Jonathan Richman in concert

Jonathan Richman: Innocent like a Rock

For over forty years, Jonathan Richman has been scattering gems of wide-eyed wonder and celebration, set to a rockin’ beat. But don’t mistake his innocence for naivety or lack of intelligence. Far from it. He knows exactly what he’s doing and has had a clear vision and world-view from the start. Here’s my take on his story.

Sometimes when you read about what Jonathan has done and said ( like when he had the Modern Lovers do exercises before shows ), you think: “this man is weird, maybe even mad”. And then you read about, for example, his shows in children’s hospitals, and you think: “The world could do with more madness like that”.

(Review of Tim Mitchell book There’s Something About Jonathan)

I first heard the name ‘Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ announced by John Cale at a 1975 gig as he covered Richman’s Pablo Picasso from the first Modern Lovers album, a one chord juggernaut that was pure Velvets.

Some people try to pick up girls and they get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down the street and girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole
Not in New York

I assumed Jonathan Richman must be some sort of black-leather-jacketed New York tough guy with mirror shades and a cigarette hanging from his sneer. Two years later I was addicted to an album of acoustic guitars, gong, string bass and garden tools, with songs about leprechauns, angels and Boston shops. Shows how wrong you can be.

As I’ve often said, I completely missed punk in 1977. It went past me like a bullet train and I never got on. It was something I read about in the NME while I was in Edinburgh without a radio or TV, as it got a hold on the London music scene. Then I was in Cairo, with only the occasional UK newspaper to fill me in on what was happening in the UK, and whatever cassettes the other teachers in my school had brought. One of these was Rock’n’roll With The Modern Lovers. I was instantly taken with its humour, its rickety sound, and the nature mysticism of songs like Fly Into The Mystery and Afternoon. I copied the cassette and played it to death. On my first visit home, I heard Roadrunner in a pub and thought it the best single I’d heard since the Beatles. I thought punk was Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Dire Straits and Talking Heads – the cassettes my fellow teachers had brought over. When I heard the real thing – Pistols, Clash etc – they did nothing for me, and I went back to my hissy cassettes.

How in the world were they making that sound? Velvet Underground

History first records Jonathan Richman in the late 1960s, a teenage fan of the Velvet Underground – obsessively. He followed them around New York, while trying to start his own career as musician songwriter. Considering the influence they later had, the VU didn’t have many fans when they actually existed, so they got to know him. After a short and troubled life, the VU broke up, and Jonathan returned to his Boston home.

The Modern Lovers - Jonathan on the right
The Modern Lovers Jonathan on the right (credit: BBC)

There he started a band – the Modern Lovers – with Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads) and David Robinson (later of the Cars). The style was based on the VU’s relentless, 2-chord one-beat epics. It’s hard to realise today that in 1971 this was completely unfashionable – the VU had broken up without fanfare or recognition, a failed band. Only David Bowie’s accolades when he rose to fame rescued them from being lost in obscurity. John Cale, however, who had left the VU partly because Lou Reed was moving away from these sonic assaults into more conventional pop, and who knew Jonathan as the kid who hung around VU gigs, spotted something original and exciting.  He produced their demos in 1972. They couldn’t get a contract, however, and after recording a few more tracks with Kim Fowley as producer, the Modern Lovers disbanded and Jonathan moved to California.

Cover of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
Cover of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

The Modern Lovers tracks stayed on the shelf for four years.  In 1976, having signed with Beserkley Records in California, Jonathan put together a new version of the Modern Lovers and recorded the album Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Musically this was very different – out went the VU drone and in came Chuck Berry and 1950s/early 60s rock and roll. Lyrically there was a lot more humour. But it generated enough interest that Beserkley put out the original Modern Lovers tracks as The Modern Lovers three months later. So the world was introduced to two sides of Jonathan Richman at more or less the same time.

