All one needs to know about JD Thompson's new album, "My Perfect Nightmare," can be heard on the closing track, "White Trash Heroes." The cover of the Archers of Loaf song is an eight-minute odyssey through growling vocals; simmering, atmospheric reverb; somber harmonies; and stark piano.
The cut gorgeously sums up the persona of JD Thompson, an Oklahoma-born bluesman who has been homeless briefly on the streets of Norman, played for pennies in the alleyways of Dublin, organized unions across the country as he withered on the back shelf of music mogul Lou Adler, and in the process, crafted a sound and style for which Tom Waits claimed partial credit.
Thompson's story would be hard to believe if it weren't so well-documented, and it all started with his doomed first album, "Chasing Demons."
"I started working with Lou Adler after we met on the streets of Dublin. Lou and his wife were on vacation and saw me busking on the street, thought I was Irish and it would be quaint to come buy a CD off this poor, Irish musician," he said. "He listened to it that night, called me over to the Marriott hotel, but I thought he was lying, so I didn't go."
HALF A MILLION DOLLARS
After Thompson's then-girlfriend did a Web search on Adler and discovered that he had managed The Mamas & The Papas, Jan & Dean and Carole King, the musician went to the hotel and ultimately ended up agreeing to let Adler to produce an album that Thompson said took five years and half a million dollars to record.
"Lou would get a wild hair and want to record, so he would fly to this place and we would go out, do our thing. We would then ask, 'Now what do you want to do?' and he wouldn't know, so we would just hang out on the company dime, which, of course, turned out to be my dime," Thompson said. "Finally, I kicked up enough fuss earlier this year that the album we finished in 2007 was released in March."
Adler had dismissed million-dollar record contracts initially, thinking Thompson could find a better offer for the album, but in the end, Thompson was left without a label deal.
"I decided to make the second record in secret while all this was going on and record it out of my own pocket, just to show it can be done," he said. "A lot of songs on this record are first takes, so we did the whole thing in about three weeks and I played blackjack to get the money together to record this in a home studio."
The result is a smoldering collection of stripped-down, experimental blues tracks that make it easy to understand how Thompson's music first drew the ear of Tom Waits, the idiosyncratic icon of conceptual bourbon-house blues.
Mimicking Waits' graveled voice, Thompson recalled their conversation.
"'I talked to Lou, listened to it and I kinda liked it, but it kinda reminds me of me. I kind of think you're robbing it from me,'" Thompson said he remembered Waits saying.
Replying with a chuckle, Thompson said he told Waits, "Coming from you, sir, I take that as a compliment."
It wouldn't be the only time the two spoke. In later conversations,Thompson said Waits tried to steer him away from globetrotting recording sessions.
"'I think you need to stay away from all these A-list players that are looking for notoriety by proxy,'" Thompson said Waits told him. "We talked about everything, about ex-wives, bad first deals, and he subtly and diplomatically warned me about the people I was playing with."
Now, with lessons learned and a renewed dedication to keep true to "his grandma's music," Thompson set out to make "My Perfect Nightmare" a record of snapshots, as opposed to the highly polished recording sessions with Adler.
"I like it to be honest, flaws and all, of what was happening in my life at that time," Thompson said. "One day, I had an idea for a tune, and I just wanted to bang it out. We set mics up in the kitchen to just do a rough track. I played it out and liked the take so much, we didn't think we would be able to recapture that. When we were listening back, you hear the screen door squeaking, the refrigerator kicking on, but you know, it was because I was recording in my grandma's old house."
JD Thompson with Bloody Ol' Mule and 7 Deadly Sins Revue performs at 9 p.m. Friday at Café Plaid, 333. W. Boyd in Norman. "Charles Martin