by Sir John Reid Hatchporch
This was written when I was a bright-eyed college student. In those days, following a concert, I would force myself to stay up all night until my review was done. These "reviews" were always exhaustive, covering every nuance of the show as well as every song played and any memorable comments I could remember. More importantly, the tone often lapsed into what one might deem "fanboydom." I apologize in advance for any embarrassing, hyperbolic statements made over the course of this review, as well as the length, but have decided to keep the review up as is for posterity. Enjoy!
Picture one man, his electric guitar--turned up to no more than 3 on his amp--and a drummer gently tapping away in the background. Then picture the most bittersweet lyrics about love and life being sung over that by a man who moves like Mick Jagger and sings like a grown-up Alfalfa Switzer. Seeing Jonathan Richman live is not merely a concert, but an experience. Songs flow effortlessly into one another...the man breaks out into dance moves that would make Michael Jackson and Beck envious. He sings lyrics as if he were having a conversation with the audience. The man’s got a kind of lugubrious face that looks like he could burst into tears at any second. The volume is so low that if you were talking to a neighbor you’d miss the music. Jonathan makes eye contact with those he sings to, and makes sure to add a smile that can melt you. His continuous dopey grin, pelvic spirals and mock-Elvis snarls are the epitome of rock and roll. But his sincerity is genuine, and this experience simply cannot be recreated with all the words in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary...this is something that you can only experience by listening to one of his albums or seeing him live. The fact that there were about 100 people in the Roxy and that I was at the very edge of the stage---only five feet away from this man, as if I were praying to him--made the experience that much more incredible.
Jonathan Richman invented Geek Rock and bless him for it.
From the moment he entered the stage, any novice would know that Jonathan Richman is a born eccentric, from the ultra-low decibels of his guitar to his often amusing subject matter to his facial tics to how he speaks to his audience. “You can’t stand there and smoke but you can stand there OR smoke” he says, half-grinning, to a girl who’s smoking in front of the stage. “It travels up and goes right into my mouth” he gently tells her. Everyone laughs at the brazenness of the comment, but we all know that Jonathan certainly wasn’t being rude.
Jonathan moves like David Byrne...I would use the cliche “prowls the stage with animal grace”, but that might be stretching things. The man is probably made of rubber, as he gyrates his legs and pelvis while rocking out gently to his own guitar. In the course of one song, JoJo can go from strumming and singing gently to laying down his guitar and singing to only the drum beat to silencing even the drums so that all you can hear is his plaintive, stark, uneasy honest voice. And when Jonathan lays down his guitar at a key phrase, he reaches his arms out from his heart to express himself to the world, like Pavarotti hitting a high C...but rather than trying to impress us with his vocals skills, he is laying his heart out to the audience. Like Morrissey may have suggested, JoJo “sings his life”.
You see, rock and roll to Jonathan can go from the riffage of Chuck Berry to singing to a handclap to his varied assortments of wild dancing...a song can take you a million places, and every performance is different, no doubt. Jonathan will lay down the guitar in the middle to do two minutes of cute Leprechaun-like dancing, totally serious but having fun all the while. When Jonathan emerges into a guitar solo, all that exists is his subway tunnel guitar notes and the steady, delicate beat of the drums...there is no bass, no keyboard, no elaborate production. Jonathan is the starkest of the stark, the most skeletal of the skeletal...a man who could perform a concert to the sound of his own hands clapping.
Jonathan is a master at his craft, yet oddly, the man seems to have been born with these great gifts of storytelling. No one can lay their heart on their sleeve quite like Jonathan Richman. When Jonathan sings about the o.d-ing drummer in “Rock and Roll Drummer Straight From The Hospital”, many laugh, but many others know just how deathly serious JoJo is. Of course it’s hard to tell from his goofy perpetual grin and nasal voice...his countenance can have you staring at it from the moment he arrives on stage to his goodnight when he sings “Arriverdeci Roma”.
Jonathan looks at a young boy on crutches near the stage and a huge smile erupts on his face. He pauses in the middle of the song to say “its very nice to have you here tonight”, as his father smiles to himself...and you want to weep because of the humanity of this man...the humanity you know in your heart to be true...the humanity you couldn’t get at any other concert imaginable. Unlike so many celebrities who fall flat on their face with their maudlin displays of humanity, you know Jonathan means it because he has an extraordinary love of life...a love that is indefinable to those who have not heard his music or watched him perform. He is the Forrest Gump of rock and roll, because every word he says is no less than pure magic, and you stare into his eyes and believe every word he sings and speaks. It is reality beyond your wildest dreams.
