If you’ve watched Jonathan Richman play live, you don’t need to read this post. You already know why seeing him is a life-affirming experience like no other, and if you live near any of his upcoming tour dates, perhaps you’ve already got tickets.
This post, then, is intended for those who haven’t seen Richman in concert. But perhaps you’ve heard of him anyway.
You may recall his early days as the “Godfather of Punk” and frontman for the legendary Modern Lovers, best known (to me anyway) for songs like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso.” Richman grew up in Natick, Massachusetts, and wrote “Roadrunner” as a musical homage to the Velvet Underground song “Sister Ray.” But unlike “Sister Ray”, its lyrics are about driving around the suburbs of Boston late at night with the radio on. Now, since I also grew up in the Massachusetts suburbs, “Roadrunner” was a standard on the beloved local radio station WBCN. (RIP, BCN). I probably heard “Roadrunner” at least once a week as a kid/teenager, but because it was something I grew up with, I didn’t pay all that much attention. I was more interested in “complicated” artists like Queen, Bowie, Roxy Music, and a whole bunch of others. I didn’t yet recognize the genius of Richman’s garage stylings and direct delivery. I do recall wondering–probably around age thirteen or fourteen–why anyone would write a song about driving past the Stop & Shop. I mean really? There was a Stop & Shop supermarket in my hometown, and it was the farthest thing from glamorous. Of course, I was too young and dumb to realize that that was the whole point. Anyway, here’s my favorite version of “Roadrunner.” It’s been covered by lots of artists–from Joan Jett to the Sex Pistols to Phish–but nobody does it justice like Jonathan.
Or perhaps, like some people, you first became acquainted with Richman when his song, “Pablo Picasso” was covered by the Burning Sensations in the movie Repo Man. I saw that movie in the 80s, and noticed the song, but had no idea it was written by the same guy who wrote “Roadrunner.” But, in fact, “Pablo Picasso” might be Richman’s most famous song of all. It’s been covered by Bowie and John Cale, as well as the Burning Sensations and so many others. Richman doesn’t play it much–if ever–in concert anymore, but here’s his version of it with the Modern Lovers.
In truth, though, I didn’t think about Jonathan Richman much–one way or another–until somewhere around 1995, when I was about thirty-one and my boyfriend (now husband) asked if I wanted to go see him at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge. I think my response was something like “sure.” I don’t know what, if anything, I expected, as in those days, my future husband and I saw a lot of bands. But the Richman show really surprised me, because although he was a terrific singer and musician, he was also a true storyteller. I was completely taken by his sincerity, honesty, and willingness to put himself out there a hundred percent on stage. Even then, though, I didn’t exactly become a superfan. Blame it on being in a relatively new relationship, struggling to figure out what I wanted to do for a career, having an eating disorder, and whatever else was happening in my life in those days, but I didn’t consider the show a life-changer. In my opinion, it was just a really good one. I couldn’t find a video from that exact show online, but here’s Jonathan doing “Let Her Go Into the Darkness” on Conan O’Brien during that same time period.
Shortly thereafter, Jonathan was featured fairly prominently in the movie There’s Something About Mary So even if you’re not familiar with him by name, if you saw that movie, you might remember the troubadour and drummer who played and sang at different points throughout it. Well that was Jonathan Richman and his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins. Here they are playing “Something About Mary” at the late, great, Joey Ramone’s birthday party in 1998. And no, as far as I know, Jonathan didn’t write the song about me 🙂
Are you feeling it yet? Fast forward to 2014, when Mike and I went out to see him at the Middle East again. By this point, he’d stripped his act down completely to just acoustic guitar and the phenomenal Tommy Larkins on drums. I can honestly say that it was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and it entered the realm of what I’d call life-altering. The entire experience was such a unique blend of humor, romance, intrigue, and honesty. I think it’d be safe to say that everyone in the room was in love with Jonathan that night. Once again, I couldn’t find a video online from that exact performance, but here he is doing “Keith Richards” at the Bumbershoot in Seattle in 2014.
And then, just this past Tuesday, Mike and I went out to see Jonathan at the Somerville Theater. Both of us were a little worried that the show might not be a great as the one in 2014, and we even briefly considered staying home, in order to preserve that wonderful previous memory. But in the end, we went and were really glad we did. The songs were all different, but the passion, joy, sadness, romance, and beauty remained intact. During the show, Jonathan talked about the importance of human interaction, and said he doesn’t own a cell phone. Nor does he own a computer. He finds beauty in everyday things like talking to people who work at truck stops, and the quirky nature of humans. As an encore, he sang “As My Mother Lay Lying,” about his mom’s death in a nursing home, and pretty much everyone in attendance was brought to tears. But Jonathan reminded us not to feel sad, because the song is about the beauty of nature and life. Then he and Tommy waved goodbye and were gone. I walked out into the cool evening air reminded of so many things I take for granted, and wishing technology weren’t so much a part of my everyday life.
It seems ironic, then, to be blogging about the experience and embedding all these YouTube videos into the text. And yet, three days later, I can’t stop thinking about the performance, and believe the best way I can keep the flame alive (so to speak) is to recommend that people who love simple, honest music and exquisite storytelling do what they can to see one of Richman’s live performances. I promise that the videos here don’t even hint at the magic of the real thing.
Here’s a recorded version of “As My Mother Lay Lying”, as I couldn’t find a good live one to post.
And just because, here’s a short interview with Jonathan and Tony Wilson in London, back in 1978, when Jonathan was just a kid. It gives me goosebumps to see him saying this stuff almost forty years ago and still holding true to the same values today.
Have you been to Jonathan Richman show? If so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your comments. Thanks so much for reading!