You Can't Talk to the Dude

Josh Kornbluth surrenders to eccentric rocker Jonathon Richman.

Topics: Music,

i suppose the interview was doomed from the moment Salon asked me to conduct
it. I’m a monologuist, you see  I make my living by staring into my own
navel and intermittently reporting on what I observe. So the idea of me
actually talking to someone else and reporting on
that was perverse on the face of it. But I couldn’t refuse: the
subject was to be Jonathan Richman, ingenuous bard of rock-and-roll
transcendence  a guy whose droll little love songs mean so much to me (heck, sometimes I even catch myself looking to his goofy rhyming couplets for life-guidance, like a latter-day “Poor Jonathan’s Almanac”) that I just had to brush the bellybutton lint from my face and give
this interviewing thing a shot.

Plus I already had the tape recorder!

You don’t actually make an appointment to interview Jonathan. This was
explained to me by his tour publicist, Thanh-Thanh Dang. What you do, she
said, is say when you’re generally available and then, when Jonathan gets the
urge, he calls you. Which made sense to me, as the Jonathan who comes
through in his songs is a man-child driven by the winds of whim and
serendipity. What I didn’t totally anticipate was that he’d get the urge to
call me at 2 o’clock in the morning. Looking back on the conversation that
followed, perhaps if I’d been in a state of higher alertness  or even had
been, say, 50 percent conscious  the interview may well have been less of a
disaster. Or perhaps not.

The phone rang. I groped around for the receiver, finally found it, and
lifted it toward my ear, which at length I also found. “Hello, this is
Jonathan Richman,” a voice said. It was a voice familiar from his many
albums  with a post-nasal timbre that practically cries out for Sudafed and
affection. In a blurry state of excitement, I switched on my tape recorder
and came up with the most professional-sounding opening line I could muster:
“Oh hey, cool, Jonathan! How great to hear from you!”

“Well, thanks,” he allowed.

I struggled to come up with a follow-up. At the last moment, it came to me:
“Oh  hey, cool. So … wow, excellent!”

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“I call you from a pay phone in Pennsylvania Station in New York City,” he
said. “I’m about to take a night train, ’cause it’s 2 a.m. here, almost.”

Listening to the tape, I wish I’d said, at this point: “Well, Jonathan, it’s
a funny thing you mention that, because it’s also 2 a.m. here 
in nearby Hartford!” Maybe that would have made him feel a bit guilty and cause
him to open up more than he did. Or maybe not. But in any case, I didn’t
say anything at all. So he went on: “In a little while I get on a train.
But I thought I’d say hello, since I had some spare time.”

“Oh, that’s great!” I shot back. “Where are you going?”

“Oh, off to Boston,” he said. “We just played  ‘we’ being the last
performance of my little quartet  just played the Conan O’Brien show.”

I went for the jugular: “Oh, excellent. How did it go?”

He said, “Good!” And then there was silence. I’d hoped for a longer
answer, to give me a chance to clear my head. But it quickly became clear that
Jonathan felt no compulsion to elaborate on his comments. Pithiness was
the order of the day. Which, as a former copyeditor, I admired in a sense 
though as a current interviewer, not so much.

Stalling for time, I said, “Cool, cool  excellent.” But in my head, a
battle plan was forming. Richman’s latest album, Surrender to
Jonathan,
has several songs that hint strongly at a break-up of his
marriage. Perhaps I could steer our colloquy in that direction.

So I said, “Your new record is really moving  because, at least based on
your songs, like, you’ve been through some stuff, you know, with your family
and … stuff.”

There was a long silence. Finally, he said, “Oh, I don’t know about stuff
like that.” Then, using a distraction technique mastered by most parents of
small children, he changed the subject: “But you like it, eh?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said  but to my credit I didn’t let the whole family issue
just drop. I pressed on: “`My Little Girl’s Got a Full Time Daddy Now’ 
it’s just such a pretty song.”

“Oh, thank you,” he said.

“Is it cool being a dad?” I asked.

What followed was the longest silence ever experienced by an interviewer in
the history of Earth. I had a mental image of the pay-phone receiver
dangling from its little booth, with Richman already far away, dashing off to
grab a nice, comfy seat on the Mayflower Express. But then I heard his voice
again, now speaking in measured tones: “Well, I always leave stuff like that
out of interviews, you know. I never talk about stuff like that in
interviews much.”

