If anyone asks me, “Who’s your favorite musician of all time?”, my no brainer automatic response is “Jonathan Richman!” [Pause…wait…] “aka of the Modern Lovers, of course!”
The most frequent response I get is: “[Pause] Who?”
His cult following is staunch, but I consistently find myself asking why more people don’t know his beautiful work! In it’s pure, straight-from-the-heart, nostalgic but timeless, playful yet worldly, melodious charm, I find that it is more pertinent in the today’s world than ever.
It actually explains a lot about my personal and artistic perspective. Therefore I decided it’s time to spread the word; because sharing Jonathan Richman is to spread love, to open up to our vulnerabilities, innocence, our essences. Of course, there are many people who try to avoid this, and his music probably won’t resonate as much with them. And for others, it’s exactly the kind of soul food we seek.
He may well be an originator of punk rock with his early songs like “Roadrunner”, “I’m Straight”, “Hospital”, “Pablo Picasso”, “Egyptian Reggae”, “She Cracked” et al. but, he’s a lover, unicorn—or maybe leprechaun-spirit— when you get right down to it. I mean he has a song actually called “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns and another called “Here come the Martian Martians” (both on the more tongue-in-cheek side on The Beserkley Collection album), and another song called “I’m Nature’s Mosquito” about understanding the mosquito’s place on this planet and their beauty, just as we have ours. At times incredibly light-hearted, and at times much more deep-felt as in his “Affection”- which just gets right to the crux of human nature’s most innate hunger. This sensitivity paired with sounds ranging from early punk to be-bop and ‘50s is what makes his music so uniquely idiosyncratic.
If you don’t know his early work with The Modern Lovers, maybe give a quick listen to one of the live from ’73 albums available on Spotify, or to the following youtube album in order to get a feel for how his work has evolved as I continue to discuss…
A little story: when I first moved to New York and the feature film I was to work on fell through (the reason I bought a one- way ticket and flew with 3 days notice never to turn back 6 years ago), I had just come back from “faffing” (as the Brits say) around in Germany and Paris living an ephemeral vie de bohème during the economic crash. I returned broke but full of hopes and dreams and needed to find anything in the city to get my footing and pay rent. Somehow I landed in this kind of rock-meets-classic French fashion very “understatedly cool” shop in Soho called A.P.C. on the sales floor. This was when it was still the only A.P.C. in NYC (by Parisian designer Jean Touitou) and Kanye came in frequently with his producer/shopping confidant to, it seemed, just glide through the store, be adorned by staff and other A-lister patrons and non-fashion “fashionable types”, then literally throw a peace sign, spin around making eye contact with the room, and walk out.
Everyone else working there was either a musician or had very specific music tastes and the store playlist was…serious business. I once put on some “too common” Rolling Stones and it was immediately changed and I lost iPod/DJ privileges for a long time! This Colorado girl just didn’t get it yet.
I didn’t really fit the bill of the other employees and was a rather “loud" dresser when I moved here, wearing whatever style I felt like on any given day. I just spoke French and had a designer friend who hooked me up with the retail director et, voilà. One thing I did take from the job (besides some new threads) was the discovery of some great music. The Modern Lovers happened to make the “cool enough for A.P.C. and Jean Touitou” cut. And 6 years later, through on and off full-on kicks, I am still exploring and trying to understand this man’s 45-year career since first recording with the band produced by John Cale (Velvet Underground), and performing solo since the band’s break-up only about 3 years later.
So who is Jonathan Richman exactly?
Here’s a little video of him on an Australian talk show with John Cale to give you an idea from the early days (about 1:10 on most importantly)
And here on French TV in 1982 which shows a different side of his music post break-up with The Modern Lovers, which I shall discuss…
I feel like I just see this “Troubadour”— almost like the Trouvère Troubadours of Middle Ages (he loves the “old world” and sings in French on occasion)—transcend to modern-day New England (his home), the NYC rock scene of the ‘70s, and wherever he has since traveled. Especially when he sings songs like “Abdul and Cleopatra” that have an old world sound and reference (see French TV link above), but also this adorable, wild-eyed, wing-tip-fluffy-haired lover-boy. You can glimpse this exact combination in the animation of the album cover for Back in Your Life. That illustration hits the nail on the head, whoever brilliantly captured him like that.
So quickly, I must discuss the band’s breakup which centers around a time they were playing in Bermuda, and the album “Rockin' Romance” was born. I had an epiphany once listening to this song on one of my JR kicks of the past and thought, “Wow— this song was really a turning point.” He describes it fully in “Monologue About Bermuda” available on Spotify on the album Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman, which I highly suggest listening to rather than my explaining. I absolutely adore the sweet, soft duet of the song on Rockin’ Romance though.
“Jonathan, Jonathan, I wanna know something…” Ellie, as he calls her in “Down in Bermuda”, sings to Jonathan inquisitively. He answers her with effortlessly melodic words. It seems he’s just speaking naturally, in perfect tone- “The flowers in Bermuda… [almost knocked me down!]”
One of my favorite things about what he sings is his sensitivity for the way we treat each other in relationships, but also especially patience with women and understanding that other people have histories and we must be compassionate for wherever they’re at in life. We hear this on Back in Your Life in “My Love is a Flower Just Beginning to Bloom”. In this particular song he sings of how “she’s just learning to love herself, she’s still learning to let herself go, she’s still learning to trust herself and Jonathan’s gotta be patient because I know…” In another song, he sings of how he’s proud of how “The Girl Stands Up to Me Now”. Other such profound lyrics/titles include “You Must Ask the Heart”, “True Love is Not Nice”, and so many more…
As I stated, we’re talking a 45-year career here. If you’re still reading this… (unintentional Drake reference) your attention span is impressive in this modern-age of 3 second social media stories. SO, I hope this spurs your interest enough to start diving into (all of) his albums- with the band and solo. Please see some more suggested albums and songs that stand out to me below.
This past summer, in a magical moment of synchronicity, I met Jonathan Richman and his beautiful wife (I’m not sure she would want to be named, so I’ll leave her nameless here) in a cafe in Telluride, CO and it all clicked… His music, tone, child-like curiosity and playful charm, coupled with old world wisdom, deep-felt messages and melodies, give the exact feeling of what I’m trying to show through the show I’m currently writing.
You can still catch him in NYC tonight at the Bowery Ballroom at 9pm! I’ll be there. If the stars align on this full moon in Libra, beautiful spring day New York, perhaps I’ll chat with him again…!
Further suggested listening and/or watching (by no means comprehensive and in addition to the aforementioned):
- “A Plea for Tenderness”— I love how some of his early stuff is sweet but also like, angsty tormented teenager-in-love
- “Affection” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3GGivtp44g
- “I was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW-97isRvrQ (*MUST WATCH*)
- Super nostalgic sweet sound, similar to the Bermuda song:
Suggested Full Albums available on Spotify:
- The Modern Lovers 1976
- Back in Your Life 1979— one of my all-time favorites
- The Beserkley Collection (some older stuff too but released in 2004)— a great place to start getting familiar
- Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love 2004— adorable title and same thing- listen to this song, but I really love this whole album. “He gave us the wine to taste (not to talk about it)”— how awesome is that for lyrics on that song!
- O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth 2010— name of my favorite song on it and album (a later solo album with a more old world, spanish guitar, mysterious sound)
- Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild 2008— again the name of my favorite track (if you pick one song) and album name. “When We Refuse to Suffer” is quite profound as well!!
*Note: I hope by reading this you make your own discoveries as well. Thank you Youtube, Wikipedia, and Spotify for all of the information this autodidact discovered and links enclosed.