Smile Politely

The best of both worlds with Jonathan Richman

As per the norm, when I first set out to cover tomorrow’s Jonathan Richman show, I began by seeking an interview with the musician. Research garnered a little history on Richman, and I learned that he is particular about interviews with the press. Not only does he not do phone interviews, but he also does not care for electronic communication. In fact, Richman is known for occasionally responding to interview questions by mailing his answers. Yes, a snail mail letter. A piece of paper and a pencil, even. As it happens, this time around, an interview was not meant to be. But the fact that Jonathan Richman likes to respond to interviews via an actual tangible letter struck a chord with me. There are still some people willing to forego the plastic-electronic overstimulation of the modern world in lieu of simpler, purer methods and means. Doing that is hard, and those people are rare. That makes them awesome.

Jonathan Richman has lived most of his life following this type of philosophy. He’s chosen not to utilize many forms of modern technology and instead focuses on a more stripped-down, uncomplicated, clean existence. By reputation, he has been completely sober for large portions of his life, including his rock and roll youth. Richman was the force behind 1970s rock act The Modern Lovers, who are widely accepted as one of the quintessential proto-punk bands. Their eponymous and only album, released in 1976, sent ripples throughout the rock music world, influencing a huge range of musicians and groups, from the Sex Pistols to Brian Eno to Galaxie 500 and on. Tracks from that pivotal album have been covered by rock music’s biggest gods, such as said Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, John Cale, Joan Jett, and many more. Yes, everybody who’s anybody can be connected to the small handful of chords and wild abandon of the album’s lead track, “Roadrunner.”

But there’s something about “Roadrunner” that doesn’t jive with the jaded rock star decadence that characterizes the decade it came from. The song is simple, yes, but it’s also sincere, and almost innocent. There’s no cynicism, no sneer. Just a dude in love with the radio. Just like The Velvet Underground’s “Jenny, when she was five years old.”

In his youth, Richman was a diehard fan of The Velvets, who were then a fledgling group starting to make waves in New York. He was so enamored with them that he left his native Massachusetts for NYC and sought out their manager directly. The Modern Lovers ended up recording some sessions with VU’s John Cale, which was the birth of some of their best songs, including “Roadrunner.” Although the partnership didn’t last, Richman’s fandom for the band is eternal, and lines between the two acts are forever intertwined. It’s clear that the Velvets’ Loaded, released in 1970, had a huge impact on him, and he’s always been very open about his fandom. There isn’t a single VU fan who could hate on his tribute song from his essential solo release I, Jonathan, especially when he breaks into a Velvets-esque impression verse. It’s spot-on, and just gold.

And yes, it’s clear that a good portion of Richman and the Modern Lover’s allure is somewhat vicarious. Falling under the category of “proto-punk” necessitates a connection with The Velvets, who will always be the genre’s kernel. Hell, it’s pretty hard to study any good music in existence at all and not catch at least a whiff of them. Much of the contemporary music world is forever indebted to The Velvet Underground, and that’s perfectly fine. Richman’s love for them is strong, but the music of The Modern Lovers, and especially of Richman’s solo work, is not the same as that of his favorite band. It doesn’t have the dirt, drugs, or disillusionment, or any of all that carrying on and such. Instead, his lyrics are kind, unassuming, and lighthearted. He likes life, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

The Modern Lovers is a compilation album consisting of demo tracks recorded by the band at various points in the early 70s. By the time of the ‘76 release, the band had already been broken up for a few years. Creative differences consisted primarily of Richman’s desire to come away from the loud, complex style of their earlier tracks, opting instead for softer, mostly acoustic music. The self-titled album was a success, which meant that labels, producers, and even bandmates were reluctant to abandon that approach. When the group disbanded, Richman took to making solo work backed by a new band. The album Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers is full of light, charming, fanciful songs, many of which could have been written for children. It was released the same year as The Modern Lovers, and marked a definitive end to the original lineup. Members of that lineup went on to play with other legendary acts, such as Talking Heads and The Cars, but the band would not reunite.

Richman has consistently produced solo material for four decades now. His songs are often light and clean, and can also be contemplative and wistful. He often chooses romance for his subject and instills global sounds and themes into his instrumentation. His stuff is almost always acoustic, with a sort of child-like vulnerability that is clearly important to him. When it comes to his artistic vision, Richman has always been steadfast. It takes immense talent to channel the beautifully raw and sloppy raunchiness of one of rock’s original bands, and then slough off the deviance and cynicism that comes with the territory, just like burdens, as they so often are. He often chooses the subject of the old world versus the new, and questions his place in either. It’s Richman’s sincere, unassuming nature that is so brilliant. That is why his letter-writing is so grand – he puts on no airs. He hasn’t in many years. His place is neither in the old world nor the new. It’s in the BEST world, and he’ll define that however he pleases.

If you are to attend his show, know that he will probably not play any Modern Lovers songs. He seldom does, and generally doesn’t care to. That part of his life is behind him, and he’s content with that. What you will find at his show is a modest, wide-eyed, unassuming fellow who changed music history forever. And, if you were to tell him that, he would probably just give you a boyish grin and keep strumming.   


Jonathan Richman is playing The Accord Saturday, April 1st, at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance/$18 at the door.

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