I’m embarrassed to say that at this point, I just plain out-and-out
panicked. I lost all sense of hewing to proper Woodward-and-Bernstein
technique. Things clearly were not going well, and I instinctively fell back
on what comes naturally: I started monologuing. I talked about my own hopes
of one day raising a family. I told a long story about how I damaged my ears
at an “acoustic” concert by the Violent Femmes, a band clearly influenced by
Richman. I mentioned that I used to hang out with Barrence Whitfield, a
blues shouter who sang back-up on one of Richman’s albums. I started
rattling on about the whole curse of the Boston Red Sox, his hometown team,
and how it had impacted my life. Throughout, Richman occasionally uttered
variants on, “Uh huh.”

At length I heard myself say, “But that’s, I guess, more about
me, and I’m supposed to, like, ask you about you.”

“If you like,” he said. “I don’t got much more time. I just got another
little while.”

Trying to channel the investigative spirit of Oriana Fallaci for all I was
worth, I summoned up a question. “Well, like, what’s going on?” I demanded.

He responded cautiously. “Uh, you got the tape recorder running already?”

“Oh, sure!” I said. “Yeah, yeah!”
“You do?”

“Yeah!”

Now here’s where I think he realized he was dealing with a pro. So for the
next couple of minutes we had what I would almost term a linear conversation.

“Good,” he said. “Okay. What’s goin’ on? Well, we did touring a bunch.
And I just played a bunch of shows with my quartet. And after Thanksgiving,
we go back to just me and Tommy Larkins on the drums.”

Q. Are you happy with your new album?

A. Yeah. It came out good. I like how it came out.

Q. Uh huh. And then, the stuff with the organ that comes in sometimes is
really pretty.

A. Oh good, thanks.

Q. Like, at the end of “Full Time Daddy Now”? That sort of, like, “held”
thing it does at the end?

A. I’m glad you liked that.

Q. It’s really neat. … Do you do, like, a lot of takes of stuff?

A. Not usually.

Q. Yeah. Wow. … And do you record all at once  like, everyone’s
playing at the same time?

A. A lot of times. Some of that album wasn’t done that way. Some of it
was. Um, some of it was done with everyone playing at the same
time.

Q. Uh huh. It’s probably more  Is it a lot more gratifying?

A. Yeah!

I’ll admit that at this point I was starting to feel pretty good about the
way things were going. I was asking questions; he was answering them. This
was how interviews were supposed to work.

I asked him whether he had a preferred band-size for touring with.

“Yeah,” he said. “Just me and a drummer. That’s the way it works best.”

I pressed the point: “Why do you like it better? Just ’cause you can do
more, like, on the spur of the moment? It’s more stripped down?”

Whoops! Another mega-silence. I’d evidently overstepped my bounds again.

At length he said, wearily, “I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about stuff
like that.” Then, brightening a bit, he added: “But I do know that that’s
my favorite way to do it!”

My will was now completely broken. Personal questions were off-limits.
Musical questions were off-limits. Apparently, the only subject that could
be hashed over in excruciating detail was my own life  and that’s not why
SALON was paying me the big bucks. I decided to give up on being a reporter
and just speak from my heart.

I said, “Your stuff makes me really happy, Jonathan.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“And it makes my girlfriend really happy,” I said.

Silence. Uh-oh. Perhaps my personal life was now verboten.

Eventually I heard him clear his throat. “Uh, I got to get going now. So I
better wrap this up.”

Golden relief swirled through me. “Okay,” I said. “Cool. Well, thanks a
lot, Jonathan.”

“All right, Josh,” he said. He sounded relieved as well.

“I hope you have a really safe trip, and all,” I said.

“Uh, thanks  thanks a lot!” he said. “See you later!”

“Take care!” I said. “Bye!”

“Yeah! Bye!” he said. And he hung up.

You know, in those very last moments, I think we bonded. I really do. Or possibly we didn’t.

Josh Kornbluth is a San Francisco-based monologuist who has been performing in Hartford, Connecticut as part of an intermittent worldwide tour. He is the author of "Red Diaper Baby," a book of his stage pieces recently published by Mercury House.

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