Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman

By Tim Burrows

While being a rock star in the wake of the 60s meant you wore expensive free flowing clothes and strutted around the stage with eyes bulging in libidinous frenzy, Jonanthan Richman, with his cropped haired and clad in straight legged jeans and white t-shirt, was the archetypal suburban boy who moved to the city. He stood gawkily, voicing his concern that he might never find a girlfriend who wasn’t just some "coked up triumph in the bar".

By the time Richman brought his band to the UK in 1977, the first wave of punk had already been and gone, leaving behind it a sea of posturing blanks eager for someone to play something pissed-off sounding to them. Yet Richman and his band did not comply. Instead, they played child-like acoustic songs with titles like ‘The Wheels On The Bus’, and ‘Hey Little Insect’. The band played so quietly that a chorus of "shhh" would be directed at a noisy member of the crowd. Punk this was not. “I can’t connect the concert with the chill world outside AT ALL,” Jon Savage wrote in a Sounds magazine review of a show at the Hammersmith Odeon, “beyond fearing that Richman’s courageous, innocent positivism is SO fragile”.

I often wonder whether Richman’s shift into writing songs that express unquestioning positivity represents some kind of postmodern sickness, the world that he has created out of the modern American myths about ice cream men and bank-tellers examples of a kind of hyperreal world of Jonathan’s creation, where he can exist safely and peacefully and shut out the world.

But then perhaps he just stopped being pissed off. Should he have repeated the angst trick if he didn’t mean it? Novelist and editor of literary journal n+1 Keith Gessen recently wrote in the Guardian that Richman had a choice between moving back to Boston to live, or going to New York to die a dignified nihilist death like members of the Ramones did, suggesting he should have done the latter to preserve some sort of artistic punk credibility. It is this kind of bullshit that makes me think Richman was perhaps right to pursue the career that he has, if only to save us from another Jimi/Jim/Sid/Ian/Kurt staring out, shiny and confused on a W.H. Smith magazine shelf.

He’s touring now, returning to West London this Friday (May 9), playing Shepherds Bush Empire. Don’t expect much angst, but lots of sincerity and feeling. It may make the cynic curl their toes at times, but let’s take a stroll through the frighteningly happy world of Jonathan Richman.

1. Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground

"If the Velvet Underground had a protégé," said Sterling Morrison, "it would be Jonathan". Few musicians owe as much to a group as Richman does to the Velvets, and even fewer admit as much. At 15 he swapped a Fugs album for the group’s Warhol-produced debut and it had such an effect on him that he immediately picked up guitar. "They made an atmosphere, and I knew then that I could make one too", he said. He saw them 80 times, wrote about them in Boston zines, supported some of their shows, and slept on manager Steve Sesnick’s couch when he moved to New York aged 18.

Highlight: ‘Sister Ray’ " Richman’s fave and the basis for ‘Roadrunner’

2. The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers

The Modern Lovers

Richman returned to Boston in 1970 after failing to make it as a musician in NY. (The biggest crowd he pulled was for an impromptu performance on the roof of the Hotel Albert in New York: The audience standing on the pavement below thought he was a suicidal man about to jump.) He quickly pulled together some musicians, including future Talking Head Jerry Harrison on organ, and formed The Modern Lovers, releasing an eponymous album in 1976. For all the Velvets inspired fuzz and drone, it is an record of feeling, whether that be disdain as in the anti-hippy lament ‘I’m Straight’ or the jealous ‘Pablo Picasso’, or the real romantic yearning of ‘Girlfriend’, the latter’s soulful beauty providing a link to much of Richman’s later work. Yet it’s also that describes the conflict between his early life in Natick in suburbs of Boston and his ambition to make it in New York. The notorious ‘Roadrunner’ suggested flight from this past, but soon ‘Old World’ suggests that Richman belonged to the ‘burbs.

