BACK IN THE ’70S AND EARLY ’80S, when she was both married to and making music with British guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson earned a reputation for having one of the most distinctive voices in rock. Joe Boyd, who produced the duo, describes it as a “wonderful synthesis of a folk voice with the brassiness of a ’60s girl pop singer.” Her sad, throaty quiver captured perfectly the bitterness in Richard’s songs about spoiled love. “Not a great voice,” she says modestly in the drawing room of her antiques-filled home in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, “but a moving voice.”
It’s a voice you’ll likely never hear again, except on such reissues as her recent retrospective Dreams Fly Away. At 49, Thompson no longer sings—at all. She has conceded defeat after struggling since 1972 with hysterical dysphonia, a stress-related disorder that affects the vocal cords. In most cases, the mental link between the brain and the larynx is disconnected because of anxiety or emotional trauma. Rare, it occurs most often with performers. “The vocal cords will move well for coughing or swallowing,” says David Garfield-Davies, a British laryngologist, “but when you ask a person to sing or say something, they may not do it properly.” In Thompson’s case, “I would open my mouth to sing, and nothing would come out.” Her speech is unaffected, but her throat muscles “are weak—I can’t shout or scream.”
Thompson misses singing with friends, yet wryly accepts the affliction that ended her career. “It would have been different if I’d been headlining at the Albert Hall,” says Thompson, who sees herself and her ex-husband as “cult figures” who enjoyed critical success but slow record sales.
Even so, Thompson, born Linda Pettifer in East London, understood her vocal power early. At 8, she sang “Tammy” at a Brownies meeting. “By the end, everyone was quiet,” she says. “I knew I could make people shut up.” Her parents—Charles, who ran electronics shops, and Jessie, a former dancer—”were encouraging to a nauseating degree,” she says with a laugh. At the University of London, she studied English and modern languages but was happier singing in folk clubs.
In 1969 she met Richard Thompson, then a member of Fairport Convention, a British folk-rock band. Richard (who chose not to comment for this article) “was a wonderful, interesting person,” she says, celebrated for his guitar wizardry. But their relationship, as she recalls it, promised trouble. “Poor Richard,” she says with a sigh. “I loved him, but it was the package I wanted—marriage and children.” The first she got in 1972. Muna, now 22, Teddy, 20, and Kamila, 14, followed.
Beginning in 1974, they released six albums. But dysphonia was a terror almost from the start of their partnership. Thompson—who admits she was always a tense performer, “but only with that good nervousness that makes you perform well”—found it especially difficult to start a song. In concert she’d pretend to cough, “or I used to look at the mike as if it was doing something peculiar.” Psychiatry and vocal coaching brought no relief.
The root of the problem, she suspects, was intimidation at being married to the formidable Richard. “I was so in awe of his talent,” she says, “I felt like an addendum.” Folksinger Norma Waterson, a friend, says, “Linda thought people only listened to her because she sang Richard’s songs.”
The one time the dysphonia went away completely, Thompson observes pointedly, “was during that American tour after we’d split up.” In 1982, as the couple released their album Shoot Out the Lights, Richard announced he was in love with Nancy Covey, a concert producer he’d met in America (and whom he has since married). Despite their impending divorce, Linda agreed to a tour with him in the U.S. It was a nasty experience—she tripped him onstage—and yet, says producer Boyd, “she’s never sung better.” In L.A., at a concert attended by Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon, “Linda mesmerized everybody.”
Her voice, in fact, survived long enough for her to record a solo album, the critically acclaimed One Clear Moment, in 1985. But the album, which sold poorly, became her swan song, and she has not sung in public in 11 years. “I moved on to other things,” she says. Her focus now is on her marriage to Steve Kenis, head of the William Morris Agency’s London office, whom she wed in 1986—and on songwriting. Although Ronstadt has covered Thompson’s song “One Clear Moment” (cowritten with Betsy Cook), Thompson dreams of composing a ballad for Whitney Houston. “Then I could just lie on my bed,” she laughs, “and count my royalties.”
TINA OGLE in London