Monday, 16 May 2011

Jonathan Richman is 60

Dear Jonathan
Happy 60th birthday. There’s no one else like you. I know you moved to NYC at the age of 18 just so you could watch the Velvet Underground every chance you got because they had something you’d never heard before that lit a fuse. We all know that Brian Eno once said “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”, but we also know that no one ever formed a band like The Modern Lovers.

Sterling Morrison reminisced about you coming to all the VU gigs and said that “if the Velvet Underground has a protege, it would be Jonathan”. John Cale of the VU produced The Modern Lovers in 1972 and, ok, the baton was handed over then, but you were different to all the other Velvets-influenced bands. Where others hitched a ride on the lysergic mythology, you wrote a song called Hospital about a girl overdosing on drugs and your agonised wait that included the observation “I go to bakeries all day long/There’s a lack of sweetness in my life”.

In your 1992 Velvet Underground eulogy, you sang: “Well you could look at that band/And at first sight/Say that certain rules about modern music/Wouldn't apply tonight”. That’s what the young Jonathan Richman got, the teenager who used to run through Boston parks at night shouting “I’m not a hippy! I’m not stoned”.

With that same spirit you followed the proto-punk of your debut with an album of songs such as Here Come The Martian Martians and Hey There Little Insect. Although four years had elapsed since the John Cale recordings, and there was a very different sound, your freshness (I don’t ever think you’re naive; I always think you’re seeing the world for the first time through the eyes of a child) and your outsider status (again, I don’t think you make ‘outsider art’; I think you make music on the impulses that other people have when they first pick up a guitar but lose as soon as they form a band – “just like kids on a school vacation”, as you once sang) it was still a record only you could have made.

Of course, in between the making of those very different (but similar) albums, you wrote to Creem magazine setting out your musical stall:

I love the doo-wop and girl group pop that informs so much of your music from the mid-70s to the mid-80s (celebration and heartbreak in equal measure – like the Ramones, only much better). Your backing singers were called the Rockin’ Robins after Bobby Day’s 1958 hit; and if I have a favourite JoJo period, then it’s 1980-82 when the Rockin’ Robins – Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington – were in the band. Yeah, I know you didn’t release any records in this period and I was way too young to have seen you then, but the live recordings are amazing and you, all of people, Jonathan, will allow a guy some romantic notion, right?

I look at your discography from 1976 to 2010 and it’s as close to perfection as ninety-nine is to a hundred. And all the records are so different! There’s a little VU here and there (you never forgot “Twangy sounds of the cheapest types/Sounds as stark as black and white stripes”), Latin American rhythms, Chuck Berry rock’n’roll, straight-up pop, country rock, palm wine music, full band action, solo introspection, even two albums in Spanish.

There’s only one person who could write a country song called Reno about getting a babysitter so you can have a romantic weekend away (you’d never shoot a man to watch him die, natch); no one else who could write a song about a goth (Vampire Girl) with the line “Is she in heaven? Is she in hell? Is she a sex industry professional?” then discover she’s a massive fan of yours; and no one else who could write a love song to Paris (Give Paris One More Chance) and include in a tableau of the city of Piaf and Chevalier the image of “boys singing Bee Gees songs under the skies/And on the steps of the Montmartre they harmonise”.

I look back at some albums and realise that I didn’t always take to them immediately. But then I remember the gently chiding words in That Summer Feeling, “Do you long for her or for the way you were?”, and understand that it’s me that’s at fault for standing still and that your changes were right. For example, I recall that while I didn’t take to Not So Much To Love As To Be Loved for a while after its release in 2004 I now love it.

So while I do hanker for you to make another full-band album, and to see you play in a set up with more musicians than just Tommy Larkins on the drums (it’s been 15 years since I last saw you with a full band), there are other aspects of your live performances that touch me deeply. Like that time in autumn 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks, when you walked on to the stage in front of 2,000 people at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, alone. Then, in the dark, you sang Not In My Name a cappella. It brought the house down. I can still to this day feel that atmosphere.

My friends were in a band called The Lucksmiths and they were supporting you that night. I’d just been laid off, so when they suggested, seeing as I was at a loose end, that I travel round with them for the other dates, I happily did so. The next night of the tour in Birmingham we – you and Tommy, The Lucksmiths, me – were sitting backstage. Conversation was awkward and stilted.

Maybe nerves were playing a part. I know that Mark from The Lucksmiths three favourite bands are The Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and Jonathan Richman (no particular order – just those three, any way you like). Anyway, I remembered a Q&A you’d done with Rolling Stone a couple of years before. The one point in the article that struck me most was that you were working for free as an apprentice stonemason. I asked you about it.

You got really animated and started talking. Tali, The Lucksmiths singer, had recently done some stonemasonry in Croatia as a charity volunteer, so he chipped in with some of the technical questions. Everything eased back and soon we were all chatting.

The next night in Manchester I pulled some tour posters off the wall and we all got them signed. As I was doing the merch stall that night, I requested that you dedicate the poster to The New Teller. You refused because The New Teller was an actual person and I was definitely not that person. I liked that. A few years later in a house move, I lost the poster. Either that or the girl that I’d broken up with took it – maybe by mistake, you understand. That might explain why I found a Dubstar poster rolled up in my belongings.

She wasn’t a fan of yours. That wasn’t what ended that relationship, but I really should’ve checked that she liked you first before embarking on that affair. There are always people who don’t get you. I sometimes wonder if the Farrelly Brothers, who’ve cast you in their films, most famously There’s Something About Mary, regard you as a goofball in their arsenal of comedy pratfalls, rather than as someone who, in the words of your biographer Tim Mitchell, uses “the absolute candour of his self-expression, often to the cost of risking inspire into his listeners the certainty that what they’re hearing is the truth”.

Likewise, I bet there are thousands of self-styled rock archivists who speak in hushed tones about Bob Dylan but wouldn’t give you a second thought. They must lead grey lives, right? I’m not trying to start a fight with classic rock fans, but hope they can recognise that to prefer JoJo to Dylan isn’t a quirk or a deliberately oppositional stance to the canon; more reasonably, it seems from my point of view the natural state for the pop fan who’s always seeking something fresh, honest and disarming, regardless of orthodoxy.

Those words from Roadrunner, recorded in 1972, ring as true as ever: “Now I’m in love with my own loneliness/It doesn’t bother me to feel so alone/At least I’m not staying home alone/I’m out exploring the modern world”.

Happy birthday, Jonathan. Keep the records and the gigs coming. I and many others like that Vampire Girl (“Who would have predicted? Who woulda suspected? She's not so scary she's got all of my records”) will always be there.
Bye bye,


  1. This is without doubt the best blog posting I've read in a long while!

    cheers, brogues