From The Back Bay To The Bluebird

June 9, 2017

From The Back Bay To The Bluebird

In the Bread with Jonathan Richman
On the way to the Bluebird Theater on the bus the other night, to see Jonathan Richman sing and play guitar, accompanied by his bandmate of 24 years, Tommy Larkins, on the drums, I wondered what Jonathan would say about all the bad politics lately. This would be the third time I’d seen him live, one of the more important figures in contemporary rock and roll history, someone who could have choked down the whole poison sandwich of fame in the 1970s but decided against it, who’s manifested decades of inimitable, excellent music under the radar instead ever since. Everybody was in a bad mood about politics lately, and as de facto focal points, performers could add themselves to that discontent in assumptive political fighterly manner, or effect an attractive alternative. I looked up to this guy as someone who knew better than consensus opinion. I figured he’d probably say something about the political funk, just to give us friends and fans the high sign, and I wanted to hear whatever it was. However he handled the question, I felt sure he wouldn’t let it cheapen or dominate whatever he put across otherwise.
Parties in the U.S.A.” is my favorite political song by Jonathan Richman. noting the lack of frivolity in American consciousness recent decades—“the U.S.A. has changed some way that I can’t name”. That song came out in 1992, and feels like something that grew naturally. Maybe more like social commentary, as is “Corner Store,” from 1990, in which he foresaw the coming strip mall apocalypse, or loss of individually owned businesses of every sort to faceless strip malls and box stores—“I spot a trend that has got to stop.” Overt political activism is rare. There’s a recent-ish song called, “Abu Jamal” petitioning for the release of that political prisoner “join{ing] Nelson Mandela and Susan Sarandon, Harry Belafonte, the list goes on and on,” and one called “Not in my Name” protesting Bush II’s invasion of Iraq. These seem like well-meaning 3D afterthoughts in comparison to other recent tracks like “Not So Much to be Loved as to Love,” “Our Drab Ways”, or “Our Party Will Be on the Beach Tonight”, which lack specific tautology, and have enough range and simplicity to transcend our default dimension, the artist being naturally oriented to topics beyond mean political logics, thus better equipped to channel that manner of anti-matter than mere protest.

Okay. I came late to the wonder and magic of Jonathan Richman, whose career as an original of American rock ’n roll culture began in the early seventies as the brain and soul behind Boston’s Modern Lovers. It was a sort of history project for me, reading about this kid from Boston who loved the Velvet Underground so much he hitchhiked his way to New York and befriended them, whose song “Roadrunner” was covered by every early punk band, who played the role of Greek chorus in that Cameron Diaz movie, There’s Something About Mary, providing instrumental byplay between dramatic sequences, and whose stuff was possessed of an unalloyed, adenoidal sincerity that made everyone else’s more polished numbers seem overly fabricated.
Modern Lovers Precise Order, a live album recorded in 1972, that’s where it started for me, then the first Modern Lovers album, produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, recorded around the same time and released in 1976, then Modern Lovers ‘88, an album recorded after reforming the band after a character-defining breakup (which I’ll get to in a minute) then I, Jonathan. All of this at least twenty years after the most recent of these had been released. That’s why the timeline is all over the place in this piece. Which is fine, since I’m talking about what’s eternal in here. There are bound to be lapses and aspects left untreated. I have tried to provide all the dates some of you may require, and I apologize for any oversights or miscalculations. 
I picked up a copy of The Beserkley Years, the Rhino Records Modern Lovers best-of collection, Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (1986), and the 2 CD best of collection, Action Packed (2002), after which, already off to a fine start, I kept on going. In the years since becoming a fan, I’ve bought at least thirteen to fifteen other Jonathan Richman albums, including three new albums on release. I’ve seen Jonathan play live three times in Denver, read a book about him, and developed a strong instinctive agreement with everything he’s doing and what he represents. 
The original Modern Lovers hung together from 1970 to 1974, but their recordings were not released until 1976 or later. That lineup featured Richman and bassist Ernie Brooks with drummer David Robinson (later of the Cars) and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads). The band’s sound owed a great deal to the influence of the Velvet Underground, and is now sometimes classed as “protopunk”. It certainly prefigured much of the punk rock, new wave, alternative and indie rock music of later decades, most especially for its contrarian character. Their only album, the eponymous The Modern Lovers, contained idiosyncratic songs about dating awkwardness, growing up in Massachusetts, and love of life and the U.S.A.
After their trip to Bermuda, where they were booked as one of the house bands at the Hotel Inverurio, the original lineup fell apart after Jonathan’s cathartic discovery of the looseness of calypso musicians in comparison to the nervous “triphammer” playing of his own act—going so far as to narrate his acatharsis in a live rendition of the song “Bermuda,” retitled “Monologue About Bermuda” upon its release.
In 1975, Richman moved to California to record as a solo singer/songwriter with Beserkley Records. His first released recordings appeared on 1975’s Beserkley Chartbusters compilation, where he was backed by members of Earth Quake and the Rubinoos; these four songs also appeared on singles on the independent Beserkley label. Between 1976 and 1988, Richman used the name Modern Lovers for a variety of backing bands, all quieter and more low-key than the original unit, specializing in near-childlike songs like “My Little Kookenhaken” and “I’m a Little Dinosaur”. Of his original bandmates, only Robinson was part of any of the other Modern Lovers incarnations.
The album ROCKIN’ and ROMANCE with the MODERN LOVERS was released in 1985. Besides the first recorded version of “Vincent Van Gogh”, several of its songs, notably “My Jeans” and “(Cruddy Lil) Chewing Gum Wrapper” are elementally prosaic in their subject matter, boiled-down essential authentic songs about what they say, that come alive with jumping jive when Jonathan trains his mind on them, prefiguring the trend toward elemental emotionalism 30 or 40 years on. 
His very latest offering, “Ishlode! Ishkode!” opens with a track noting, “Whoah! How different we all are, one from the other. Each with our own way, each with our own secret sorrow.” That’s Jonathan Richman reporting back to his faithful listeners on the human condition from sixty years into a life built on trust in the real, no matter how it made him frown and cry before he could start to smile. That’s elemental, atavistic ultimacy, as in the most essential, final, boiled-down root-essence-answer, integral. 

