Rob Brunner
May 23, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Who knew the year’s most thrilling collaboration would be between one of the world’s most gifted guitarists and one of the world’s most inept?

To be honest, it’s exciting to only one person: me. I don’t play guitar, but Richard Thompson — who recently released an excellent new album, ”The Old Kit Bag” — has agreed to give me a lesson. Thompson is a virtuoso who’s also written a slew of great songs (with Fairport Convention, with former wife Linda, and as a solo act). This is like convincing Michelangelo to spend an afternoon showing you how to tie balloon animals.

We tune up, and Thompson casually launches into the most beautiful warm-up noodle I’ve ever heard. In response, I feebly strum the three basic chords in my arsenal, hoping for the best. Thompson looks pained. ”The thing is,” he says, pausing to come up with a nice way to tell me I suck, ”if we play like this [imitates my hacking], it’s like any folk club on a Saturday night. We should try and strum something where everything we do means something rhythmically. I think you need to learn one really weird chord that’s going to kind of set your soul on fire.” He shows me a strange but not-too-difficult fingering, then teaches me two more. ”These are good doom-laden chords,” he says. Soon, I’m moving back and forth, playing with a deliberate rhythm that creates plenty of open space and a haunting atmosphere. It sounds, astonishingly enough, like real music. ”Yeah, very good,” Thompson says. ”That’s great.”

I’m concentrating so hard, I almost forget he’s there, and it comes as a shock when Thompson chimes in with a dizzyingly lovely stream of fingerpicking wizardry. Instantly, I’m playing with…Richard Thompson. It’s what Nick Drake must have felt when Thompson wove solos through ”Time Has Told Me.” What Sandy Denny heard as she sang ”Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” Forget about sex and drugs: This is why people play rock & roll — this feeling of being sucked into something mysterious and huge, something that listening to a record can never even approximate. Thompson starts singing ”Reynardine,” a traditional tune covered by Fairport Convention on their 1969 classic, ”Liege & Lief,” and the room just disappears. Then, without warning, he stops. The spell is broken, and to my everlasting chagrin, I’m again merely one more terrible guitarist. With one hell of a teacher, though.

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