It’s very possible that one of the greatest songs written in the rock era gets almost no air time and is largely unknown – at least in the United States. This gives it a peculiar value and an enticing quality, sort of like its subject matter. And if I am to offer my opinion in the way the song’s narrator does at such a crucial moment, this makes the song all the more perfect.
The song is “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” It was written by British folk songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson (of Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda Thompson fame) and released on his 1991 album, Rumor and Sigh. Listen to the album version here, and an excellent live rendition here.
Between 1948 and 1952, the British motorcycle manufacturer Vincent made around thirty Black Lightning motorbikes. Today, only nineteen survive. This, along with the machine’s innovative design and ability to break speed records, has led to its mythical status among bike lovers. Since the release of Thompson’s song, however, the myth of the ’52 Vincent has spread from the world of motorcycles to the world of music and beyond. In February 2018, a Black Lightning sold for $929,000 at an auction, setting the world record for highest auction price ever paid for a motorcycle.
In 2003, Thompson said in an interview with BBC Four:
When I was a kid, that was always the exotic bike. That was always the one, the one that you went “ooh, wow.” I’d always been looking for English ideas that didn’t sound corny, that had some romance to them, and around which you could pin a song. And this song started with a motorcycle, it started with the Vincent. It was a good lodestone around which the song could revolve.
Structurally, the song resembles a traditional ballad in its use of quatrains, an ABCB rhyme scheme, a repeating refrain, compressed narrative, and call and response dialogue. Thematically, it is similar to the ballad as well, since it deals with mortality and combines a tragic incident and romantic love to produce a kind of sad, sweet fatalism that is part of the legacy of European folklore. The classic seventeenth-century ballad “Barbara Allen” makes for an interesting analogue, except told from the female perspective (Joan Baez’s version is here). “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” departs from tradition, however, with its obvious fixation on technology and an ingenious nod to capitalism. I don’t know how well the original bards and balladeers played their stringed instruments centuries ago, but I imagine that Thompson’s virtuosic guitar playing on “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” sets it apart from tradition as well.
The story is both simple and timeless. The first part begins with Red Molly remarking on James Adee’s “fine motorbike.” James compliments her for her taste, and specifies the bike in question like a vintage bottle of wine (“It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952”). He compliments her again for her “red hair and black leather,” two qualities he likes in a woman, and then pulls her onto his bike to take her to a place called Box Hill.
The second part begins with a marriage proposal and an honest admission from James: “I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man.” James is a committed thief, which is how he was able to afford his prized motorcycle to begin with. He doesn’t expect to live very long, but professes his love for Red Molly, anyway.
Here is where Thompson introduces the refrain, a rhyming couplet always ending with “I’ll give you my Vincent to ride.”
After a brief interlude of intricate guitar work, the third part begins with a police officer calling to Red Molly, telling to her hurry to the hospital where young James lays dying. He had been involved in an armed robbery and took a bullet to the chest. When she arrives, the rhyming couplet declares:
But he smiled to see her cry
And said “I’ll give you my Vincent to ride.”
The fifth part (I’ll get to the fourth in a moment) plays out as one would expect at this point. James dies, but not before giving Molly his “Vincent to ride.” This might seem fairly boilerplate given the genre, but the way in which Thompson depicts it lyrically is extraordinary:
He reached for her hand
And he slipped her the keys.
He said “I’ve got no further
Use for these.
“I see angels on aerials
In leather and chrome
Swooping down from heaven
To carry me home!”
And he gave her one last kiss and died.
And he gave her his Vincent to ride.
This is real lump-in-the-throat territory. I love how Thompson contrasts the mundane (his motorcycle keys, which he so offhandedly refers to as “these”) with the otherworldly. Of course, in James Adee’s afterlife, all the angels would be soaring about in motorbikes, wouldn’t they? And the way Thompson wails the word “home” evinces all the heartache and yearning a song can possibly convey.
As great as all this is, it is the fourth part which puts “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” into the pantheon of song. Keep in mind, Richard Thompson did not need to add this part to his song. He could have gone from the third to the fifth part without anyone wondering if something were missing. With these four parts, we have an evocative beginning, a tense middle, and a satisfying – if tragic – end. Further, Thompson, as he is known to do, delivers some truly stirring guitar playing. What more could people want out of a song?
Fortunately, Thompson wanted more, and so gives us these stanzas while James lies on his death bed:
Says James, “In my opinion,
There’s nothing in this world
Beats a ‘52 Vincent
And a red headed girl.