See He’s Stoned, Hippy Johnny, I’m Straight and I Want To Take His Place

Although the musical textures were radically different, Jonathan’s originality shone through in both. In The Modern Lovers, it’s not just a innocence – the term writers usually reach for with Jonathan – but a steely determination and dedication to a very un-rock’n’roll stance. Against a sonic attack reminiscent of the Velvets’ Sister Ray or European Son, Jonathan stands up for clean living, respect for the elderly, respect for women, and sensitivity to his own and others feelings. Some of his later work may sound naive and child-like but there’s a dogged strength to Jonathan Richman that shone through in those early songs.

Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts

Songs like Roadrunner and The Lonely Financial Zone speak of the beauty, not just of nature, but of the built environment in a way nobody else, except maybe Chuck Berry, had done in modern music.

In the lonely financial zone
By the sea
I have walked under moon and stars
Skyscrapers shone in their dark majesty
In this otherwordly land of ours
I’ve walked by the buildings, I’ve walked by the malls
I’ve walked by the skyscrapers, lonely and dark
In the lonely financial zone
By the sea
I have walked under moon and stars

In the lonely financial zone
By the sea
I have walked on cold winter nights
I’ve stood in awe, so silently
Under the buzzing electric light
Boats in the harbor, gulls on the pier
Ships and trucks and sailors in the bars
In the lonely financial zone
By the sea
I’ve often walked under moon and stars

A Boston friend, John Felice recalled that as teenagers he and Richman “used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.”
Tim Mitchell, There’s Something About Jonathan

Beserkley released one of several versions of Roadrunner as a single (a predominantly acoustic version, with the B-side featuring the original electric Modern Lovers demo version) and, surprisingly, it became a worldwide hit. From its unique ‘1-2-3-4-5-6’ intro to its ‘By-bye!’ signoff, it took the dark legacy of Sister Ray and turned it into something fresh, positive and sparkling. Richard Linklater, director of School of Rock called it ‘the first punk song’ and there’s anecdotes enough to say the Sex Pistols were fans of the first Modern Lovers version. Twenty years later, Cornershop would affectionately and skilfully recycle it for Brimful of Asha.


I’m A Little Dinosaur But I’m Planning To Go Away

But Jonathan had moved on. The new Modern Lovers album, Rock’n’roll With The Modern Lovers, sounded like it had been recorded in a toolshed, using only acoustic instruments and home-made percussion. Even more unlikely than Roadrunner, Egyptian Reggae sold well as a follow-up single and Jonathan entered his moment of fame. Which he did his best to subvert. He filled his set with children’s songs like I’m A Little Dinosaur, refused to play Roadrunner and even (I read somewhere at the time, but can’t find a reference) played a major New York venue without amplification ‘so as not to frighten any children’.

The music was still special, though. Rock’n’roll With The Modern Lovers is exuberant and joyful. No other record sounded like it, or ever would. Many critics thought Richman had simply flipped, and it may be that what perturbed them was the complete absence of cynicism – the lifeblood of rock journalism – on the record.

Writer Greil Marcus got it, though:

After a bit, nothing on this record sounds “cute.” The leprechauns are just people relating to… anything; the sudden passion that lifts Richman’s singing in the middle of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns” simply refers to the possibilities of passion in the rock and roll vocal. “Roller Coaster by the Sea,” with Richman’s neat asides (“Whee!” “Hmmm, scary”) is on the third time around merely a brilliant rendering of one of the fundamental themes of rock and roll, and of most popular American music, the search for peace of mind. “Dodge Veg-O-­Matic,” while an act of real genius in terms of conception—not to mention execution: “I’m gonna tell you ’bout a car that you won’t like,” Jonathan promises, “It’s my Dodge Veg-O-Matic, there in the parking lot/I like It, I like to watch it rot”—is traditional rockabilly absurdity on the level of “Tongue-Tied Jill” or “Miss Froggy.” Not only has Richman recreated rock and roll, he has recreated for the listener the purity of the original response to rock and roll. I found the appeal of this album obvious when I first heard it, because it seemed to me what rock and roll was supposed to sound like.
(from his review in July 1977)

As far as the rock mainstream was concerned, Jonathan Richman disappeared in the late 70s, except for the occasional reappearance of Egyptian Reggae as a novelty song on radio shows. His cameos in There’s Something About Mary were a thrill to fans but bemused everyone else. He continued, and continues, to mine the same golden seam of vintage rock and conscious, deliberate innocence, set these days to a solo acoustic guitar, singing to a small but dedicated fanbase across the world.