When one looks around at a JoJo concert, one sees people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Many are rocking their heads silently to the beat of each song, despite the incredibly low volume...men close their eyes and nod affirmatively...women grin...children laugh. From the long-haired 25 year old to the 45 year old businessman to the 20 year old girl with a nose ring...everyone loves Jonathan Richman. No “moshing”...no “pass the dude”...no lighting of marijuana joints secretly in the back of the theater. Everyone is in tune to each other and to the man on the stage, mesmerized by this skewered genius, still so underground after all these years. Everything feels good, everyone is positive, smiling, singing. Jonathan may sing about the woman who left him who was tired of being a “plus one on the guest list”, but you know that it’s quite alright with him. It’s all going to be okay.
Jonathan surprisingly ends up performing two songs from his debut record with the Modern Lovers all those years ago...possibly my favorite record of all time. Recorded in 1971 and released in 1976 “The Modern Lovers” is one of the most influential records of all time, inspiring even punk flag-wavers the Sex Pistols to cover his song “Roadrunner”. Imagine The Velvet Underground if the lead singer was a brooding, conservative, teenage romantic, and you have The Modern Lovers’ first album. During “Pablo Picasso”, he begins rapping with the audience. “You know, men are insecure. I’m a man, so I know. Men worry about how they look”. Then he sings the newly added verse “some men, well they dress to kill/Pablo Picasso did it by force of will”. He stops singing to recount experiences from his teenhood. “This is how I would meet girls when I was 19. ‘Hi I’m Jonathan, I didn’t get your name’.” He mimics the female response “you asshole”, which relates back to the classic lyrics:
“Some people try to pick up girls and
get called asshole/
This never happened to Pablo Picasso/
He could walk down your street and girls could not resist his stare/
Pablo Picasso never got called asshole”
Though the words are from long ago, and Jonathan soon abandoned his insecure, often profane teenhood lyrics, they are still cutting edge. Before he launches into “Girlfriend”--also from the first album--he says “when I was young I used to over-intellectualize everything”...and its no wonder that I see so much of myself in this man. When he sings the song, which includes lyrics like “that’s a girl/friend/that’s a G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N”, he displays the self-effacing humor we all love about him by mocking his spelling and saying “Hey, I was 18 when I wrote it”.
Jonathan sings a song called “True Love Just Ain’t Nice”, and again, some laugh at his anecdotes of hurtful love. We all know how serious the man is, but the manner in which he delivers every line is so good-natured...Jonathan resigns himself to the nature of life itself, and while he may be a reporter on the state of love and other things, he displays an acceptance of all this.
The most incredible moment of the night is when he performs the incredible and murky “Let Her Go Into The Darkness”. The song is about a man jealous of his ex-girlfriend who is now spending time with shady ex-boyfriends.
“Now she’s back with her old boyfriend/
He don’t challenge her, he don’t contend with her/
And she don’t answer the cards you send/
Ad now you’re jealous of the time he’s spent with her/
Let her go into the darkness/
Let her learn from all the things there/
Let her go into the darkness/
Let her go, let her go, let her go”
He interjects spoken parts throughout the course of the song. “She’s 21 now. She’s not your responsibility. Let her go”. Jonathan breaks in the middle of the song and begins improvising a phone call with a friend. He quotes his friend:
“What are those other guys like?
The ones she’s hanging out with”
“They’re the scum of the earth”
“So imagine. If she’s seeing those guys now, think how you’re going to look”
A dissenting “not necessarily” comes from a girl near the front of the stage. Jonathan grins and laughs. “for some of you who didn’t hear, someone said ‘not necessarily’”. JoJo asks “how do you figure that?” She states “from the dynamic you just described”. Jonathan shrugs, laughs and says “well, uh, I guess that’s as a good an answer as any, ‘from the dynamic I just described’.” He continues “you’d think if these guys were jerks and no good for her then I’d be better. But, now that I think about it, I guess not!”. The whole audience cracks up...some applaud. Yes, she is a smart ass...but Jonathan is not jaded.
