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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Like Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris and a half-dozen others, Jonathan Richman is the best living songwriter of his generation. He sings about parties, getting closer, skydiving, Bermuda and nighttime. He helped invent punk and then left to sing quietly. His followers are not to be gotten started. Their eyes get soft and they just about hug themselves; if you say, “Jonathan who?” their lower lips protrude just like Jonathan’s own.
Tender, dry, loving and rough people have been learning to be like Richman for three decades now. As founder of the Modern Lovers, he showed fussy teens everywhere that they, too, could be funny brats with smart songs. Then, in the ’80s, he did more and more quiet solo work, at times because it seemed that not a single other musician could stand how gentle the punk legend had become. Here he showed people that intelligent songs needn’t be clever, and sweet songs could be just a little sweet.
In “My Career as a Homewrecker,” he recalls the women who couldn’t resist his “certain traits” over the years: “My career as a homewrecker is not yet through — there’s all these homewreckin’ things to do.”
He’s not wrong, either. His certain traits make people rethink their relationships — it’s not always safe to introduce a lover to his charming songs, which he might sing in English, Italian, Spanish or French. When you finally see him in person, you laugh because he’s tiny — a small, handsome man with thick biceps and a huge, tough Massachusetts voice, like Lou Reed saying “Bah Hahbah.” As soon as he starts to sing, he also starts to dance, and he dances so exquisitely that he immediately becomes tall. Sometimes he gets carried away and puts the guitar down on the floor so he can dance better. Then he whirls around and kicks up into the rafters, wagging his finger here and there, and doesn’t stop frowning until he’s picked up the guitar again.
Magazines call Richman “eccentric,” and he probably is, insofar as Frank Sinatra is eccentric against a backdrop of preadolescent rappers, boy bands and 18-year-old pop sensations dancing in soda commercials so seductively that former presidential candidates are forced to make thinly veiled allusions to their own erections. Richman is simply an offbeat 50-year-old who sometimes dances on sidewalks outside clubs when the music’s too loud, and who sometimes speaks in Tonto syntax, like Hemingway sometimes did: Me play music for you now.
Richman is called an eccentric because his songs seem out of place. Those recorded in the last 20 years have a wryness that seems exceedingly contemporary, but they’re set to ’50s and ’60s rhythm guitar. The sentiment, also, feels too unironic to be modern, but not insipid enough to be regular old doo-wop. As sometime colleague Brennan Totten has pointed out, Richman’s music makes us nostalgic for a time that never existed.
Rock stories often involve discovery. Great talent is found, like a distant star, and what was once dark blinds us with brightness. Throughout the person’s great career, we reflect on the moment — there is always a moment in these stories — when the star was born. This moment happened for Aretha, for Elvis, for Eminem, and it proceeds directly from the Johnnie B. Goode allegory: Back up in the woods among the evergreens lives the next big thing. But Richman’s story was much closer to Horatio Alger. Yes, people have discovered him, but they did so in fits and spurts, and the guy doesn’t exactly need tinted windows.
The tired old Velvet Underground saw is that only 500 people listened to them, but each started his or her own band. If someone tells this to you and you actually say, “Like who?” this person will most certainly shrug. Unless he knows his Jojo trivia: Richman sat up straight in Boston the day he heard a record from Lou Reed et al. A self-described lonely, attention-starved teen, he’d spent the last couple of years playing the guitar in the Cambridge Commons. He was 18 when he heard the Velvet Underground. He left immediately for New York.
Richman charms all without exception, and the Factory people were no exception. Andy Warhol, John Cale and Reed let their new fan soak up their vibe, hang out on their couches. “The fact that we slept outdoors in Central Park and didn’t get killed tells you that it was 1970 and not a day later,” Richman says. Reed was once quoted as saying that he couldn’t be held responsible for Jonathan Richman. By then it was probably too late. Richman bought an electric guitar, went to Europe, came back 19 and got started.
The Modern Lovers brought the Velvets’ big, droning fuzz out of New York, leaving the heroin reference behind to eventually fester as cliché. The Lovers wrote songs about not doing drugs, with all the bratty self-righteousness of a band that did plenty. They made fun of hippies and complained a little and sang about what Boston was like for young people. People loved them almost right off the bat. It was weird to be mocking hippies in the early ’70s, and they did so with a catchy sound.
By the time they got an actual record out, they’d been playing almost five years, and they no longer sounded like the guys on the recording. The Modern Lovers were not even the same Modern Lovers: Keyboard player Jerry Harrison left and went on to join the Talking Heads, and drummer David Robinson went on to be in the Cars. Richman had left Boston for Berkeley’s Beserkley Records, and was on the verge of disappointing people for the first of many times.
Too nice, Richman’s fans began to say. They missed the angst and the self-righteousness — their Jojo was writing songs like “Hey There Little Insect.” Eventually they’d come around for the most part, even extol this new music as even truer punk for how quiet it was, but for years Richman endured complaints about his positive attitude.
