WHEN I first heard Jonathan Richman I thought he was simply playing a character – a naïve childlike figure who saw beauty in ordinary things and sang simple songs about them. Over the years, however, it became plain that this was no contrivance – as he says in his most famous song, Roadrunner, he really is in love with the modern world, especially New England. And his optimism is boundless.
So here’s a brief look at the punk pioneer who went on to become half of the Greek chorus in the movie There’s Something About Mary, where he meets a sticky end.
Jonathan Michael Richman was born in Natick, Massachusetts, in May 1951. By the mid-60s he was already writing and playing his own songs but what convinced him to become a musician was hearing the Velvet Underground.
He became so obsessed with Lou Reed, John Cale & Co that in 1969 he upped sticks to New York City, where he was allowed to sleep on the couch of their manager Steve Sesnick. He attended scores of Velvets performances and worked as an odd job man but his hopes of a musical breakthrough failed to reach fruition and he returned to New England.
In Boston, he formed a band, the Modern Lovers, whose members included Jerry Harrison, the future Talking Heads keyboardist, and drummer David Robinson, who would find success with the Cars. In 1972 John Cale, who had been sacked by Reed, agreed to produce a set of demos which included the aforementioned Roadrunner and Pablo Picasso.
These were of course heavily influenced by the Velvets – Roadrunner is based musically on their Sister Ray although it features only two chords to Ray’s three. The song led at least one critic to call Jonathan the ‘godfather of punk’. Although he loved the Velvets’ sound, Richman was far from impressed with their druggy lifestyle. Another track recorded that year with Kim Fowley as producer was the unequivocal I’m Straight – ‘Oh I’m certainly not stoned, like hippie Johnny is. I’m straight and I want to take his place.’ Sadly, none of his efforts impressed the record companies at the time and the band broke up in early 1974.
The following year Richman moved to California where he hitched up with the independent Beserkley label and made recordings backed by the bands Earth Quake and the Rubinoos. Four of these made it on to an LP, Beserkley Chartbusters. They comprised a new version of Roadrunner, which would become known as Roadrunner (Twice), The New Teller, about being in love with a bank clerk, Government Centre – ‘they gotta lotta lotta great desks and chairs, at the Government Centre’ – and It Will Stand.
Roadrunner (Twice) was released as a single and reached No 11 in the UK charts. The original Cale-produced version (Once) came out on a 1976 album, The Modern Lovers. A third version (Thrice), recorded live and more than eight minutes long, was released as a single B-side in 1977.
All describe the young Jonathan’s joy at driving along the Boston ringroad Route 128 with the AM radio on, and begin with him shouting ‘One-two-three-four-five-six!’ and end with ‘Bye-bye!’ However each includes different geographical landmarks. At this point I must mention an extraordinary piece of musical trainspotting where a Guardian writer made a pilgrimage to New England to retrace Richman’s journeys as detailed in the various versions. In her 2007 piece, the deeply dippy Laura Barton wrote: ‘For authenticity’s sake I have chosen to make the trip in January, because, as Richman observes in Roadrunner (Thrice) on winding down his car window, “it’s 20 degrees outside”. Having consulted a weather website listing average temperatures for Boston and its environs, I find it is most likely to be 20 degrees at night-time in January. And, as in Roadrunner, I will drive these roads only at night, because “I’m in love with modern moonlight, 128 when it’s dark outside”.’
And I thought I was a bit of an anorak.
In January 1976 Richman reformed his band with original drummer Robinson, bassist Curly Keranan and guitarist Leroy Radcliffe. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers was released in May. This album showcased a gentler approach, combining fifties-style rock and roll with whimsical, childlike lyrics. The new attitude reflected Jonathan’s happiness at starting to have success with girls. Highlights include Important in Your Life – ‘Guitar, ready set go’, New England – ‘I have seen old Israel’s arid plain. It’s magnificent – but so’s Maine’ – and Abominable Snowman in the Market: ‘There’s a bominable snowman in the market, down by the peas and carrots.’ Robinson left soon afterwards because the band wasn’t loud enough for him and formed the Cars with Rick Ocasek.
Confusingly, three months later Beserkley issued The Modern Lovers, using the band’s sessions from 1972. Apart from Roadrunner (Once), the best bits are Pablo Picasso (where the artist’s name is made to rhyme with asshole), Astral Plain and Girlfriend – ‘I wanna Girlfriend. I wanna G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N.’
With Robinson replaced on drums by D Sharpe, Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers was released in 1977. This included one of Richman’s anthems, Ice Cream Man, and Egyptian Reggae, which was a No 5 hit in the UK singles charts.
Over the next decades Richman continued to perform for a small but dedicated following. Then in 1998 he was invited to provide the music for the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy There’s Something About Mary. This is a hoot. Jonathan and drummer Tommy Larkins appear on screen playing songs which comment on the plot until a stray bullet meant for Ben Stiller sends Richman flying.
There have been many, many albums since but few interviews to promote them. If anyone wants to ask Jonathan questions it has to be by post – he doesn’t do telephones or even email. A rare exception is this 1993 exchange with the actress and comedienne Julia Sweeney, who charmingly explains that he spoke to her ‘probably because I’m not a professional journalist and I have no idea what I’m doing’.
She suggests to him: ‘Your albums get more and more childlike as they go along.’
He replies: ‘When I started out, I was kind of lonely. In fact, I wrote a [press] biography called Jonathan Richman’s First 20 Years in Show Business, and it talks about exactly this. When I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody, and that’s when this trend started. I was about 22.’
Sweeney: ‘Are you misunderstood?’
Richman: ‘Yeah, I am. Partly because, even when something’s serious, I think it’s funny, so people think I’m putting them on, even though I really mean it.’
Sweeney: ‘Do you like children’s folk songs?’
Richman: ‘Do you know why I made up some of my funny songs? Because I went through children’s folk songs, and I didn’t think they were good enough. I just write them like I am talking to anyone else; I don’t make special allowances. That’s why I don’t like songs written for children by adults.’
I’m generally mistrustful of the Guardian, but on music it is sometimes bang on the button. Here’s a 2014 piece by Michael Hann on ten top Richman moments.
He writes: ‘The thing to remember about Jonathan Richman is that even now (or maybe especially now), aged 62, he is unafraid of embarrassment. Not his own, so much – he dances like a loon, demands air conditioning be turned off because he can hear its hum, stands stagefront and declaims – but yours. It’s easy to watch Richman and cringe, at least at first, until his open-heartedness, his belief in the goodness of life and of people, claim you.’
I’ll second that.