During the final verse, Jonathan sings:
“I see you’re putting your shoes on,
you’re gonna take a walk/
But you’re headed for her neighborhood/
You wanna talk to her, but she won’t wanna talk/
You wanna to tell her that her boyfriend’s no good”
Whereas this verse is generally followed up by the exclamation “NO NO!”, tonight, Jonathan follows it up with a hilarious “doh!”, which the audience really gets a kick out of. JoJo has the power to pull us out of the trance of this touching, brooding, sensitive song and reminds us that things are indeed going to be okay.
By the time the song is over, there is a lachrymose mood over the festivities...as the final song is approaching. Jonathan concludes the set with a wonderful song entitled “A Satisfied Mind”, which derides those who think money is the key to all happiness. He performs this song completely a cappella, animating it with his own amusing gestures. And then, the set is over, and Jonathan thanks us and says goodnight.
After five minutes of chanting, cheering and applauding, Jonathan comes back for two encores, the first of which is a charming little song in spanish. The second is nothing less that “Arriverdeci Roma” sung in its original Italian. And when the show is over, the audience erupts with applause and cheering, and, Jonathan stands and stares at the audience with a grin from ear to ear. He surveys the entire audience, giving such heartfelt thanks that you want to grab him and hug him. His unbridled sincerity is overwhelming. When the lights come up, I turn to the man I was talking to before the show, and all I can say is “What a man. What a man”. He replies with “yes, he is absolutely one of a kind”.
The bouncers are escorting everyone out, but in the lobby treasure lies. On a table full of CD’s, buttons and shirts, I spy the original Modern Lovers logo on a t-shirt. I run over to it and am utterly flabbergasted that this 21 year old album has finally been emblazoned on a t-shirt...a t-shirt I’d long been dreaming of owning. Alas, it’s 18 dollars and I only have 14, so I pick up an order card.
And we walk outside, and five minutes later there he is. One of my heroes, standing ten feet away, on the sidewalk, chatting with some people, still wearing his perpetual goofy grin. My friend and I instantly walk over to him, and here he comes. He looks at me and I say “uhhhhh, hi”, surprised that there isn’t more of a mad dash towards him by autograph-hounds, etc. But apparently, this is normal procedure for the man. The festivities are low key like the man himself. We shake hands and he looks at me, still smiling all the while. I put my left hand on my heart, bend over and utter “agggggggggh!”. According to the friends that were with me, Jonathan wore a befuddled look after this. I tell him confidently “you...are my contemporary hero”, and I think I say it twice, just so he understands. He nods in his own humble way, and I think he said thank you...I sort of blanked out here. The man who conceived what is possibly my favorite record of all time is standing before me. My friend asks him “when you were 19, did you really over-intellectualize everything?” I allude to the lyrics of “Girlfriend” but saying “If he knew who Cezanne was, he must have been intellectual”. He turns around to us, still grinning, taps his head, and in his Forrest Gump manner stutters out something like “I was over-analyzing everything around me...thinking too much”. Though I can barely hear what he’s saying in the crowd, I understand what he means...and of course can relate. As he turns around to leave again, I say “it was a pleasure meeting you”, and he turns around, looks right at me and says “it was very nice meeting you too”. One of my idols has just said it was nice to meet me. I am flattered. Though my friends tease me about the experience--”you really clammed up!”, they say--the moment was frozen in my mind. I had just shared some personal space with Mr. Jonathan Richman.
One man nearby--who appears to be on the crew--says to me “you didn’t know what to say did you?” “No, I clammed up” I respond. He reassures me: “Don’t worry, he didn’t either”.
That seems to sum up the man quite nicely.
My friends convince me to pick up the Modern Lovers t-shirt as they agree to chip in money, and yes it’s impulsive, but so worth it...my favorite album forever immortalized. The friend that pitches in some dollars? Bless him.
And I think back about the evening, the concert, the experience...and then the man, who seems to be exactly what his on-stage persona dictates. This charming man who seems to be in tune with what is around him and in love with all that he encounters. This beautiful man who proceeded to blow my friends and I away with his nouveau romanticism, peculiar rock and roll, self-effacing antics and his humanity and utter graciousness off stage. This man whom all men the world over could learn many lessons from. And I think to myself “why have so many people missed out on the experience of Jonathan Richman?”
All I can say is, if he ever comes to your town and you are in the mood to be moved beyond belief, please see him. At the very least, give a listen to his latest record “Surrender to Jonathan” and open yourself up for a brand new musical experience, far beyond the realms of glamour, pomp and image. Yes, prepare to "Surrender to Jonathan."
© 1997 Crapple Records, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.
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