Now Nortons and Indians
And Greeveses won’t do.
Ah, they don’t have a soul
Like a Vincent ’52.”
What is a soul? How can one quantify such a thing? What does James mean by this? I can’t remember the last time I even touched a motorcycle – I’m too terrified to ever ride one – so I have no way of knowing why the Vincent beats out all its competitors. In fact, it takes a certain presence of mind to even know what James is talking about here. I played this song for a friend once, and her first question afterwards was, “What’s a Norton?” I didn’t know, either, but I inferred that Norton, along with Indian and Greeves, were competing motorcycle companies in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, when Americans cover this song,1 they will often insert a contemporary motorcycle manufacturer in the list, such as Harley, so their audiences will be clued in on what Thompson is doing here.
And what is he doing? He’s showing how his protagonist values something for being greater than the sum of its parts. If that’s not soul, what is? Not only does his ’52 Vincent help give his life meaning, he is willing to put his life in danger to acquire it. It’s not for us to judge him for his sacrifice or for his object of affection. We admire him for that. We do judge him, however, for thieving, even if that judgment appears between the lines. It doesn’t come as a shock that he’s dying in the hospital – he predicted it himself – and his injury and subsequent death are not deemed unjust. Tragic as the ending is, James Adee essentially got what was coming to him.
If pressed against the harsh relief of reality, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” like most art, doesn’t hold up perfectly. A person this honest, this steadfast in his love for a woman, and this ardent in his appreciation for a machine would find a way to buy his ’52 Vincent or its $52,000 equivalent rather than live dangerously outside the law. The real James Adee would make it seem that he lives in Box Hill and loves redheads and black motorbikes, when in truth he is Nigel Elvis Crenshaw the deadbeat dad from Liverpool who steals to feed his heroin habit and is wanted for manslaughter in a hit-and-run up in Nottingham. James Adee has noble qualities, certainly, but the very idea of a noble thief who lives according to some ethical code – especially one that commits armed robbery – appears far more in fiction than in fact.
And why? Well, juxtapositions are sexy. While it’s cool that the shy nerd Clark Kent turns into Superman, it is even cooler that Alex listens to Beethoven while planning his next nefarious deed with his droogs. Such juxtapositions allow more entry points through which the audience can participate in a story. Very few of us know what’s it’s like to be Superman or a juiced-up adolescent hooked on ultraviolence. But many of us are shy nerds. Many of us like Beethoven.
In the case of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” I’m sure most of its fans wouldn’t even steal a stick of gum, yet they all love something – an object, an institution, a work of art, something, anything – that helps give meaning to their lives. This juxtaposition makes it easier for them to experience the euphoric highs and heartrending lows of life while appreciating how thankfully boring their lives really are. This, I believe, makes up much of the charm behind this wonderful song.
Like all great works of art, however, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” takes a life of its own beyond what the artist himself ever intended. For any Dissident Rightist, this song should take on tremendous meaning and offer inspiration, because to be a dissident is to court danger, just as James Adee courts danger by being a thief. And for what?
Here is where we return to that ineffable quality James mentions in the fourth part: soul. According to the parameters Thompson establishes, James steals because his ’52 Vincent has soul. Likewise, dissidents oppose the corrupt established order because their vision of life has soul; and to not oppose such an order would be to live a life thoroughly devoid of soul.
Why are we here? Why are you reading this right now? If you’re not doing opposition research or looking for people to dox, then it’s likely that you are here because you know there is something sick and oppressive about the Leftist established order, and you wish to step outside of it for some fresh air and sunshine. If you’ve come enough times, likely you’re thinking about ways you can undermine or overthrow this order and replace it with something much better.
If any of this is true, then guess what? You’re James Adee. You’re an outlaw. You’re a Kulak. You’re a thought criminal that our Leftist overlords just haven’t gotten around to rounding up yet. Your life is just a smidge dangerous, and, with immigration and demographic trends the way they are, it will only get worse over time. Fighting these trends, even in vain, may be dangerous, but in my opinion, it’s a dissident’s way of acquiring soul.
As much soul as a Vincent ’52.
1 For a song that is still fairly obscure, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” gets covered a lot. There is a surfeit of great covers on the Internet, especially by women. Check out this bewitching rendition by chanteuse Julia Haltigan. Bob Dylan made it his own at least once in concert. Bluegrass artist Del McCoury does a distinctive cover as well. For my money, however, this electric version by Sean Rowe bludgeons the song into something beautiful, and is the only cover that rivals the original.
Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You.