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 Everett True

Jonathan Richman

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In response to a request from a friend on Twitter, I’ve collected together some of my more recent writings about Jonathan. And from tomorrow, you can listen to an incredible early demo of ‘The Morning Of Our Lives’ over here.

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(from Plan B #18, originally printed in The Stranger)

I first heard Jonathan Richman back in ‘82.

It was when I was sharing a tiny one-bedroom flat in South East London with my friend Aggi. Every evening after work, I would rush home to paste down some more Girls Annual illustrations among enthusiastic words about The Go-Betweens and early Creation acts like Mod acolytes Jasmine Minks and the Byrds-ian Revolving Paint Dream for my fanzine The Legend!, using spray mount borrowed from my work-place. I was a silkscreen printer. Aggi studied fine art at Camberwell College just up the road.

Not owning a television, evenings were either spent listening to bands like The Undertones, Soft Cell and Orange Juice, or pretending to write the odd song. I had a fledgling career as a shy, unobtrusive songwriter back then, you see, writing songs which, in retrospect, were quite alarming in both the directness of their sentiments and lack of melody.

The bond which linked myself and Aggi was very simple: we were both fans of her boyfriend Stephen’s band The Pastels, who, back then, were a wonderfully naïve, Postcard-influenced, jangling pop band. I couldn’t resist Stephen’s deep, affected, off-key voice, nor Brian’s carefully spelt out guitar solos. It seemed that The Pastels spoke directly to me and to me alone. The honor was reciprocated: The Pastels were some of the very few people who’ve ever liked my songs.

One weekend, Stephen came to visit. Among other things, he had a tape of Jonathan Richman singing live.

“Here, listen to this Jerry,” he said, handing me the cassette. “You remind me a little of him. The way he sings with only the barest of accompaniments. The directness of his love songs. His naivety. The way most people don’t understand him. He’s a big influence on The Pastels, too. I think you’ll really like this.”

So I listened.

Stephen was being way too kind, of course. Yes, there were distinct similarities between the unadorned simplicity of Jonathan’s songs and my own, the way neither of us seemed to much like the dull thunderous roar of drums and electric guitars obscuring our songs, although both of us were definitely in love with rock’n’roll. But that’s about where it ended.

Jonathan had such a voice, such a way round a low key melody and turn of emotive phrase. When he sang, it seemed like you could hear the tinkle of magic from somewhere outside the grimy windows and grey skies, the promise that not all pop stars were arrogant, self-loving bores. When he sang, it suddenly made it OK to be male and sensitive. It was fine to find beauty in the insignificant details.

I listened spellbound as this American who seemed so fragile, so special, sang tales of being scorned by girls and hipsters alike in his home of Boston, MA, accompanied by nothing more than an acoustic guitar, and occasional applause. I can remember the songs he played even now: ‘New England’, ‘Astral Plane’, ‘Government Center’ and the life-enriching ‘The Morning Of Our Lives’. All of these songs intoxicated me with their gentle grace, their joyous, naive rush of sympathy and solace. Most especially, however, there was ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste’, Jonathan’s plea from the other side of the generational divide, which the man sung a cappella, stark, chilling and very, very moving. I have never forgotten that experience.

In 1998, I was living in Seattle and, against my better judgment, I went along to see the smash hit kooky comedy There’s Something About Mary. The film was pretty good actually. My biggest pleasure came when I saw my very own gentle genius strolling along between scenes, playing guitar, acting as the singing narrator, still as charming, winsome and naive as ever.

Just because he sings quietly doesn’t mean you should underestimate him.

Jonathan Richman is one of the giants of rock’n’roll.

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(from Careless Talk Costs Lives #4)

Jonathan Richman
Tractor Tavern, Seattle

He’s not wearing a guitar strap.

How could he? It would destroy the fluidity of his dancing; dropping to his knees, twirling his acoustic, resting a foot on a handily-positioned paint pot; a flamenco flourish here, a strutted samba there; high kicking, low kicking; dropping his guitar altogether and pointing straight to his heart; urging us all onwards with his eyes and broad smile, eyebrows arched; the very picture of projected happiness; never lost for a description of New York in the springtime, switching from French to Italian through arguments in Tel Aviv and Damascas with deceptive ease; clacking together electrified blocks and adjusting the soundboard to allow drummer Tommy Larkins even more clarity; shouting across to the side to close the back door.

