Jonathan Richman, June 1997

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

Jonathan Richman Starts Making Sense (from The Japan Times)

4742-1Back in 1976, when Jonathan Richman was breaking in the California version of the Modern Lovers, I went to see him at the old Boarding House in San Francisco. A local indie label, Beserkley, had recently released a well-received collection of demos recorded five years earlier by the original, punkier Boston version of the Modern Lovers and would soon put out a set of spare, semi-acoustic songs by the new group.

Though the audience had been alerted somehow that this new band would concentrate on new material, most people still expected some of the Boston classics, like “Pablo Picasso,” the greatest rock song ever written about picking up girls, and “Roadrunner,” the ultimate teen ode to cars, an acoustic version of which Richman recorded for a 1975 Beserkley compilation.

But Jonathan would have none of it. He was sick of those songs and was embarking on a new career as a singer of low-volume children’s rock (there was no p.a. at the gig), and though he eventually won over many of the people in the audience with his exuberance, he alienated just as many with his attitude.

Last Thursday, Richman, still looking and acting impossibly boyish at the age of 46, played at Club Quattro in Shibuya, and no one called out for “Roadrunner.” In fact, no one called out for anything from his twenty-odd albums, because Richman has, through the force of his convictions and his unique artistic vision, transcended the normal artist-song relationship that holds sway in pop music. He is as close to being a pure performer as any straightforward rock musician could be, and his fans just want him to get up on stage and be wide-eyed Jonathan.

Which isn’t to say that Richman is a slouch or takes advantage of the adoration. He’s an energetic, passionate, and, most importantly, sincere performer. But he’s not a particularly deep one. And his plaintive croak of a baritone, while affecting to the kind of people who take in injured animals, is decidedly a matter of taste.

Accompanied only by his own semi-electric guitar playing and drummer Tommy Larkin, Jonathan could indulge his famous whims without interference, and since he is, if nothing else, the most whimsical performer in pop music, the audience had quite a time keeping up with the zig-zagging focus of his act.

In concert, the process of a Richman song is, first, a rambling but well-executed guitar vamp in which familiar melodies–“Love Is Strange,” “Walk Right In,” that kind of thing–alternate with various ethnic-sounding musical lines as epitomized by his only chart hit, the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae.” This then leads into one of his compositions, which he sings more or less straight, rising to a pitch of heartfelt emotion that culminates in his dropping his guitar, opening his arms wide, and singing the last bars in a state of operatic ecstasy. If the song is upbeat, he may finish with some quirky dance steps. His trademark move is a kind of lateral karate-chop gesture, followed by a Rockette-like kick, and then a feinted arabesque that turns into a shimmy.

As ridiculous as this may sound, the audience couldn’t get enough of it. Each awkward synapse-interrupting move was met with squeals of glee. This was not the reaction of jaded concertgoers responding to someone making a fool of himself, or star-worshippers hanging on to their hero’s every idiosyncrasy. This was wonder. Richman is often described as a case of arrested development, but he’s also quite a sex machine. He continually grinds his hips; and though he didn’t do it at the Quattro gig, in the past I’ve seen him rip his shirt off and perform without one.

For me, however, the wonder was not in the act, which I’d seen before, but in the songs. His “classics” from the seventies were spirited, but they were also melodically redundant and thematically one-dimensional. The entire idea of a song could be read in its title: “Abominable Snowman in the Market,” “Hey There Little Insect,” “Rockin’ Shopping Center.” Of course, it’s pointless to debate the merit of such nonsense, since its appeal is strictly subjective.

In contrast, the tunes he performed on Thursday, most of which were from the 90s, demonstrated that Richman’s songwriting has evolved beyond word association. His personal songs used to be limited to adolescent infatuation, but now encompass such complex concepts as the difficulties of communication (“You Can’t Talk to the Dude”), newfound confidence in a relationship (“The Girl Stands Up To Me Now” and “Not Just a ‘Plus 1’ On the Guest List Anymore”), and the perils of parenthood (“My Little Girl’s Got a Full-time Daddy Now”).

And whereas I used to laugh out loud at his dumb lyrics, this time I was laughing at myself, because the songs actually made sense, or, at least, more sense than I had previously given them credit for.

“Rock n’Roll Drummer Straight From the Hospy-tel,” which lampoons the stereotype dissipated rocker (“keep him away from your niece and nephew”), was also a trenchant character study (“hair’s full of bleach/never been to the beach”). In “Velvet Underground,” his tribute to the band that inspired him to take up music, Richman captures the essence of that seminal group without once mentioning a song title or a member’s name (two descriptions of their sound: “far away and dignified” and “like the heat’s turned off and you’re out of food”), and in concert he vivified the image with a dead-on impersonation of Lou Reed.

Does that mean Jonathan has finally become an adult? If becoming an adult means trading play for work, no. If it means assuming adult feelings, well…maybe. He’s still too self-indulgent, too easily distracted to qualify as a mature artist, but he knows one when he sees one. Near the end of the concert, he did an entire song in French, and for a moment at least, he looked exactly like Yves Montand.

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