The word “Ishkode” apparently translates to “bonfire”, and, along with “O Sun” (a fine companion to his previous album’s “O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth”) and the previously mentioned “How Different”, the track so named is one third of a trio of elemental numbers on his latest. How the cave people stared into fire and saw visions, or looked away from the sun like a god, or enjoyed the mysterious magic of inter-personality in the plaza. That’s one way of describing his message.
Jonathan turned his back on the fame game. He wanted less amplification, less space between singer, musicians and audience, more focus on music as fun. All, presumably, to the consternation of countless cigar-mouthed, hairy-armed arena-rock promoter types, and was it the right move to make? When I saw him and Tommy Larkins, his drummer of 24 years, at the Bluebird Theater a couple of weeks ago, one of the songs he sang was called, “Muy Allegre Sin Razon”. That means very happy for no reason en Espanol. He seems to be having a good time, following a good line, and I trust him.
They say if you look at any portion of a fractal, you can see the whole thing represented. That’s the way it is with Jonathan Richman and authenticity. When I looked for a through-line, it stood out unmistakably. The watchword throughout his career has been authenticity, generally in direct contradiction of the popular, ever magically without animosity. Richman’s career-long stance as a living example of irrepressible authenticity—to a fault, and that means flawless—has gone from aping the Velvets and the Stooges in tracks like “Walk Up the Street” to personalizing the same brand of lonely, heartfelt detachment in songs like “Hospital”—to 2005’s “O Moon Queen of Night on Earth” or “I Was the One She Came For” which two latter tracks show a more fully-grown, better developed truth teller, more nuanced—and beyond. But it’s the same self saying how it sees life.
Hey! It’s all through his career. Besides being the first straight-edge song, “I’m Straight,” which can be found on the first Modern Lovers LP and Modern Lovers Precise Order, to name a couple of places, was an early, impassioned declaration of Jonathan’s realist nature doubling as a plea for courage in life. The lyrics comprise his romantic bid, in competition with “Hippie Ernie” (later Johnny), challenging his intended, “Tell me, why don’tcha, if these guys are really so great, why can’t they take this place, and take it straight?” Asking that question in early 70s America, all connotations of squareness and CLAPTON IS GOD be damned, leaving us to ask ourselves that bravest question when we hear it: what, in fact, are we meant to be facing? 
Dignified & Old,” from the same album, flies in the face of popular rock ‘n’ roll live fast-die young -if you-wanna-get-down-try-cocaine culture, urging its hearers instead, “Hey, kids! Don’t die!” Jonathan did the same thing in “A Plea for Tenderness”, from the same album, conceding, “I know how beautiful death is, I know how much you hate life,” before qualifying his empathy, “but I’m just a tender soul, so be glad you know.” 
Another song, “Old World”, took a stance against the disrespectful futurist culture dominant at the time of its release in 1972, with lyrics like, “I’ll keep my place in the old world, keep my place in the arcane,” the point being hey kids, don’t give up on the past for fleeting modern fancies. This song was recently revised by the author, who seems now to have recognized that the old world has outlived its relevance in most ways, urging listeners to make way for much needed change, and “say goodbye to the old world.” Hearing that edit for the first time, after bonding with him as a fan over the years, understanding that now he’d changed, too, just like I had, and the world itself had, and mass mind had grown up all together, and there we all were, him and me and History and everyone else, grown better, it felt like nothing else could.
Which brings to mind another late career song which may be seen in evolutionary context. “The World is Showing its hand”, from 2006, looking back on his first encounter with urban funk as a kid, is an affirmation of Richman’s inherent preference for sewage and grime over air freshener, – “I was delighted that the world would wanna smell like this!” making an identical declaration of preference for essence over artifice, real over fake, whatever it smells like, however it feels, to that made in 1972’s “I’m Straight.”