This is my kind of heaven: two low-key shows from the man whose witty, poignant and minimalist vision of rock’n’roll has helped inform almost everything that I have loved about music ever since he started strumming his guitar, over three decades ago. Jonathan is in love with an ideal of rock’n’roll that ceased to exist the moment the Colonels took over from the street corner balladeers. Me too.

This is pure. This is precious.

The two nights blur into one: Jonathan leads the audience in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, Jonathan asks us plaintively “Will we return to our drab and stagnant ways?” while people laugh anyway, Jonathan blesses us under the sign of the cross after a gorgeous extended version of ‘My Baby Loves Me Now’ from the new album, Jonathan causes fans to chuckle afresh at stories he first told 30 years ago (‘Girlfren’, ‘Pablo Picasso’, wherein the troubadour makes great play of refusing to rhyme “Picasso” with “asshole” because – what d’ya know – it doesn’t!). Personally, I could’ve taken a little more of the incisive two-minute pop of ‘Give Paris One More Chance’ and a little less cutesy ‘Lesbian Bar’ banter: but there again, it’s a thrill to see Jonathan dance. (He was the first person ever to dance to Ramones.) Also, this artist continues to grow and refresh anew each time he breaks into one more false ending for (the tear-jerking) ‘Let Her Go’, each time Tommy shoots him a sidelong glance and teases a few minutes out the snare.

Earlier, I was asked if I’m ever nervous before interviews: Yoko Ono at the Dakota is my standard reply. Add to that, Jonathan at a friendly, warm Seattle pub venue: completely unprepossessing and able to make every audience member feel he’s serenading them alone. I’m unable to say hi. He’s an entertainer – and the mask may not be the reality. (Although a rare glimpse into the dressing room shows Jonathan and Tommy wreathed in smiles.) I don’t want to break the spell.

The fact neither night is sold out (whereas such achingly ordinary-by-comparison shows by Neko Case and Iron & Wine, at larger venues, are) is not a damning indictment of anything. It just shows how special Jonathan is, that he continues to entertain and perform for us: and for us alone.

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(from Drowned In Sound, written October 2008)

Something old, something new – fit the second: The Modern Lovers
Words: Everett True

In the context of the present, this is where I’d place the classic 1976 album, The Modern Lovers

Customary disclaimer: I’m not saying any of these influences are deliberate – um, apart from The Wave Pictures, that is, who started life as a Modern Lovers covers band – just that I’ve been around the block several too many times and can hear elements of all music in all other music, and hence have difficulty sorting same. Understood? Good.

Also, please note: there’s considerable confusion over which album is actually called The Modern Lovers – there are about four or five that could legitimately lay claim to its title. Don’t worry too much if you pick up the wrong one. All are classic. For the sake of simplicity, though, please can we take this particular The Modern Lovers to be the collection of demos Beserkley posthumously (don’t ask) released as the Boston, MA band’s debut album in 1976. It contains ‘Pablo Picasso’, ‘She Cracked’, ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘I’m Straight’ – and, despite being gentle, upbeat music, inspired by early Velvet Underground, growing up in Massachusetts, dating problems and classic US rock radio, directly influenced bands as disparate as The Sex Pistols, The Pastels, Minor Threat, Galaxie 500 and…well, anyone who’s ever understood the joy of unpretentious, stripped-back, un-macho rock’n’roll (which counts out The Clash and Oasis then).

• three parts Herman Düne
It’s not like David-Ivar and Néman deny Modern Lovers’ singer Jonathan Richman’s influence. In fact, they embrace comparisons with a wholehearted fervour. You can trace his genial, good-natured observation, and adoration for the sweet Sixties harmonies of girl groups like The Shangri-La’s and The Ronettes, all over the Düne’s 2007 album Giant (particularly at the start of the horn-sweetened ‘Take Him Back To New York City’) and their forthcoming Next Year In Zion. “It’s all done in a very natural way, I hope,” explains David-Ivar. “If someone’s heard Chuck Berry for the first time, they’re not going to play the guitar badly deliberately just because Chuck Berry was a good guitar player. They’re going to draw influences from him.”

• three parts The Wave Pictures
Their titles give the game away, even before you hear The Wave Pictures’ genial guitar solos and eloquently-phrased lyrics: “We Dress Up Like Snowmen”…“Happy Pancake Day”…“Just Like A Drummer”…“Instant Coffee Baby”. This is pure Richman territory: slightly naïve, always hopeful, but tinged with regret and an adolescent yearning that never quite fades. Drums aren’t seen as a challenge. Silence is utilised as a fourth – or fifth – instrument.

