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"Another record I liked was 'Beep-Beep' by the Playmates. That was back in, let's see, '58. I must have been 6 or 7. The first one I bought for myself was a record by Bobby Vee; I don't remember the title now."
Richman's passion for these tunes didn't lead him to consider a musical career right away. "No, no, no! I just knew I liked those records," he says with an enthusiasm that lets you know he still likes them. He was 15 when he first picked up a guitar, but it wasn't until he was 19 or 20 that he realized he could make a living performing. Little did he know that he would spend the next two decades making music that would help define the American underground. Garage bands everywhere would play Richman's songs, trying to achieve his intensity. Perhaps the Sex Pistols came closest with their rendition of "Roadrunner."
Despite his accomplishments, Richman avoids the rock-star mentality that would seem the prerogative of an underground guru. He takes nothing for granted, not even the terms under consideration. "First, we need to be clear on what the 'rock-star mentality' is," he says. Even after "rock star" is defined as someone who remains distant from the audience, preferring the rarefied air of the stage and limousine, Richman refuses to take jabs at his famous counterparts. "These people are not necessarily to be blamed if they don't act like themselves after a show," he says. "Say you're surrounded by 50 people. There's no way you're going to have a normal conversation with any of them in that situation. When you don't talk to everyone, you can't talk to anyone.
"It's easier for me," he explains, "because I'm not famous." Nor does Richman seem particularly interested in fame. Instead, his heroes include people like Walter Johnson, a brilliant pitcher for the Washington Senators in the early 1900s. Despite his remarkable abilities, Johnson "cared more about people than he cared about fame."
And while Richman persists in thinking aloud about vampire girls and little dinosaurs, there's little danger that he will ever stare down from atop the Billboard 100. Then again, he wouldn't want to.
Jonathan Richman is scheduled to perform on Thursday, June 1, at the Mason Jar, with Huge Spaceship, and Satellite. Call for showtime.