Jonathan Richman throws a cell phone-free fiesta
In 1969, an 18-year-old Bostonian named Jonathan Richman, inspired by the sound of the Velvet Underground, started a band called The Modern Lovers. The group had several iterations, but at one point featured future Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and future Cars drummer David Robinson.
Roughly 46 years later, on Nov. 12, Jonathan Richman performed at The Great Hall in Toronto accompanied solely by a classical guitar and long-time drummer Tommy Larkins.
Photo Credit/ Jonathunder
Richman’s career kicked off with the single “Roadrunner,” which was seen as a lead in to the punk movement, with the Sex Pistols being one of the first groups to cover it. In 2013, (now Boston Mayor) Marty Walsh campaigned for “Roadrunner” to be the Massachusetts state song, though Richman insisted the song didn’t deserve the distinction.
Richman (or more accurately, Jonathan) developed a voice that didn’t resemble those that influenced and followed him. Unlike other punk pieces, Jonathan’s early songs didn’t vent rage, but expressed a yearning to help. In “Government Centre,” he pines for bored secretaries and bureaucrats. In “Here Come the Martian Martians,” he worries about Martians that have “notebooks in their little hands, [because] they’re still strangers in this land.”
Some of Jonathan’s early songs have an explicitly childlike innocence to them. In live performances of “I’m a Little Dinosaur,” Jonathan would crawl around on all fours as the dinosaur and proclaim his intention to “go away” because no one cares about him.
Fans of The Modern Lovers should know that Richman’s contemporary set lists do not include songs like “Abominable Snowmen in the Market,” “Back in Your Life,” “New England,” or any of the aforementioned titles for that matter. Instead, they feature “dark” songs from the ’80s onwards— “These Bodies that Have Come to Cavort,” “Vampire Girl/Vampiresa Mujer,” “If We Refuse to Suffer,” and “Let Her Go Into the Darkness.”
One could joke that Jonathan has gone from being a child in his twenties to a brooding teenager in his sixties. But while Jonathan’s music has changed, his soul has not. The opening act for the Nov. 12 performance was a clown/magician, a perfect tribute to Jonathan’s childlike style.
What followed was not so much a concert but a piece of performance art. Jonathan, with his instantly recognizable Bambi-esque eyes, played a stream of sound that quoted “Let Her Go Into the Darkness,” “That Summer Feeling,” and “Old World,” while regularly interrupting the music with spoken interjections and guitar riffs. He maintained this style throughout his set. The songs flowed into one another. His speech didn’t come across as introductory or transitional, but as part of this musical stream of consciousness itself.
This dreamlike quality of Jonathan’s set was deepened by his interest in foreign languages. Jonathan’s singing would often flow into Spanish. He told us not to worry about an upcoming set of Italian lyrics, as they were just 17 ways of saying “you’re welcome at the party.” He followed that up with “La Fiesta es Para Todos” (the Spanish version of the same concept), which was in turn followed up by a Hebrew and Arabic song that once again reinforced his message—his concerts are just big parties and everyone is welcome.
While his style has changed, Jonathan maintains his old quirks including celebrating his child-like inattentiveness (“Soy un niño distraido”), and putting down his guitar to dance (often the drums were the only instrument playing). And while the set was not hit-based, he made sure to please the crowd with a (mostly intact) rendition of “Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” a song about dancing free of judgement. Jonathan closed the set with “Take Me to the Plaza,” a song about his refusal to use cell phones and “those typewriters with TVs attached.”
I emailed Jonathan who responded in handwriting, as he indeed doesn’t use computers. I asked if the persona built up in his songs is a different man than he is, and he said no. Given Jonathan’s tendency to break into silly voices and sing comic lyrics, his answer makes an interesting point about what art get labeled as “realism.” Jonathan’s songs challenge the view that mainstream, love song-based pop is realistic. It’s his act, with its unabashed displays of his feelings, stream of consciousness, and playfulness, that truly celebrates the unfiltered human condition.
Hopefully Jonathan will return to Toronto in the not-too-distant future. While his shows may rattle those with rigid expectations, rock ’n’ roll aficionados, should take the chance to have a near-intimate experience with this uncelebrated punk legend, who mid-show may hand out a few free CDs (and I have no idea if they were his recordings, or just arbitrary pieces from his collection). Whether he’s babbling incomplete sentences, serenading the sun in Spanish, or singing songs about Keith Richards and Vermeer—complete with historical annotations—“No One Was [or is] Like [Jonathan Richman].”