In 1973, a 22-year-old named Jonathan Richman wrote a letter to the editor of Creem. The Detroit magazine, which started in 1969 when both New Journalism and the archetype of the music critic were solidifying in the consciousness of American counterculture, was an iconic purveyor of rock ‘n’ roll criticism and culture. It had recently run a short, positive notice about Richman’s band, the Modern Lovers, whose fast, angry guitar music had given them a reputation in their native Boston. With its signature hopscotch of irony and humor, Creem synthesized the Lovers’ sound: “More than a little like a teenage Velvet Underground.” The magazine called one of their songs, “a guaranteed hit single” and another, “possibly the next national anthem.” Creem’s kidding aside, by most metrics, the Modern Lovers were in a good place in 1973. John Cale, legendary member of the Velvet Underground, was producing the Lovers’ debut album for Warner Brothers when their singer decided to write a letter to Creem.
Richman’s reasoning reflects the mingling of iconoclasm and wisdom that would direct him his entire career: he wanted to defend a decidedly non-countercultural, non-hip icon of a past era, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, whose work Creem had appraised negatively in a recent issue. The title of his letter: “Masculine Arrogance Blows.”
I love the 4 Seasons. I don’t think rock ‘n’ roll needs “masculine arrogance.” Why be snide about them? I always sigh when I hear “Candy Girl” and “Marlena.” You call them “featherweights.” They’re heavyweights to me.
And by the way, what’s wrong with a man singing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”? Can’t a man want to be friends for a long time instead of just for a night, too?
Today, Valli’s band is best known as the basis for Jersey Boys, and Richman’s defense of the singer must have seemed, to the editors of Creem, like a joke in line with their editorial style. The Modern Lovers bore little similarity to clean, doo-wop bands like the Four Seasons. Richman was not interested in complex harmonies—not yet. The Lovers’ songs were melodically simple and heavily distorted, a style that linked them not only to The Velvet Underground, but also to the Stooges and the New York Dolls, artists that would get credit—like the Lovers would, in years to come—for playing punk rock before the genre became a recognizable phenomenon later in the decade. Creem, in fact, came up with the term “punk rock” in 1971, but it was not a genre Richman had heard of when he recorded his debut.
If Richman’s angsty, beseeching voice make him one of punk’s essential forebears, his lyrical content distinguishes him in rock history. Among the topics Richman covers in his early work: a love for the 1950s; a conviction that women, if only they were sensible, would want to sleep with him rather than with their hippie boyfriends; a belief in the unhealthiness of drugs and the healthiness of health food; a closeness with his parents; a realization that caring for someone is more desirable than promiscuous sex. Richman’s perspective sounds both naïve and fully formed, middle-class and deranged. Fascinatingly, his career is an unusually detailed log of a singer growing, questioning his own behavior and opinions, and learning more about the world. Asked, earlier this year, about his letter-to-the-editor, Richman replied, “Well, since that letter, I’ve seen how much of that arrogance I myself still had. I’m still working on it.”
Sixty-seven years old and 21 albums into his career, Richman’s oeuvre sounds like a ticker tape of an artist’s soul expanding during the second half of the twentieth century. On his earliest songs, the push-pull between Richman’s sentiments and the aggressiveness of his sound expressed an anxiety that underlay the rock ‘n’ roll culture of the Seventies. The world was changing, and Jonathan Richman’s loss of innocence was pressed up against its shifting aesthetics and politics. The Federal Highway Act of 1956, signed when the suburban-raised singer was five, decimated urban neighborhoods and hastened the flight of the upwardly mobile; on “Roadrunner,” the Modern Lovers sing about the joys of driving on Route 128 at night: “Welcome to the spirit of 1956,” sings Richman. High-rise housing complexes, another facet of urban renewal, changed the face of American cities; the Modern Lovers find this architecture bleak, and on “Hospital,” Jonathan Richman admits to being “scared once or twice” while visiting a girlfriend in her “modern” building. The success of second-wave feminist movements led to several legislative victories in the first half of the Seventies; the Modern Lovers sing a song called “A Plea for Tenderness” which begins, “Now girls, do you hate men? / Well you know, sometimes you just don’t talk to them / and that’s sad.” Richman’s young male narrators find themselves brought face-to-face with the complexity of a changing world: gradually, they begin to change along with it.
