The music of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Richman has been acclaimed not just for its influence on early punk, but also for its childlike and positive lyrics. Songs like “That Summer Feeling,” “Twilight in Boston,” and “Hey There Little Insect” take a close and cheery look at oft-missed parts of life.
Nonetheless, this was an artist I had to learn to love. There. Sounds grouchy, doesn’t it? Did I also have to learn to love pizza and sunny days? Whenever I heard his upbeat melodies, his nasal voice and slurred dictionannoyed me. His songs struck me as repetitive, some of them comprised of just one repeated lyric, like “Gail Loves Me.” And what kind of fluff was he singing about? In college, I judged music’s worth by the anguish it made me feel. Since then, I’ve tried to balance my tastes, but until this past June Jonathan Richman’s happy-go-lucky tunes still didn’t have a place on my spectrum.
In June, he played at one of my favorite Chicago venues, The Empty Bottle, with Vic Chesnutt, one of my favorite musicians. Richman and his drummer, Tommy Larkin, have just produced Chesnutt’s recent Skitter on Take Off – which, for me, has become another reason to love Jonathan Richman.
Anticipating the concert, I started spinning some Jonathan Richman albums. And, as often happens with good music when you give it a chance, I began to like what I heard.
On the small stage at the Empty Bottle, he held the guitar and danced twirling jigs. He smiled the entire time. With just Richman and Larkin on stage, the concert felt intimate. He sang about the same simple things I’d heard on earlier ventures into his music, but hearing it while seeing the smiling face made it all cohere. This guy really liked life.
He sang, “The lilies of the field just sway all day, oh, but no one is ever dressed quite their way,” assuring his listeners that “you and I don’t need to worry.” He captured a quandary I’ve felt myself: “I want the city but I want the country, too,” because, sang Richman, “I want to be with my friends by the fire and the starlight, but I want music, music in my life. I want a bar hoppin’ music scene, I want to pick from ten or fifteen.”
What ultimately won me over was the way Richman sang about women. I have to confess, going to a concert generally makes me feel about as self-conscious as a beach trip. Every type of music has an associated way to dress, which I can’t get right no matter how I try. But Richman sang about loving a woman who “don’t act cool, don’t act like a femme fatale… she laughs when she wants…she laughs when she laughs, she’s the breeze, she’s the natural…. Her mystery not of high heels and eyeshadow.”
I came back from the concert realizing how rare Jonathan Richman is. In a culture where it’s cool to half-close your lids and say, “that was so 2008,” his music revives wonder. The same year Woody Allen was belittling Annie Hall for using the word “neat,” Jonathan Richman was promoting Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers by writing: “Hi There! I’m Jonathan Richman and I’d just like to tell you that after all these months of waiting you can buy a record of me singing one of my favorite songs, ‘Roadrunner’… Neat, huh?”
A part of the nascent 70’s proto-punk movement, he slept on the Velvet Underground manager’s couch when he first moved to New York. He plunged into an era of exuberant ugliness and maintained his innocence, posing wide-eyed and smiling, singing about how he didn’t use drugs, and still looking carefully at life’s rarely-lauded beauties.
It’s Richman’s lack of snide irony that lets him indulge in wonder. In the liner notes to the Rhino release of Modern Lovers, his first album, the reviewer noted Richman’s “non-ironic affection for the trappings of modern American civilization and culture.”
When I moved to a city, I learned that wedging one’s way into artistic, cultured society can mean acquiring knowledge not for its own sake but for the sake of being able to reference it. And once one could make the cultural references, one could make ironic remarks about them.
This is enervating. If you really love something, you’re bound to look naive, even nerdy. This is the risk that Jonathan Richman takes with his ebullient, “Neat, huh?” and his songs about how much he likes “When Harpo Played His Harp” or how he loves moments of confrontation because he “get[s] this thrill out of saying what’s true.”
David Foster Wallace wrote that “irony, irreverence, and rebellion [have] come to be not liberating but enfeebling” in our culture. This is why artists like Richman are a breeze of relief. Loving the simple things in life may cause us to lose our ironic, critical prowess, but can it be worth it to live without loving everyday things and looking at them with rapt appreciation?