Highlight: ‘I’m Straight’

3. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers - Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

The original Modern Lovers disbanded in 1974 as Richman turned away from the loud fuzz-laden proto-punk that made their name: “I believe that any group that hurts the ears of infants " and this is no joke " sucks”, he reasoned. He assembled another, quieter band who would work together as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. They adopted a kind of 1950s doo-wop style, and played gigs for children at schools and hospitals, resulting in songs like’ Abominable Snowman in the Market’, and ‘Here Come the Martian Martians’. The motif of childhood, mixed with the romance of the modern USA already evident on the debut (‘Rockin Shopping Centre’ and ‘New England’) has served as his blueprint pretty much ever since.

Highlight: ‘Lonely Financial Zone’

4. Modern Lovers – Rock n’Roll with the Modern Lovers

Modern Lovers - Rock N\'Roll With the Modern Lovers

After aborting early sessions that took place in a toilet, Richman set about complimenting his fifties acoustic style with influences from outside America. There are some prominent instrumentals. Opening track ‘The Sweeping Wind (Kwa Ti Feng)’, is influenced by Chinese folk, while Richman’s biggest hit ‘Egyptian Reggae’ is exactly that. The kids are still kept happy though, with ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘Wheels on the Bus’.

Highlight: ‘Fly Into The Mystery’

5. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Rockin and Romance

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers - Rockin\' and Romance

Richman’s writing goes anatomic on this 1986 album, with no subject matter too banal for him to tackle. In ‘Chewing Gum Wrapper’. (Check this video explaining how he came up with the song). Somehow he manages to craft a strangely moving song out of seeing a crumpled up chewing gum wrapper on the floor of a street. ‘My Jeans’, feels one step too far though, featuring choice lyrics like “Well my jeans they are a frayin’/And don’t talk Levi’s/Because I’ve tried/My hips they had no room to play in/And my little bum felt all trapped inside”.

Highlight: ‘Chewing Gum Wrapper’

6. Sesame Street

It had to happen, and when Sesame Street started to feature Richman’s songs it made perfect sense. Angry? Depressed? Just watch this clip and I reckon you’ll either smile or go look for a rope.

7. There’s Something About Mary OST

There\'s Something About Mary OST

To some, Richman will be best remembered as the man in the tree at the beginning of the 1998 Farrelly Brother’s bullpap comedy There’s Something About Mary. After he popped up in their earlier film Kingpin the brothers, who are big fans, asked Richman to score the movie as well as appear in it. Not a union to win the cynics over, but it did bring him to a wider audience.

Highlight: ‘There’s Something About Mary’

8. David Bowie – ‘Pablo Picasso’

David Bowie - Reality

While the Sex Pistols famously covered ‘Roadrunner’ before they had any songs, surely the most bizarre Richman cover has to go to David Bowie’s 2003 rendition of the debut album track ‘Pablo Picasso’. The Thin White Duke manages to make the track sound like a jam session between U2, Bruce Willis and Devo. The weirdness is multiplied by the fan-made video in which Bowie appears as an abstract painting of a kind of evil alien, floating through a labrynthine landscape and pictures of Andy Warhol. His old bunk mate Iggy had a go some years earlier. Suffice to say it is a simpler affair.

9. Jonathan Richman – Not so Much to be Loved as to Love

Jonathan Richman - Not so Much to be Loved as to Love

Released in 2004, his latest studio album won’t have surprised many of his fans, containing the familiar mix of eulogies to heroes (‘Vincent Van Gogh’, ‘Salvador Dali’), and sunny acoustic instrumentals (‘Sunday Afternoon’). Richman must be the only man alive who can sing the line “In an alley somewhere smelling of grease and piss/I was delighted that the world would wanna smell like this”, as he does in ‘The World Was Showing It’s Hand’, without a hint of irony.

Highlight: ‘My Baby Love Love Loves Me’

10. The Modern Ovens

So what of Richman’s 21st century legacy? You can point to Adam Green for the same kind of plain-talkin’-troubadour-croon, but he’s too ironic. Vampire Weekend write catchy, dweeby pop but they’re just too damn cocksure. Perhaps its the Modern Ovens, the affectionately titled covers band from Brighton made up of members of British Sea Power, Tenderfoot and Actress Hands, who carry the torch the most convincingly. Last New Years Eve the band played a tribute to Jonathan, dressing up as ice cream men and encouraging games of pass the parcel. The party band for the twee generation is here.

The Modern Ovens live on New Year’s Eve

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