Richard Thompson

When I Get to the Border

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As the drug culture of the 1960s bled into the '70s, there was an abundance of songs about crossing the border, from Arlo Guthrie's "Coming into Los Angeles" and J.J. Cale's "Bringing It Back" to Richard & Linda Thompson's "When I Get to the Border." What separates the Thompsons' traverse from the others is as different as heaven and Earth. Like Richard's work going back to his days with Fairport Convention, "When I Get to the Border" never falls into the timely traps of songs that would merely become relics of the era. The track, which leads off the couple's classic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, possesses a certain spirituality that has always been evident in Richard's material. And while this spirituality is often pervasive in his writing, it is rarely, if ever, dogmatic. Thompson initiates the proceedings with a simple acoustic guitar, before drums, bass, and his modal electric guitar lines kick-start his escape from this mortal coil, seemingly eager to brush off the dust of this Earthly life. From the opening lines, there's a sense of joy, relief, and triumph, with bits of Thompson's dark wit woven throughout. By the time of the song's last verse, he's dancing down streets paved with gold, casting away all the "dirty people" and material things, not to mention the ever-looming work week. Still, don't expect anything preachy or dour here; this crossing is a personal victory. Even once the lyrics are finished, Thompson continues his dance amidst an instrumental flourish of concertina, hammered dulcimer, electric guitar, mandolin, and krummhorn, exchanging passages with a delighted revelry. A song such as "When I Get to the Border" or "We Sing Hallelujah," from the same album, is seen as the ultimate deliverance on a record filled with the pain and drudgery of life, and the futility of trying to escape it through worldly means. Richard Thompson was once quoted as saying, "If you don't believe in anything beyond the solidity of this world, then the world is a terrible place...There's no victory in this world in the end; all you can do is get out of it. And the way to get out of it, as far as I can see, is to look inside yourself." (Rolling Stone -- April 5, 1979). Like "Wall of Death," which closes the Thompsons' last record together, "When I Get to the Border" is in a sense as much about how you live life as it is about dying. The song has also been recorded by artists such as Alistair Russell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Arlo Guthrie.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight 1974 Hannibal Records 3:23