Suburban Trees, Suburban Speed
On not interviewing Jonathan Richman, the elusive bard of Boston.
By Jim Hanas
When the folks at the record label told me I wouldn't be getting an interview with Jonathan Richman, at first I was disappointed. But then I read some interviews with the former Modern Lovers frontman and I became almost grateful.
Richman doesn't really do interviews, even when he does them. The tape rolls, questions are asked, something like an interview occurs, but interviewers walk away with next to no information about their interviewee. Richman evades; he changes the subject; he says he'd rather not say. All of this very pleasantly, but still: If there's a tiny corner of hell set aside for rock journalists, and surely there is, it probably includes eternal, frustrating access to Jonathan.
What makes this elusiveness particularly frustrating in Richman's case is that he's one of the more puzzling figures in rock-and-roll to begin with -- a person from whom we would like some answers.
Now how is it again that listening to the jaded strains of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" led you to write a song as achingly, charmingly sincere as "Girlfriend"? What's with all the songs about Martians and dinosaurs and Abominable Snowmen? Why the bashfulness in interviews when your songs already bare your soul for all to see?
"It wasn't the lyrics," Richman sort of explains, answering my first question in scrawled response to several faxed to him via Vapor Records, his label of the moment. "It was the sound. And the way they improvised on stage."
Of the 500 people who, according to time-honored rock-crit cliché, bought the first Velvet Underground album and all started bands, Richman may be the most interesting and he's certainly the oddest. He makes no bones about his debt to V.U. -- he moved from his native Boston to New York to be near the band at the age of 18. "They had a big effect on young Richman," he reflects in a 1988 auto-bio. "Yes, he admired their sincerity, their dark sound, and their ability to improvise both lyrics and music onstage."
The odd part is that the Modern Lovers, the band Richman formed back in Boston after being inspired in New York, didn't sound all that much like V.U., like maybe young Richman hadn't bought the same record as the other 499 fans-turned-band-leaders after all. While a familiar jangly drone lurks not far from the surface throughout their repertoire, what darkness there is comes not from jaded frustration but from a frustration with jadedness. Richman's songs aren't about smack and sado-masochism but about being young in the suburbs, hopeful yet lonely, sincere and nostalgic for a time before the excesses and aloof hipsterism of the early '70s.
"To me, rock-and-roll was about stuff that was natural anyway," Richman explained a few years ago in a PBS documentary on the history of rock-and-roll. "It wasn't about drugs and space. It was about sex and boyfriends and girlfriends and stuff."
And although Richman doesn't remember saying that -- "I don't think I said that, did I?" he's written here in the margins of my faxed questions, "I forget what I did say but that doesn't sound familiar" -- it's hard to imagine who else could have.
The Modern Lovers' stripped-down sound and lyrical directness went on to have a profound effect on the development of punk. In an interview, Johnny Rotten claimed to hate all music except for "Roadrunner," a Modern Lovers classic which the Sex Pistols covered on the soundtrack to The Great Rock and Roll Swindle . Drummer David Robinson and keyboardist Jerry Harrison went on to join the Cars and the Talking Heads, respectively, but by the time punk actually rolled around, the Lovers had long broken up and Richman himself had set out in a different direction, distancing himself even from The Modern Lovers, the essential album culled from demo-tapes and released in 1976, several years after the band's demise.
"People who wonder why I'm not that proud of The Modern Lovers LP," Richman explains in the aforementioned bio, "should know that on a good night we did 'Roadrunner' 10 times better than you ever heard it recorded."
Richman continued to use the Modern Lovers moniker through several records for the Berserkley label, but by the late-'70s he had unplugged from the garage-rock sound of the original Lovers. His new songs alternated between heartfelt ballads like "Affection" and "My Love Is A Flower (Just Beginning To Bloom)" to near-nursery-rhymes like "Here Come The Martian Martians" and "Abominable Snowman In The Market."
The childlike wonder and naivete that have marked both sorts of Richman songs -- the songs about love and the songs about everything, anything, else, from cars to guitars -- for two decades, several labels, and a dozen or so albums have earned him a strong cult following but have stopped short of pulling him completely from obscurity. He's well known among music heads, but still far from a household name. A meeting between Richman fans is still like a meeting between members of a secret society, or between family members who have never met but who nonetheless start flipping through Richman's discography as if it were a scrapbook of shared history.
Through it all, Richman's music has proven amazingly resistant to outside influences or trends. He has recorded a country record and a record entirely in Spanish, but there is still no mistaking him: his endearingly awkward vocals that sound like he's forever shaking a cold, his lyrical simplicity, his playful use of language. His songs sometimes rock, sometimes ache; their production has become more or less ornate as his live shows have become increasingly stripped down. For the last several years, he's toured only with drummer Tommy Larkins (on my list of questions he's crossed out "band" and replaced it with "act"), with whom he appeared as the minstrel-narrator of last year's There's Something About Mary, which gave Richman, now 47, his widest mainstream exposure yet.
"It hasn't changed stuff much yet," he writes of his most recent big-screen appearance (he also had a cameo in the Farrelly brothers' Kingpin). "Maybe 50 more people come to each show."
Meanwhile, Richman's latest record suggests a songwriter looking back. The tracks on I'm So Confused include the old and the new, with reworkings of defining songs like 1979's "Affection" and 1986's "When I Dance" placed alongside "True Love Is Not Nice" from the Mary soundtrack. There's also an extra touch of bittersweetness in songs like the title track and "I Can't Find My Best Friend," which -- together with "My Little Girl's Got A Full Time Daddy Now" from 1996's Surrender to Jonathan -- have led some profilers who won't take no for an answer to speculate that Richman's home life, which several years ago involved living with his wife and two children in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, has undergone some changes. On that topic, as on so many others, Jonathan isn't talking, and for reasons that perhaps aren't all that complicated.
"Why don't you give me a call and talk for a few minutes if you feel like it?" reads the last question funneled to him through his people.
His response is simple: "'Cause if I called up everybody, I'd be on the phone all day!"
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