• one part Los Campesinos!
On cursory listen, you might think über-twee Cardiff popsters Los Campesinos!’ effervescent, full-on noise-bounce has little to do with Mr Richman’s admirable restraint and wide-eyed way of looking at the world (“Ice Cream Man”, “That Summer Feeling”, et al). Listen again. Who do you think single-handedly invented the ‘International Tweexcore Underground’ way back in ’74 (and without whom, The Pastels, Pavement and a thousand others would have existed in entirely different forms)? “When I was a child, I spoke as a child,” some dude once said, “but when I became a man, I put away childish things”. Uh-huh. Not these days, they don’t.

• four parts Jeremy Jay
Some artists, you feel it’s impossible to have friends who don’t dig them. Mr Richman, for one: that debut album is sharp (in a way that his latter material never quite matched), anti-establishment (see the hippie-deriding “I’m Straight”, written at the start of the Seventies), poignant and recorded on virtually no budget – much like most of the greatest rock’n’roll (debut Nirvana, White Stripes, Animals, Beatles, etc). New K signing Jeremy Jay – from Angel Town next to Larchmont: blonde, handsome and wants a cat for his apartment – sings, echo- and fuzz- and silenced-drenched like forgotten Eighties teen sensation Ziro Baby of The Tronics: that is, three parts Jonathan Richman, one part Buddy Holly and one part Richie Valens. And the surf guitar on this debut A Place Where We Could Go was probably recorded for three bits and a pepperoni pizza. It doesn’t make it any less than incredible, though.

• one part Winston Echo
Mr Winston Echo, resident of Northampton, obscure antifolk talent (and, considering how obscure UK antifolk is – we’re talking very obscure here) and with a fondness for writing songs inspired by monster parties, bureau de change desk clerks and awkwardness, is inspired by equal parts Lesbo Pig, Daniel Johnston, Television Personalities, The Pastels and Jonathan Richman. Or – in us old folks’ parlance –Jonathan Richman, Jonathan Richman, Jonathan Richman, Jonathan Richman and Jonathan Richman.

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Someone later pointed out that this list is much better-suited to one of Jonathan’s later albums, say 1979’s Back In Your Life or 1983’s Jonathan Sings!, pointing out that The Modern Lovers is a “dark, brooding, seminal album”. They wrote: “The first album was a love letter to The Velvet Underground, the silliness didn’t come ’til later. ‘Ice Cream Man’ etc have their place, but not in a discussion about this album which actually was a major influence on nascent punk. If you want to discuss twee you’ve picked the wrong album.”

It’s a fair point, which I acknowledged immediately. I wrote back that perhaps I was guilty of falling into the trap I pointed out in my intro, of unconsciously writing about one of the other ‘Modern Lovers’ albums. The first album is indeed separate to what followed. Although if my correspondent truly believes that none of the bands that I listed as being influenced by Jonathan Richman don’t have their dark and brooding moments, he’s really missed the point.

6 Responses to Jonathan Richman

  1. alistair October 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    the first piece was also ‘published’ in 1999 on Tangents: http://www.tangents.co.uk/tangents/main/pre-2001/richman.html

    Not sure if that was pre or post the Stranger publication? (and not that it matters!)

  2. Everett True October 28, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    “post” … but printed in two of my favourite publications ain’t bad!

  3. Darragh October 28, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Richman is a absolute hero of mine.

    I got to see him this year while I was living in New York. Was awesome!!!

    Review here: http://parallel-lines-slow-decline.blogspot.com/2010/02/jonathan-richman-music-hall-of.html

  4. mary cigarettes October 29, 2010 at 8:30 am

    funny how music made on no budget,holding forth completely on it’s own lyrical and musical strength, stands the tests of times so much better than the records which were born with big silver spoons in their mouths.

  5. laura November 2, 2010 at 4:20 am

    thank you for this! your writing really captures that wonderful and poignant feeling that i felt when i saw him play. i feel like he’s still so much with me!

  6. casperfandango September 21, 2011 at 11:04 am

    The phrase ‘no budget’ seems to come up a lot, and certainly it usually fits. But in regards to Jonathan Richman, it’s important to remember that even the demos that make up the first Modern Lovers record were produced by Kim Fowley and John Cale, relatively well-known figures who must have had some access to funds and studios that were better than a four-track in the bedroom. I just don’t want us to get too carried away with romanticizing a falsehood. Low budget, maybe, but with connections. This should not take one iota of wonder away from those great recordings.

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