Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jonathan Richman: There's Somethin' About That Sound

I first saw Jonathan Richman, who turns 61 today, at Chicago's legendary Lounge Ax back at the tail end of the 1980s. I had literally never heard his music before (although I remembered a hugely fun-sounding review of his 1985 album Rockin' and Romance in Rolling Stone, which ended "Has there ever been a cheesier-looking album cover?"). My impetus for going was a rave preview in the Chicago Reader, which briefly encapsulated Jonathan's career and concluded, "Live, he's just great."

And he was. We had spent the earlier part of the evening seeing the Kingston Trio on the lawn of some elementary school in the south suburbs, and they were terrific, but Jonathan was even better, onstage with just his hollow-body guitar. I went out the very next day and bought Jonathan Richman: The Best of the Beserkely Years, and have never looked back. That CD had a selection of songs from The Modern Lovers and the great one-shot "Government Center" as well as some of his later child-like songs, such as "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm a Little Dinosaur." Surely, I thought, this is what Bob Dylan sounded like in the third grade.

Jonathan's lack of pretension is a big part of what makes him so endearing. The last time I saw him, at Maxwell's in Hoboken (accompanied by just his hollow-body guitar, as always), he played a song for us that he said we hadn't heard before, because the last time he had come through, he hadn't made it up yet. Jonathan doesn't "write" songs, much less "compose" them; he makes them up. God, I love that.

Jonathan has always had a small but extremely enthusiastic cult following. Back in the early 1990s, the cast of "Saturday Night Live" guest-edited an issue of Spin magazine, and the one contribution from Julia Sweeney was a rare interview with Jonathan Richman. David Bowie, Iggy Pop and John Cale have all (separately) covered "Pablo Picasso." He's probably best known for his appearance as the troubadour in There's Something About Mary, directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, two other guys who love New England. I certainly hope Jonathan got a nice check for that, because he deserves it. The Modern Lovers showed up at Number 381 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, although it's surely one of the more obscure titles on that list. (I am proud to say I wrote the entry on that record.)  

Jonathan (no one in the history of the world has ever referred to him as "Richman") encapsulates something I am constantly seeking out, the ability of art to illuminate the truth and beauty in the quotidian details of life. From "cruisin past the Stop 'n Shop" in "Roadrunner" to an entire song about a "Crummy Little Chewing Gum Wrapper" to the beauty of his wife wearing "something from the hardware store" in "Everyday Clothes," he has always noticed the tiny things that make his life richer, and I'll bet they make your life richer too.

Not that he misses out on larger emotional truths, too; in fact, that probably makes him more receptive to emotional truths. In one of his greatest songs, "That Summer Feeling," Jonathan gets wistful about a little girl he dated back in grade school, then asks, "Do you long for her, or for the way you were?"

I don't know, Jonathan. But I do know you were right: That summer feeling was gonna haunt me one day in my life.

1 comment:

  1. There's something so simple, amazing, and perfect about a lot of Jonathan Richman songs. And driving in Massachusetts when "Road Runner" comes on the radio is a brush with the sublime.