That’s him ducking all these trends over the years, always turning out right in the end—from 1990’s “You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus” (his bandmates preferred planes) to 2004’s unsurpassably titled “You Can Have a Cellphone, that’s OK, but not me”, maybe the perfect summation of what is inherently punk about Jonathan Richman—and before them, and after them. He’s not a Luddite. He just doesn’t like fake stuff. Not retrogressive, more like anti-artificial. He’s an authenticity loyalist to a fault and that means a lifetime of paradox, buddy, from 1990’s “City vs. Country” in which he pines for both extremes at once, one more tender soul transfigured between the past and the future, between convenience and real live feelings, however hard won.
 “The Lovers Are Here and they’re Full of Sweat” from 2008‘s Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild, may be interpreted as a postmodern love song or a Modern Lovers road song, which I’ll guess is where the title came from, though it only occurred to me latterly. “Not so Much to be Loved as to Love.” and “The Heart as Chaperone,” both of those songs from the last few years depict an older, no less tender, honest heart as the one in the far pluckier “Nineteen in Naples,” Jonathan’s 1985 narration of a trip to Italy that surely fostered an interest in fine art. 
Richman has a flair for art appreciation, going all the way back to Modern Lovers album one, when “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not like you,” through initial veneration of Vincent Van Gogh—“the most soulful painter since Jan Vermeer, and he loved, he loved life so bad, his paintings had twice the color other paintings had”—on ROCKIN’ and ROMANCE in 1983, then again on an album in 2004, through “Salvador Dali was there for me . . . I was havin’ nightmares all the time, all the time,” on the same album, all the way to “No one was like Vermeer . . . he was born in another age, maybe ten thousand or so years before” on the next one, released in 2008. And probably more.
Fine art appreciators are a rare breed among rock musicians. Of course the Velvets had that Warhol connection, and Paul Simon has one song about Rene and Georgette Magritte, but that’s all I can think of. And surely there are more. I just thought of Jim Carroll. He did it, too. Jonathan Richman is multilingual, has established a name for himself in the European and South American markets, and who knows where else. Not me! But I know that he keeps that non-domestic reputation at least as current as the one stateside ¿A qué venimos sino a caer? was released in 2008. 
The first time I saw him and Tommy play had been about seven or eight years ago at the Lion’s Lair. I remembered dancing with my then girlfriend Kate to “No one Was Like Vermeer.” The next time was a few years later at the Bug Theatre with my friend, Kathy. I remembered on that night she’d told me her husband had started a baseball team called HOOTERS because he thought it would make a good name. The Bug didn’t have a dance floor, and everyone sat there in the rows of theater seats as Jonathan charmed the spectators, singing and dancing and balancing and spinning his Spanish acoustic guitar sd Tommy Larkins tapped along expertly. 
After the show, I wandered back into the theater absent-mindedly and there he was. “Did you enjoy the show?” There were his earnest eyes looking at me.
“I did. It was great. It’s an honor to meet you.” We shook hands. I drifted back outside, changed forever, and bumped into something.
This time, I got there late. Emptied my pockets for the metal detector, then took a minute to use the bathroom before going in there and making my way toward the front of that crowded room. There was no opening act, and I only caught five or six numbers, including “Not so much to be Loved as to Love” and “When We Refuse to Suffer.” 
There was a great rap at one point that would fit perfectly somewhere in “Take Me to the Plaza”, which he might have played before I got there, concerning the Zocalo, or central public square in Mexico City, which is the active hub of civic society round the clock in that city, and has been for a long time, and will be forever, potentially. About the dearth of real interaction vs. the surplus of virtual connectedness in modern society. 
