Sign up for our newsletters    

Baltimore City Paper home page.

Jonathan Richman, philosopher, comes to Golden West

February 22, 2013
By

Credit Rory Earnshaw

History has shown that it takes roughly three sentences for an article on Jonathan Richman to mention his ‘naive’, ‘childlike’ persona and lyrical voice.  I just did it in one.  But with Jonathan Richman playing Golden West Cafe on February 23rd and 24th (the second was added after the first sold out in a flash), I wanted to float a theory that Jonathan Richman conceals  a more grown-up agenda behind his disarming songs about abominable snowmen in supermarkets and odes to shitty cars and crushing on bank tellers.  Maybe it’s just that I don’t trust children, but when an artist goes from a song like “Pablo Picasso,” (who, if you didn’t know, “was never called an asshole/Not like you.”) to “I’m a Little Airplane,” I begin to believe that some sort of submerged philosophy is at work.

The beginning of Jonathan’s music odyssey is traditionally dated back to his rabid enthusiasm– I am unsure if he experiences enthusiasm of any other sort– for the Velvet Underground, who he stayed with in the late ’60s and early ’70s, supposedly seeing them live around a hundred times.  From that jumping off point Jonathan returned to his native Boston, Massachusetts to found the seminal proto-punk act the Modern Lovers with Jerry Harrison of future Talking Heads fame, David Robinson of future Cars fame, and Ernie Brooks of future mention in Wikipedia fame. As Jonathan would later recount in his hilarious “Monologue About Bermuda,” the band thought their single chord droning and general cacophony was pretty important, but Jonathan wanted to move on to a quieter, less directly confrontational and more lyrical style.

The sonic aesthetic switch that appeared on Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers in 1977 was a thumb in the eyes of the punks who valued the original Modern Lovers for their volume and violence.  Instead of decrying the decadent excess of hippies, these new Modern Lovers defended Martians from suspicions rooted in intragalactic xenophobia, abominable snowmen from the soft power of communal norms, and closed out the album with an earnest cover of “Amazing Grace.”  Jonathan Richman retained his earlier thematic concern of defending personal autonomy in the face of peer pressure, but also focused on the importance of tolerance and open mindedness as praiseworthy social values.  This stood directly opposed to the increasingly anti-social music of groups like the Sex Pistols while revealing the new norms of the punk scene.  While some might have confused the songs of the first edition of the Modern Lovers for loogie-hocking music, no one could think that of Jonathan’s “New England.” Jonathan Richman’s charismatically carefree persona presented on his late ’70s albums dared the listener to rain on his parade.  By combining broad moral lessons and silly subject matter with songs full of personal detail, he was creating space for himself and others to embrace themselves.

The 1980s saw Jonathan Richman continuing with his idiosyncratic defense of the mess that is humanity from its own social policing.  In “The Neighbors,” from the outstanding Jonathan Sings!, he sings a duet about the ways platonic relationships between men and women are actually hindered by communal assumptions about the primacy of romantic love.  On Jonathan Goes Country he proselytized for traveling by bus and taking romantic trips to Reno, Nevada, both of which– along with embracing country music itself for that matter– have strong anti-classist implications.

The lyrical themes that Jonathan Richman developed over his career are backed by his preferred method of touring.  From the full band assault of the first Modern Lovers, Jonathan’s evolution has been increasingly minimal, moving from a full band to a full acoustic band to just Jonathan, an acoustic guitar, and a drummer with a limited kit.  This presentation is sparse, economical and allows for the Jonathan to move outside of the confines of the traditional rock show by incorporating lengthy monologues that border on stand-up performance.  Even after experiencing a divorce, remarriage, the death of his mother, aging, and his own version of the Never Ending Tour Jonathan Richman can still summon up the visceral joy that has defined his career.  It has mutated over time, but Jonathan Richman still defends the happy autonomy of being your own odd self.

Tags:

  • Adam Tebrugge

    Outstanding analysis of the great JR

  • Jem

    Night 2 has been moved to Metro Gallery.

  • http://www.antidotalevidence.tumblr.com Michelle

    This article is brilliant.