When you talk to people about Jonathan Richman, the conversation usually goes like this: “Hey, I’m going to see Jonathan Richman tonight!” “Who?” “Jonathan Richman, he was the lead of The Modern Lovers!” “The who?” “He then went solo and maybe you’ve seen him on Conan? He did that song ‘I was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar.’” “Nope.” And then you have to grin and bear it and say, “He was the Greek Chorus-style musician in There’s Something About Mary.” “Oh yeah! Love that guy!” He's great in that movie, but to so many of his fans he's so much more.
As mentioned above, Richman was the lead singer of the seminal proto-punk band The Modern Lovers. The band included such musical stand-outs as Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) and David Robinson (The Cars). I won’t give you the full timeline of what happened with The Modern Lovers because A. you wouldn’t really care and B. it isn’t really all that clear. In the end, The Modern Lovers (proper) were already broken up and changed into Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers by the time their first album came out. Those early days were loud, brash and hard hitting. With songs like “Roadrunner” and “Government Center” the Lovers crafted two or three chord proto-staples that still hold up against anything the Pistols or the Ramones could throw at you.
But Richman, as time went on, got quieter and quieter musically. As he grew his music began to suck up the influences around it. It started sounding more and more like ‘50’s and early ‘60’s rock and roll. Richman, too, began to loosen up. He himself explains the transformation in the song “Monologue About Bermuda” (which is a live recording of the song “Down in Bermuda” – stay with me here). According to the man himself, The Modern Lovers had a few gigs in Bermuda where he saw a group called The Bermuda Strollers. They were a group of men over 40 years old who played fun, light songs and he was forever changed. As he states in the song, “After that trip to Bermuda, you know, that band never really got along as well, that was really the beginning of the end for us.”
He’s known for being entirely loveable. It seems that people either really can’t get into his music, or love his music and desperately wish he was their friend. He’s notoriously shy around reporters and journalists, and takes no part in the internet. He stops in the middle of his songs to speak, or joke, or ramble or shrug. As for the concert? I’ve seen a lot of shows in my short life, but I’ve never seen a show like this.
He played in Philadelphia last night (March 1, 2011) in The Basement of The First Unitarian Church. For those outside the Philly area, yes, this is actually the basement of the Unitarian Church. And no, it’s not the most ideal place to see a show – but it’s the one of the only places touring acts can play if they can’t fill the bigger theaters in the city.
Richman came out with his touring and recording partner, percussionist Tommy Larkin. There was no opening act. Richman and Larkin strolled in once the audience had fully entered. Richman carried his own acoustic guitar on stage. He didn’t tune it. He didn’t plug it in. Tommy sat at his improvised drum kit (a bongo, a bass, a snare, some cymbals) and Richman stepped up to the mic, strummed the opening chords of “I was the One She Came For” and we were off! He played a nice mix of mid-career and current songs. He would often stop playing and step away from the mic to dance as Tommy and the audience kept the beat. He would shout the lyrics out as he danced wildly, spinning the acoustic guitar (which he played strapless, a feat in and of itself) and kicking out his legs. At one point he was so overcome with the music that he set the guitar down to really get the dance out. He was hilarious, he was honest, he was heartfelt and sincere.
One of the things that struck me most about his performance was his eye contact. I’ve seen bands where the lead singer looked off into the distance, and I’ve seen bands where the lead even went so far as to turn his back on the audience (cough cough, Ryan Adams). But Richman stared, intently, into the eyes of anyone he could lock eyes with. Especially during solos, it was like he was flitting about everyone in the audience, making eye contact and smiling and nodding, or shaking his head, or pouting his lips. He was, effectively, mugging for the cameras that were our eyes, our attention. At one point someone in the back of the house must have accidentally hit the wrong switch. All of the house lights blasted on. Richman, mid-song, said, “Hey, I don’t care. I like being able to see all of you!” It’s the type of genuine reaction you'd only expect from a guy who’s been doing this all his life and who seems to really love his fans. He urged the audience to clap along to the beat, so that it felt, as he said, “more like a party and less like a concert.”
If you have a chance to see Jonathan Richman live, go. Don’t worry about not knowing his catalogue of music. You won’t be punished for it. Every show is a different show. Every show includes a different monologue or two (last night he talked about how when your heart is broken everything should smell like nasty trash so that when you look back it will all fit together, the stinky environment and your broken heart). It’s the type of fun you can’t normally get from concerts. It’s genuine fun.