Hearing him stop in the middle of “Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love” to explain how he’s changed—“Now, in the old days, if you had told me I cared about myself more than her, I wouldn’t have liked that at all, no, I would have wanted to fight you, back then, but now I can see!”—for the first time, it struck me, a strong impression of Jonathan Richman as an authentic old school troubadour, with his whole attitude, his whole experience of life on tour to captivate the locals. 
Here it is the 21st century, there’s a general funk in the minds and bad politics funking us out, and Jonathan Richman is on the road, embodying something better, like a traveling minstrel of medieval times. Or maybe only fifty to seventy-five years ago in European villages and small town America, when Gypsies caravaning through your town turned into a circus because of their unfamiliar qualities, the shapes of their souls, and the snake oils they sold. They smelled funny to you, unfamiliar. 
“I don’t like those typewriters with the screens attached,” Jonathan joked from the stage. “I get distracted. Okay, this is your last chance to say goodnight to the drummer,” he added, and I realized the show was almost over. 
Speaking personally, I held out for a long time, at least ten years, but I have a cell phone now. I don’t even think he has email. I’ve always had that. From a teenager to an ageless old man full of sprightly charm mesmerizing a room full of watchers, Jonathan Richman has shared his life with us for all these years as an antidote to fakery. He’s a new kind of saint. That’s a fact. He’s a living example of goodness. Hey, pardon me.
Throughout his career, Jonathan has been hard-to-impossible for the conventional press to “pin down,” define or classify, being known for his “evasive”, “impressionistic” answers I’ve heard them called, once handling an interviewer with gestures and facial expressions a la his idol Harpo Marx. He’s been toeing the line between exposure to audiences and the danger of encagement in consensus illusion. 
Makes me think of the way Bob Dylan reportedly attempted to create large scale illusions like visiting the Wailing Wall or becoming a Christian to satisfy the voracious curiosity of the press about celebrity life details. 
Fortunately, Jonathan sidestepped that Hell-Ride early enough he seems not to have sustained any damage. 
By the way, wasn’t that great the way Dylan won the Nobel Prize and didn’t answer for so long we thought he really never would?
Jonathan has a song about Harpo Marx that’s a very sweet charm. “Harpo, Harpo, this is the angels, and where did you get that sound so fine? Harpo, Harpo, we gotta hear it, ooooo, one more time–yeah”-–(then more slowly)—“oooo, one more time.” His song, “When I Dance” from I’m So Confused, is so confident, so composed, compared to “Just Look At Me” from Surrender to Jonathan, which is equally heartfelt, if far less invulnerable. Jonathan, Tu Vas a Emocionar. 
Born Jewish, maybe he’s a Christian now, with a couple of songs on the Not So Much to Be Loved . . . disc, “Lilies of the Field” and “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste” giving that impression, but I don’t know. There’s also one about “The Bitter Herb” two discs later on O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth, which gives a Jewish hint. 
Authenticity. “it’s in the bread.” Es Como El Pan. That’s another Jonathan Richman song about essence.
A couple songs about his mother recent years. “As My Mother Lay Dying” in 2008 and “Mother I Give You My Soul” on the new one. All best to her.
The Bluebird show ended with everyone cheering. As the lights came on overhead and it became clear that Jonathan and Tommy weren’t coming back, despite that appreciative clamor, one tall guy wearing a wool cap with long tails who’d been happily clapping his way through the crowd, shouted, “Aw, what an asshole! Jonathan, come back! Come back, Jonathan!” What was his story? No one engaged him.

I’m glad I went to see Jonathan and Tommy play again. I missed whatever Jonathan said about the politics, but you can hear about that stuff anywhere. More importantly, I wanted to learn how to rightly treat all Suns and Moons and Ones and Others, and get treated rightly by them in the bargain. Everything Jonathan Richman was showing not telling that night. It was great, thanks a lot. And happy birthday May 16th. Let’s make it the best year ever, and then some. It’s in the bread.

– Zack Kopp
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