Rock and Role Model
Most people who know Jonathan Richman's music at all just remember him from his part as the guitar-toting Greek chorus in There's Something About Mary, but he'd been recording and touring for about 25 years before that "big break." Weirdly, among those people aware of Richman outside of his role in the Farrelly brothers' universe, he's simultaneously one of the most underrated and lionized figures in the entire pantheon of rock. He's a mercurial guy, capable of jaw-dropping onstage mood swings, and he doesn't like to talk to journalists because decades in the music business have convinced him they'll just print what they want regardless of what he tells them. So here I go.
Beginning his musical career as a teenage roadie/apprentice to the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman formed the Modern Lovers in Boston in the early 1970s. The band started out sounding like an iconoclastic but accessible nephew to the Velvets, with their signature song (and eventual UK chart hit) "Roadrunner," which was a morphing of the VU's epic rave-up "Sister Ray" into a joyous paean to driving and listening to the radio ("I got the AM!").
Johnny Rotten was a huge Modern Lovers fan. The Sex Pistols actually recorded a version of "Roadrunner," and that cover cemented Richman's place in punk history whether he likes it or not. One thing the Modern Lovers didn't share with their VU mentors and punky progeny was a basic attitude toward drugs: "I'm Straight" was not a statement of heterosexuality but a health-food advocate's nervy declaration of chemical-free pride in a narcotic era.
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This music never seems to age. Even now, when rock fans hear the early Modern Lovers recordings for the first time, they invariably want to know who this hot new band is. The crisp, simplistic rhythms, the soaring, infectious choruses, Richman's paradoxically vulnerable/cocksure voice and the hard-edged but humorous way his lyrics looked life in the eye served as a template for much of the power-pop, punk, straight-edge and (indirectly) emo that came afterward. Richman was known to weep on stage during emotional moments at Modern Lovers concerts, and later scores of smitten young women would fight for the chance to console him backstage.
Though that music only sounds fresh today, back when it really was new, the major record companies were all convinced it was going to be huge, and there was a bidding war, which landed the band on Warner Bros. Legend has it that Richman balked at artistic demands voiced by the record company and walked out on the contract rather than compromise one iota. The band broke up, and some found no little success in their later endeavors: Drummer Dave Robinson eventually zoomed up the charts in the Cars, and organist Jerry Harrison did the preppy herky-jerk with Talking Heads.
Richman was very quiet for some time after that, and when he resurfaced his music had transformed almost unrecognizably. Where the sound had been raucously electric, it was now gently acoustic; where his lyrics had been snotty and gritty, the words in the new songs were often childish and silly ("I'm a Little Airplane," from this period, actually became a Sesame Street staple). While most believed this was a manifestation of wimpiness on Richman's part, it could also be argued that it took just as much gall to get up in front of punk audiences and sing sweetly juvenile songs as it had to sing self-righteous antidrug material to stoned-out early-'70s hippie crowds.
Still, many critics and fans would maintain that Richman's artistic development stopped right there, with his head stuck firmly in the sand of jaunty kiddie escapism, and it's hard to blame them, especially when the artist himself has encouraged such dismissal. "Once in a while," went his liner notes to 1991's Having a Party with Jonathan Richman, "a record comes along that is such a departure from the normal style of a singer that some explanation is in order. This record is not one of those." Ha-ha.
Sometime in the '80s, though, Richman started to de-emphasize the rockin' leprechauns and supermarket-rampaging abominable snowmen and turned his gaze back to real life. He continues to write about things that thrill him with the same excitement he brought to "Roadrunner," whether it's goth chicks in "Vampire Girl," organic produce in "Circle I" or the paintings of "Vincent Van Gogh" -- "who loved color and who let it show."
Most remarkably, sometime in the '90s an extraordinary, unofficial song-cycle began on Richman's records, one that might even surpass the Modern Lovers' several overdosing-girlfriend songs in its harrowing true-life resonance and stand as a stripped-down, rocking equivalent to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. Things start out pleasantly enough with the uxorious joy of songs like "Somebody to Hold Me" and "Gail Loves Me." Within a few albums, though, trouble enters paradise with the gently ribbing "She Doesn't Laugh at My Jokes," the conciliating "The Girl Stands Up to Me Now" and the countrified equine jealousy of "(I Don't See Her Much) Since She Started to Ride." By 1998 things have gotten to the point where the centerpiece of the I'm So Confused CD is the matter-of-factly heartbroken "I Can't Find My Best Friend." Most movingly, Richman never becomes bitter toward his ex in these songs, displaying heroic empathy on "Not Just a 'Plus One' on the Guest List Anymore" and a solemn, blessings-counting maturity on "My Little Girl's Gotta Full-Time Daddy Now."
Sad, affecting stuff, all the more so live. Indeed, I've rarely been to a Richman show where I didn't witness at least one person burst into tears spontaneously, but oddly, it's generally not during the "sad" songs. It's that Richman's emotional openness can be utterly transporting, just as his impromptu solo dancing spots could easily become embarrassing but somehow never are. Once I saw Richman come close to rapture during a solo concert, only to pull back with alarming suddenness. He was doing a heartfelt version of the gospel standard "Angels Watching Over Me" with his eyes closed. He began to segue into "Amazing Grace" when he seemed to notice that the audience members closest to him were murmuring to each other. I could almost feel the fire in his eyes dying out as he cut the song off and played perfunctory "rocking" songs for the rest of the night. You never know exactly what you'll get with Jonathan Richman, but good or bad, you can be sure it'll come straight from his fiercely individual heart.
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