“1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” By Richard Thompson

Videos by American Songwriter

“It’s a simple boy-meets-girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a motorcycle.”

That’s the humble introduction given by Richard Thompson in a YouTube clip of a performance of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” his unforgettable folk ballad found on 1991’s Rumor And Sigh. It may indeed be an uncomplicated story, but it is brought to life in thrilling and moving fashion by this perpetually underrated singer-songwriter.

When Thompson’s name is mentioned, it is often in the context of his guitar work, which is indeed magnificent on this track. Finger picking his acoustic at lightning speed, he takes listeners on a ride every bit as breathtaking in its way as one the James and Red Molly take aboard the titular bike. Yet his lyrics deserve just as much credit for the song’s success.

For those not up on their motorcycle history, the Vincent Black Lightning was only in production in Great Britain for a four-year span, but in that time it was the favored weapon of choice for those daredevils looking to break land speed records. Still, it’s not necessary to know any of this to understand the allure of the bike for the two main characters in the song.

Red Molly is attracted to both speed and danger, making the sight of James on his Vincent simply irresistible. The feeling is likewise, as James lets her know: “Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” As anyone who has heard a folk ballad or two can probably guess, their time together is bound to be fleeting. James, an outlaw with a heart of gold, acknowledges this: “Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22/And I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you.”

Their hopes to ride their rapid motorbike into the sunset together quickly fade when an armed robbery gone awry leads to mortal wounds for James, giving him just enough time to confess his undying love to Red Molly. Yes, it’s a cliché, but Thompson imbues their last goodbye with such genuine emotion that it transcends all the times this story has been told before.

James knows he’s had it good in his brief time on Earth, considering he was able to partake in his two deepest desires: “Says James, ‘In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world/Beats a 52 Vincent and a red-headed girl.’” As his time runs out, his version of the afterlife appears before his dying eyes, “I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome/Swooping down from heaven to carry me home.”

He gives Red Molly one last kiss, but not before he hands her over the keys to the motorcycle, allowing her to take all the rides that are now denied to him. It’s a misty-eyed moment. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” may be, at face value, just a simple tale about a girl, a guy, and a motorcycle, but, thanks to the inimitable talent of Richard Thompson, it’s nothing short of epic.

“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”

Said Red Molly to James that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat’s off to you
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride

Said James to Red Molly, here’s a ring for your right hand
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man
I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen
I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine
Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22
And I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I’ll give you my Vincent to ride

Come down, come down, Red Molly, called Sergeant McRae
For they’ve taken young James Adie for armed robbery
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside
Oh, come down, Red Molly to his dying bedside
When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I’ll give you my Vincent to ride

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
They don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52
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 Ariels 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

– Written by Richard Thompson


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Ben Taylor