Rock 'n' roll often breeds absurdity. Artists who won't play a show unless the backstage M&Ms are the right color or drummers whose hobby is hotel-room demolition. By comparison, Jonathan Richman seems remarkable. The man is urbane, civil, polite on the phone.
"Hey, there," chirps someone in smiley tones suitable for addressing June Cleaver. "It's Jonathan Richman calling!"
It's him, the guy who wrote "Roadrunner" and "Pablo Picasso"--the wunderkind who was supposedly heir to Lou Reed's empire of manic drone. His voice sounds like he's just won a smoke-a-thon to benefit the tobacco lobby. Except Richman doesn't smoke; his vocal condition can be attributed to weeks of nightly gigs singing about life and love, Laundromats and AM radio.
The Boston native's latest release, You Must Ask the Heart, is yet another batch of simple, heartfelt, wonderfully loopy music that includes a Tom Waits cover, a tune about a vampire girl and an a cappella homage to baseball pitcher Walter Johnson. "It's my favorite," says Richman of the album. "The [musical] arrangements of the songs is really good."
Richman is a strange creature. During a 25-minute phone interview, he alternates between three modes--quiet, frantic and juvenile--which make him seem a combination of James Dean, Quentin Tarantino and the gawky kid out to bribe his way into the gang's tree house with a pet lizard or a jar of fireflies.
Richman's always been something of an anomaly, though. In the early Seventies, he formed the Modern Lovers, a Boston band whose sound coalesced around an unlikely blend of Fifties pop and Velvet Underground discord, producing music that fell into the Sha Na Na-meets-Satan category. Richman's insistent, two-chord vamps surged beneath his voice, an earnest bleat so nasal that it sounded like he'd just had sinus surgery. The album cover of the 1976 Beserkley release, The Modern Lovers, details the idiosyncratic makeup of the band: Next to the gangly, clean-cut singer in the tee shirt is Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison (who would go on to join Talking Heads), both sporting monster perms and looking ready to audition as stunt doubles for Peter Frampton. David Robinson, who went on to drum for the Cars, completes the oddball quartet.
Ironically, the band ended up working with Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, who produced--most say botched--several Modern Lovers demos for Warner Bros. But the group splintered without ever generating a real album. Long before the breakup, however, Richman had grown disenchanted with the Lovers' grainy sonic chiaroscuro, opting to turn down the volume, and eschewing venues that weren't hospitals or high school gymnasiums. Rock 'n' roll, he philosophized, had less to do with decibel levels than with an attitude about life that embraced the wonder of the seemingly trivial. Things like neon signs and power lines were as likely to capture the singer's imagination as were foxy girls and fast cars.
Armed with this new vision, Richman disbanded the original Modern Lovers in early 1974, gravitating toward songwriting that emphasized his childlike optimism. To the astonishment of his fans, Richman began pumping out a stream of giddy melodies dealing with friendly Martians, abominable snowmen and bell-ringing neighborhood ice cream vendors. His musical turn, he explains, was aimed at producing songs not specifically for kids, but songs that children could enjoy along with adults. "Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't," he says.
This innocence is evident on his newest CD. And though he's excited about You Must Ask the Heart, Richman is so shy that it's nearly impossible to get him to elaborate on his compositions. "Everything that's in the songs is in the songs," he says quietly. "It's just talkin' and thinkin' out loud."
As for the writing of his songs, "They just come to me," he says. Inspiration apparently can strike anywhere, except on the tour bus, which doesn't exist. "Tour bus!" Richman says with a snort. "What tour bus? Rental cars, me and the drummer." You can almost imagine Jonathan at the wheel of the Dodge Vegematic, a jalopy immortalized in one of his more peculiar songs. But the singer dispels the image with a deadpan one-liner: "You will recall that even in the song, that vehicle was totally inoperable."
Richman refuses to get specific about the inspiration for "Let Her Go Into the Darkness," one of the best tracks on Ask the Heart. "All I'm gonna say is that this friend of mine was talking to me one day and he had this problem"--presumably with a woman who ditched him to return to an old boyfriend. The possibility of interpreting the darkness symbolically causes Richman to stammer, and he seems genuinely surprised that his work might deserve a more sober analysis. "These are very difficult questions," he says, sighing. "There could be a hundred things [the darkness] represents."
And the ex-Modern Lover, who has written countless songs on the subject of romance, is not eager to reveal the details of his own romantic life. When the questions become too personal, Richman gets stern--"That's beyond the scope of the interview."
Unless he is discussing some childhood experience, Richman is almost reticent. Turn the conversation to the first album he heard and he lights up. "The first one I heard, well, the first one I bought--my dad bought it, actually--was 'Witch Doctor' by David Seville." The tune was a pseudo-gag single about a guy with girl problems who turns to an unorthodox practitioner for help. The chorus goes something like: Ooh-ee, ooh-ah-ah, ting-tang, walla-walla-bing-bang. "It was good," says Richman.
"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."
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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.