so I yelled it out and he fired right into it.”
And while he’s never seen Thompson perform it live, Wenner has seen him sing it on video, “and it raises the hair on the back of my neck!”
But Wenner never cut “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” himself.
“I thought about it but never did,” he says. “It has a lovely melody, but it's a little elusive for a voice like mine."
Like Haltigan, he appreciates a motorcycle song that isn't "dorky," offering as an example The Cheers’ (featuring, incidentally, Bert Convy) 1955 hit “Black Denim Trousers.”
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” to the contrary, is "like watching [the classic 1953 Marlon Brando outlaw biker film] The Wild One,” notes Wenner. “[Brando's character] was an outlaw guy with an ultra-cool, ultra-fast motorcycle. It’s why I do a comparable but more obscure song, Johnny Horton’s ‘The Wild One.'"
He relates the mythological aspect of Thompson’s “Vincent machine,” which James Adie, the song’s protagonist, “robbed many a man to get.”
“When I was growing up and getting involved in motorcycles, guys talked about them,” he recalls. “The first time I saw one was in Nashville. I asked the guy, ‘Is that really a Vincent?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Only 30 or so Vincent Black Lightnings were ever made.
“The speedometer says 150 miles per hour, which is completely insane on a motorcycle,” says Wenner, “quite a bit faster than a good, hopped-up Harley, which can go 110. A guy set the national motorcycle speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah wearing nothing but a bathing suit.”
He’s referring to Rollie Free, who famously rode a Black Lightning in swim trunks and lying prone in order to cut down on drag; in 1950 he was able to average 156 miles per hour.
“It was virtually a race bike,” says Wenner, noting that the Black Lightning was indeed a racing version of the Vincent Black Shadow model. Some 1,700 Black Shadows were made, with a 1952 model selling at auction last year for $134,800.
“But I have a little curious bone to pick with the song,” says Wenner. “The first time I heard it, I knew too much: Most of the Black Lightnings came here or went to Argentina or Brazil or Australia, so the reality of someone riding around on one in England is pretty slim. There would have been only one or two, and not owned by some Marlon Brando type but by an extremely rich person, probably of royal blood, who was interested in racing and capable of flying it to Bonneville or riding it on a beach in Australia. And it would have been highly documented.”
But he notes that he’s being picky, being so knowledgeable. “There were indeed Lightnings in 1952,” he adds. “I checked it.”
As for the other bike names checked in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Wenner, who owns a 1940 Crocker (“a California bike that’s even more esoteric than a Vincent. They only made 70 in all!”), explains that Greeves is “a pretty obscure British bike for an American, and a little bike--not really in the same class as any of the others.”
British-built Nortons, he notes, “came over here in the ‘30s, I think, and are very well-known as an ass-kicking motorcycle. They just cleaned house! Indian was an American bike, but in the ‘teens and ‘20s it was the biggest-selling bike in the world: The Brits were making bikes, but Indians were at all the racetracks in Europe at that point, and well-known from Ireland to Shanghai.”
Thompson, by the way, has said that the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was known as an “exotic” bike when he was a kid, and fit his search for English topics that had enough romance in them to write a song around.
And Wenner, meanwhile, has a new Nighthawks album coming out in May, 444, on Ellersoul Records.
[The Examiner contributed an essay to the booklet included in the box set Walking on a Wire: Richard Thompson (1968-2009).]
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