His fan club site states:

Jojoblog is maintained with respect by fans for fans. Jonathan Richman does not use the internet or own a computer. Any communication from him to the Jojoblog community is sent through his publicist, Debbie Gulyas of Blue Arrow Records.

Journalists seeking interviews are encouraged to write letters to him, to which he replies in longhand.

Jonathan through my years

I started singing Jonathan Richman songs whenever they were tolerated, and more than once my voice was likened to his (flat and nasal, that means). When we moved to Manchester I got to see him a couple of times. Both of these were billed as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, but the original band had long disappeared. The first time there was Jonathan, a massively bearded bassist and a girl who clapped her hands for rhythm and sang harmonies. The second time, there were two guys in identical red shirts playing nylon-string guitars while Jonathan sang and occasionally played sax. Both gigs were filled with love and laughs.

He continued to laud painters with terrible rhymes:

Have you heard about the painter Vincent van Gogh (pronounced ‘go’)?
He loved colour and he let it show
Critics all said ‘What have we here?
The baddest painter since Jan Vermeer!’

The later recorded version followed that line up with a more touching:

Have you seen those last paintings by van Gogh?
Did the sorrow show?
Did it hurt you from the wall?
Did it follow you down the hall?

On YouTube there’s a Dutch TV programme where he says to the audience that he always feels uneasy singing this song in Netherlands because ‘I pronounce the name wrong. If I pronounced it correctly I’d have to say
Have you heard about the painter, Vincent van Gogh (pronounced correctly)
He loved colour and he let it shoch!’

Jonathan comes to town

Many years later Jonathan was booked to play at an Edinburgh venue and a local band, Dominic Waxing Lyrical, were booked by the promoter as a support act. When they turned up to sound-check, Jonathan was adamant that he never had support acts and didn’t want one now. Dominic and the promoter tried to negotiate and the atmosphere grew sullen until Jonathan grudgingly said they could audition for him. Dominic’s band were popular in Edinburgh and this was a bit of an insult; but they wanted the gig and, up till now, had been Jonathan fans, so they performed a couple of their surreal cabaret songs for him. He didn’t seem impressed, saying he preferred upbeat, happy acts and they were ‘a bit Sylvia Plath’ but agreed they could go on. He then got the bus back to his BnB. (The promoter said he insisted on small hotels or family BnB, on public transport routes, no corporate hotel chains and no taxis.) The gig went off well and both acts got a great reception, but I don’t think he’s ever been back.

Some Jonathan gems

It’s really easy to pull out his funny songs for a laugh, but that’s only one side of Jonathan. He can use humour to disarm you and get in an emotional truth. Some of his best songs celebrate youth, summer days and innocent (that word again) enjoyment with the awareness of the loss and nostalgia we feel later in life. Look at That Summer Feeling, where the humour sets you up for the sad truth.

When the cool of the pond makes you wanna drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it
When the teenage car gets the cop down on it
That time is here, for one more year
And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.

Here’s an ‘everything will be all right’ song, with the typical way he used to converse with the backing musicians:

Find out more about Jonathan Richman

If you like Jonathan …

I’ve been likened to him more than once. Some of this album was even described on radio as ‘Jonathan Richman meets Cab Calloway’.  I can’t say if it’s right or not, I admire him too much. Check it out for yourself at no cost!

Header photo: Amy Hope Dermont on Flickr

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