Music shouldn’t hurt a baby’s ear, he said, and over the next 20 years not a single infant was harmed. Too bad, some griped. Indeed, when a surly punk rocker cuts his hair, brings out an acoustic guitar and starts singing lines like, “To win in love you must surrender,” it’s usually trouble. On the back of one album, Richman can even be seen squatting down to pet a cat. But like any troubadour worth his bus ticket, Richman is never edgier than when he’s singing about love. The songs are funny, the love lyrics subtle and the cat is honest rock music.
When I say “wife,” it’s cause if you said “lover” every day,
You’re gonna begin to gag.
But “wife” sounds like your mortgage,
Sounds like the laundry bag.
His is a revision of the rules codified by the paragons of sophisticated rock music. Slouching over a whiskey is not depth. Morose discomfort is not depth. Depth is not depth. What’s deep — what’s truly deep — is “She Doesn’t Laugh at My Jokes” and “When Harpo Played His Harp.”
Still, even today, old punks with good memories occasionally complain that their mentor went soft. It’s true that Richman was flicking at the punk ethic long before the Sex Pistols stuck their fingers up their noses. But the idea was to fuck shit up and, in punk terms, Richman decided nothing was more transgressive than spreading happiness. In “Government Center,” he wants to spread it around a building full of gloomy bureaucrats:
We won’t stop until we see secretaries smile
And see some office boys jump up for joy.
We’ll tell old Mr. Ayhern, “Calm down a while,
You know that’s the only way the center is ever gonna get better.”
Depending on who’s pontificating, Richman is dismissed or praised as childlike, naive, innocent and, worst of all, boyish. The boyish thing is understandable: He has big eyes and his toothy grins leave suddenly for a 10-point pout. The prose of his songs is straightforward and guileless, but not in the way that lets reviewers use favorite words, like “gritty.” Richman eschews Bruce Springsteen’s gravelly wisdom for a more refined candor about what love feels like. “When she kisses me, I get so ecstatic/She thinks I’m maybe being overdramatic.”
Like Tom Waits, Richman is an inventory taker. He documents hot nights, California desert parties, twilight in Boston, not enough parties, lonely thrift stores, vampire girls and then, famously, the something that there was about Mary. But where Waits finds the wonderfully mundane in the alien — the German dwarf dancing with the butcher’s son is really just you and me — Richman pulls the alien out of the normal. Twilight in Boston is out of this world if you know how to see it.
He’s a proficient anatomist, too. In one song he gets to the bottom of the Fender Stratocaster, which sounds like “a tin can falling on a dead-end street.” And like “taillights heading for another town.” Also, “the sound’s so thin that it’s barely there, like a bitchy girl who just don’t care.”
Whatever it is that’s lovable about him — and that’s the word, “lovable” — you can’t get close; picture a koala bear. Journalists who try talking to Richman report the following areas off-limits: his personal life and his musical life. Politely he will answer harmless questions as emptily as possible. One interviewer got this much out of him:
Interviewer: So what do you like to do when you’re not performing?
Richman: Nothing much. Hang around. Ride my bike. Hang around.
Interviewer: What do you think about when you wake up in the morning? Or the afternoon?
Richman: Depends if I’m hungry. Sometimes you wake up and want something to eat, and sometimes I just think of other things. Hard to say what. Varies every day.
Other questions, he’ll just try to get off the phone. Befuddled, interviewers finally ask the simplest thing they can think of: Well, are you touring? Oh yes, he’ll exclaim, it’s fun!
The impossibility of conducting a decent interview with Richman is well documented, and emerges as a theme in many of the write-ups. But plenty of famous people get quiet around journalists, so this alone is not revealing. The thing about Richman is that reporters keep coming back for more. Each believes he or she will be the one to finally pull the sword from the stone, because he or she is the one who truly understands the universe exalted when Jojo sings and dances just so. This tells more about him than them. Picture a koala bear with a fierce magnetic field.
And this is also where Richman lovers get caught in the brambles: In the end, their hero seems to care at most elliptically about what they think of him. For all that we locate in Richman — the funniness, the tenderness, the gruffness, the dramatic and the nasal sweetness — there is also indifference. If his interview persona is at all indicative, he doesn’t want to hear about all the levels on which he’s felt. The effect of the severely restricted access, then, becomes weird: Imagine a recluse who happens to sing and dance for people every chance he gets.
Richman says he wants his albums sold next to Maurice Chevalier’s in record stores, and this might be the only rupture in his enlightenment. Richman is indeed a worldly guy — he’ll sing about Paris, about van Gogh, about ancient Greece — but nobody could be more American. The things Richman understands are too diffuse to come from anywhere else. And what’s more, they are sung too urgently to be European:
I can’t take it slow and easy,
I can’t live like that.
If the music’s gonna move me,
Folks, it’s gotta be action-packed
Action, in the Richman cosmos, means a good deal — he’s talking about how music should be, but he’s also laying down the groundwork for a lifestyle. What kind of lifestyle, exactly? Hard to say what. Varies every day.
Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.More Chris Colin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)