Celebrate this milestone birthday of the Boston bard by paying closer attention to his solo catalogue
When Jonathan Richman is playing music on stage, it’s a better world. A little sweeter, a little more sentimental, a little more whimsical. No one in pop music does what Richman does. He sings (on mic and off), he dances, he twirls his acoustic guitar. He has natural joie de vivre, an optimism that captivates.
For decades, Richman’s calling card has been gentle acoustic or lightly amplified electric music. That, and his lovable, adenoidal voice. He mostly thumb-picks his guitar, and sometimes dips into Latin and Hawaiian styles. He specializes in witty, disarmingly poignant, songs. Some are vignettes and ditties. Others have more profundity. Often, there’s a bemusing mixture.
For people who only know Richman from his music with the early Modern Lovers days – where the proto-punkers (which included Jerry Harrison, David Robinson and Asa Brebner at various points) did their best to be Boston’s Velvet Underground – it may seem incongruous, but fans have long come to terms with that era and its place in Richman’s past, not his present.
Richman, who turns 70 on May 16, has long been post-cynical. Neil Young sang “I Am a Child,” but I don’t think any artist channels his inner child better than Richman. Which is not to say he doesn’t have a sly edge.
He’s got a rapier-like wit and will deploy it both between songs and in song. Consider “Vampire Girl.” In his almost embarrassing lust for a goth girl, he muses, “Is she in heaven? /Is she in hell? /Is she a sex industry pro-fession-el?”
But wait! Isn’t the songwriter’s use of “girl” diminishing?
VIDEO: Jonathan Richman performs “Vampire Girl” on Late Night With Conan O’Brien
“I should say vampire woman,” he said from the stage in 1994, “but it don’t rhyme so good and that extra syllable creates hassles all over the place.”
More concert snippets, over the years:
* In “I Was the One She Came For,” he sang, “She could have had them all, but I’m the one she came for.” It began as a yearning love song. But Richman quickly took himself out of the song to speak: “I would have made a different choice if she’d asked me, but she didn’t ask me.”
* “I’m a man with a message,” Richman announced from a Cambridge stage. He then warbled, “Well you can have a cell phone, but not me.” Richman went on to sing about being unreachable at Revere Beach or on Boylston Street. Make no mistake: “If I’m on a walk, I’m on a walk – you can’t call me.” He then noted how difficult it was to find a pay phone in Harvard Square nowadays.
* Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards got an affectionate, detailed, treatment, when Richman sang, well, “Keith Richards.” Richman sang of Richards’ eternal cool – his velveteen jackets, his dirty jeans, and his “internal melodies and minor 6th harmonies.” Richman spiked the song with a riff from “Brown Sugar.”
Performing in a duo setting with longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, Richman sings about inanimate objects (chewing gum wrappers, tomatoes, buildings) and creatures (birds, insects, dinosaurs) with the same passion he has singing about people and the human condition.
Richman grew up in Natick. about a half hour from where I live, just outside Boston, and there is certainly a sense of regional pride – from him toward the region and from us toward him. “New England” encompasses, well, the obvious and “Twilight in Boston” is really, about nothing more than a lovely stroll about town – the Public Gardens, up Beacon into the Fens.
VIDEO: The Modern Lovers “Roadrunner”
Then, there’s “Roadrunner.” Though universal now – covered by everyone from the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett – it’s specifically about Boston and its environs. Cruising around the periphery of the city in the dark with the “radio on.” The AM radio. (Obviously, a song from and written about an era long ago and far away.)
There was a move six years ago to make “Roadrunner” the state song. The pulsing two-chord rocker has never been one of Richman’s favorites. I’ve seen Richman play quite a bit and never heard him play it. During a 1981 Boston concert, he quelled cries for “Roadrunner” by stating, “I respect that song and I don’t want to do it halfhearted. If I did it now. it wouldn’t have the feeling.”
Later, backstage, he told me his reasoning: “It’s a lonely, hypnotizing song.”
Of course, that’s one of the reasons people love it. In terms of the push to make it the state song, Richman, through an assistant, emailed the Boston Globe in 2013: “Thank you so much, it’s very flattering … but I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts state song of any kind.”
Richman is pretty interview-averse, but he’s a friendly fella, and (well, at least before COVID-19) played the Boston area a lot, doing multi-night runs at a small Cambridge club, the Middle East.
“One of the reasons I like to spend more than one night in Boston,” he told me in 1997, “is that I’ve got lots of friends here. I miss the way it is, some of those streets.”
Including Route 128, famously name-checked in “Roadrunner.” I asked if, given his roots and that song’s popularly, he must anticipate concert requests for it, especially in Boston.
“People yell out for everything,” he said. “Doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”
If the ultimate performance – live or on record – is ultimate soul-baring, Richman is your man. In 1985, I asked him about it.
“I’ve never seen anyone naked-er,” he said.
Was there any fear in that?
“The fear is of boredom. If you don’t do it naked, things are boring and that’s what I’m afraid of.”
Richman felt that too often rock writers dwelt on his Modern Lovers past and he was often misinterpreted. I asked if he wanted to set the record straight.
“No way to do it,” he replied. “People either get it or they don’t. Let me put it this way: I’ve played for a lot of five-year-olds through my time. I’ve never yet been misinterpreted by a five-year-old.”