Some musicians make stellar contributions to the canon of rock’n’roll, thus dent the trajectory in unique ways, but few people decidedly create a whole new curvature; hence, rock’n’roll forever changes shape and style. Take exhibit A., singer and guitarist Jonathan Richman, who is gigging at Continental Club February 16 with drummer Tommy Larkin, agile and noted percussionist behind Giant Sand. Together they will peel back layers that reveal the genius at work in the plentiful oeuvre of Richman.
Early on, though from Boston, Richman became part of the cohort surrounding cutting-edge, New York City underground musicians Velvet Underground. As a fresh-faced teen, he climbed long stairs to hang at the Factory, the den of Andy Warhol and the band. Later, he sang with drummer Moe Tucker on the lovely and offbeat “I’m Sticking With You.
Meanwhile, bass guitarist John Cale produced demos for Richman’s predictive band the Modern Lovers. Though that work with Tucker is a quaint reminder of Richman’s roots and special genesis, his own rock’roll outings would become much more famous.
During the early 1970s, Richman’s stint as singer in the proto-punk Modern Lovers was legend-inducing. The unit featured future members of the Cars and Talking Heads, whose Jerry Harrison co-produced Richman’s latest slab, SA (Blue Arrow Records). The tracks have a slight psych-rock undertow, not unlike Eastern-tinkering, mid-period Rolling Stones (note: SA is actually the term for the first note of the Indian raga) as well as the somnambulant mood of peak Velvet Underground.
On “The Fading Of An Old World,” Richman returns to hallow ground, recasting The Modern Lover’s “Old World” in a new spell that makes the 1972 version seem more defiant; in turn, the re-imagined version is a quieter ode to consolation as the narrator contemplates lost forms, styles, and aesthetics ranging from corsetry to pompadours. In an oft-morphing world, Richman is a keen, wry, flat-out observer.
The Modern Lovers not only served as an impetus to the Sex Pistols, who covered the chugging, goofy rev-up “Roadrunner” during their early ramshackle practices but also spurred a whole slew of West Coast underground music makers, like Joan Jett, who also covered the same tune years later in 1986 on her album Good Music. Never easy to peg down, the Modern Lovers begat a curious mix of deadpan intelligence, stripped-down but forceful rhythm and knockabout flair, and a particularly fresh, lucid, modest spirit that seemed in steep contrast to the marijuana-drenched pomp and wizardry of stadium-sized rock’n’roll sweeping the FM airwaves.
Moreover, as a copious solo artist since the implosion of the Modern Lovers, Richman has cut a
path that jump-started the indie pop aesthetic, dipped into country music territory, and produced a dizzying selection of French clap-alongs (“Sa Voix M’Atisse”), Italian soft-burn bursts (“Cosi Veloce”), and gripping Spanish call-outs (“Es Como El Pan”). His music has remained low-key, quirky, offbeat, and playful, much to the chagrin of some steely-nerved punks.
But Richman has also been falsely deemed a naïve “outsider,” especially after singing about
dinosaurs in front of hipsters. Since then, though, he has become an impressive, seminal, and always adaptive modern sentimentalist whose music, in its heart, professes a kind of unadorned immediacy. It sometimes is awash in tiny details (bubblegum wrappers or squirtguns) that, in his visions, suddenly feel momentous. Or he renders a mise-en-scene with impressionistic hues, like “Our Party Will Be on the Beach Tonight,” which describes stars, waves, and charcoal ash descending on party goers.
On occasion, the tunes are plain-spoken, but heady, descriptions of famous artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali (“I was having nightmares all the time / but he was my guide to the dream world”). Others amount to metaphors for life-affirmation or remain unequivocal odes to dancing, such as “Dancin’ Late at Night” and “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar.”
And dancing is not something he merely preaches. For beneath his ‘everyday joe’ appearance,
and his light deft strumming and contagious smile, is actually a body writhing with passion, which he can easily muster into instantly gratifying physicality: on stage, given enough space, his body becomes an avatar of soulful, simple gestures made anew, in which Richman can twist, writhe, kick, shuffle, shake, pivot, step, and sink to the floor with rubber band elasticity.
And in the last decade and a half, Richman’s music has become unerringly profound too. He can
muster an honest self-exploration of selflessness, “Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love,” tender dream reflections on “The Sea Was Calling Me Home,” which sketches the anxiety of disappearing into the blend of everyone else, explorations of emotional pain rendered mute by medication (“When We Refuse to
Suffer”), and thoughtful eulogies to his own kin (“As My Mother Lay Dying”).
These constitute the multiple sides of Jonathan Richman, for the rich prism of his music breaks down
the light in manifold ways. Too many sloppy-eared people serve up an easily mocked caricature of him as a simpleton, when in fact he is much misunderstood. His enormous catalog, with its moments of curious glee and ah-shucks innocence, is a map of his consciousness: he contemplates a web of life at constant
interplay with a world in flux. He is the go-between; he seeks the spheres to connect us; he is the singer of the public square and the corner store, the eatery and the beach.
And if you listen, really listen, at the Continental, and cannot find something sublime ... that is something you must own, for Richman will be offering his soul in the smallest bites he can offer.
Jonathan Richman, featuring Tommy Larkins, is scheduled for February 16 at 10 p.m. at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. For information, call 713-529-9899 or visit continentalclub.com/houston. Over 21. $15 plus fees.