Smile Politely

Jonathan Richman and the Secret of Eternal Youth

Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins at the Highdive 25 October 2008

William: Before the show, sitting among the smallest crowd I’ve ever seen in the Highdive, I wonder how Jonathan Richman would feel about fans like us. We know him as the former bandleader of the original Modern Lovers, a Boston group whose fantastic 1972 demos were released as an album in 1976, by which point the band had split up and Richman had become a California folk singer, considered something of a novelty act. I can’t help but wonder if he would resent us. No artist I know of enjoys the implication that their best work is behind them.

As it turns out, while there is no trace of resentment in Richman’s heart, he is not interested in living in the past.

Cristy: Richman enjoyed modest fame in the late 1990s as a sort of cult hero, written up in college-rock rags and the hipper sections of mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly, due to his appearance and musical contributions to There’s Something About Mary and appearances on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” This, combined with his stint in the Modern Lovers, led me to believe that this show would be a big deal. But it didn’t seem very publicized. Or if it was, promotion was hidden under Death Cab for Cutie and Broken Social Scene posters. Or maybe I’m still stuck in the ‘90s, and people don’t know who he is anymore. As I sat at the bar, disappointed at the low turnout, a friendly man with a husky voice warned us not to yell “Roadrunner” (a Modern Lovers anthem) or Richman might walk off the stage. “He’s a little temperamental,” the man remarked. William and I grimaced in unison. I thought he was Richman’s manager or roadie; turns out he was a die-hard fan. Another eager-looking forty-something heard us talking and said, “He’s very approachable after the shows. He’s a nice guy.”

W: A goateed man with a guitar case walked out onto the bar floor and announced, “They said we can play now so we’re going to play. We ain’t going to play loud so come on up.” About 25 people wandered up to the stage as Jonathan strapped on a guitar and his band—his drummer Tommy—climbed behind the drum kit.

C: Richman was lanky, lean and seemingly boneless as he played guitar. It struck me that he didn’t need a guitar strap; he was so in shape that he could hold his guitar up during songs. His eyes, beady and sparkly black, appeared to knowingly penetrate the audience. Opening with “Let Her Go into the Darkness” (from the soundtrack to There’s Something About Mary), Richman quickly engaged the crowd. As someone more familiar with his early 1970s material with the Modern Lovers, I was astounded that the 57-year-old’s smooth and trembling voice hadn’t changed one bit. It had not been ravaged by the alcohol and nicotine abuse that befalls so many older artists. I’d heard somewhere that Richman was a pretty sober guy. Tonight, it showed: His physical appearance and vocals were pristine. So let that be a lesson to all those wrinkly, bloated classic-rock fossils who croak through their high notes at ill-advised reunion shows: Clean living pays off.

W: I found him sweet, vulnerable and perfectly unpretentious—even when he sang in French, Spanish or Italian, I didn’t think he was trying to show off. The banter and introductions were a delight. He looked in our eyes and smiled at us, transforming the sinisterly chic, blood-lit Highdive into an intimate gathering of friends. His guitar playing was impressively fluent, fluid, but not overly disciplined, bearing traces of classical and flamenco techniques, fingerpicking and strumming, but whenever he felt the need, he’d put it down and say “Tommy!” inviting a polite drum solo from his companion.

C: Richman’s a master at subtle dynamics. With sparse instrumentation—acoustic guitar, Larkins’ drums, and occasional sleigh bells and cowbell—Richman conjures a mix of muted softness and lively expression. Between songs, he was clever and witty, speaking in a tough New England accent that betrayed his wide-eyed, childlike singing. He sang several tracks from his new release, Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild, including the title track, a rumination on being comfortable in one’s own skin; and “When We Refuse to Suffer,” a gentle caution that, without human suffering, we can’t experience joy. His “No One Was Like Vermeer”—a straightforward tribute to the Dutch painter of the masterpiece “Girl With a Pearl Earring”—would seem like a tongue-in-cheek novelty performed by a band like They Might Be Giants; but with Richman, it was pure and true.

W: He looked worried at times, and other times he would smile as if a private thought had relieved him for a moment of his sorrow. He seems so proud when he plays a real rock lick—a simple, tough melody—he grins like a kid, eyes still a bit worried that he might not pull it off again. He has a restless, multilingual, self-deprecating intelligence and an open heart. I sense a sadness that his music is a struggle against.

As the set unfolded, a philosophy emerged from the songs. “When we refuse to suffer,” he sang, “when we refuse to feel, we suffer more, because our lives become boring and grey.” I began to understand why he didn’t play his most famous songs, why his singing always had almost a stutter that sounded like he was making up the words on the spot. He walked to the edge of the stage, gesturing with both hands, for a sincere explanation: “Audience, whatever me and Tommy do up here, it has to be fresh. Even if you wrote a song two hours ago, it might be stale. You can’t play it unless you feel it.” Then he sang a song in Spanish that I think was about hot and cold bread. He sings another song with the words “ancient habits have left us stultified… How to rebel against the habits that have trained us too well?” He is singing about what Zen practitioners call mindfulness; he is instructing us to live life, feel, suffer and keep each moment fresh. “He gave us the wine to taste it. So don’t criticize and waste it.” Well, he is singing about all that, and his love of women. Unexpectedly, he did a song from the Modern Lovers album: “Old World.” Only the lyrics seemed to have changed, and he was bidding the old world goodbye, no longer interested in keeping his place in it.

Jonathan Richman, you’re the guy I want to be with, drinking cherry Coke on an early Saturday night. You and Tommy and me and Cristy and about forty of our friends.

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