Richman’s contemporaries lived fast and, in the cases of members of the New York Dolls and the Stooges, died as a result of heavy drug use in their primes. Until it stopped printing in 1989, Creem imitated their lifestyle, employing the lingo and archness of the musicians they covered—to the extent that, when androgynous and non-straight musicians became more visible in the early Seventies, Creem reacted by using the word “fag” liberally. It was produced for several years on a Woodstock-aping farm in Walled Lake, Michigan, where many of its staffers lived. Creem’s founder, Barry Kramer, and its most famous editor-in-chief, Lester Bangs, died of overdoses in the early Eighties. And like the musicians in its pages, who became embroiled in disputes over royalties and ownership, attempts to revive Creem have been stymied by legal battles over intellectual property. Perhaps the magazine will have a new journalistic life in the future. For now, it remains an essential artifact of the twentieth century.
Two months after Creem magazine ran Richman’s letter, the Modern Lovers broke up and lost their record deal. The album was canned, and all that remains today are the demos, released in 1976 by Beserkley Records as The Modern Lovers, Richman’s only punk-sounding album. He positioned himself not as an artist interested in the vogue, in the replacement of one avant-garde movement or methodology with the next, but rather as an observer, standing on the sidelines of the twentieth century and taking notes.
Richman’s practice as cataloguer of the twentieth century has made him one of the few rock musicians whose art has been bolstered by his growing older. His lyrics rely—even when he was in his twenties—on the wisdom of age and retrospection. He studies music cultures around the world and agglomerates these varied influences seamlessly into his singer-songwriter practice. A residency Richman held at the Inverurie Hotel in Bermuda early in 1973 exposed him to calypso music, which inspired a shift in his tastes from sung-spoken, amplified songs to acoustic songs with strong melodies and harmonies that might have earned the admiration of the Four Seasons. On later albums, his guitar work took many of its cues from Spanish music—flamenco, Catalan rumba, Gypsy jazz. He learned Spanish, French and Italian, finding that Romance languages, with their varied grammatical structures, allowed him to set different thoughts to music than English.
But Richman always avoided being defined or directed by the genres he explored. Richman has never had an “Afrobeat” phase, a “symphonic” phase, a “return-to-roots” phase. The punk he pioneered on The Modern Lovers revealed itself, by the time Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers (1976) and Rock ‘n’ Roll with The Modern Lovers (1977) came out, to be one youthful, contrarian step in a lengthy artistic evolution. When punk’s noisy, chaotic audio mixes became popular with producers in the late 1970s, Richman geared his production toward making his lyrics as prominent as possible. When other bands wore short hair and street clothes onstage, like Richman did in his early concerts, he began to dress like a hippie, growing his hair out. He replaced the urban street tales of his debut with willful naivety. Much of his late-seventies work sounds as though it had been written for children. Subjects of songs from the period include: leprechauns, Martians, roller coasters, monsters.
On tour, Richman often travels by train, rather than by bus or van or plane, in order to reduce his carbon footprint. He purportedly does not play electric guitar on the road for similar reasons. His ex-bassist, Ernie Brooks, notes that another reason he abandoned loud music in the Seventies was to preserve his fans’ hearing. His current drummer, Tommy Larkins, knows how to play extremely softly. Richman is accompanied by no other instruments, besides the maracas he uses to keep the beat while Tommy solos.
In a genre that caters to and celebrates youth, Richman attracts an unusually fluid mixture of ages to his concerts. He performs in medium-sized clubs, and his stage show lacks the glitz of other famous seventies rock acts in their dotage. At the Bell House, in Brooklyn, where I saw him play in February, there were no intricate lighting rigs or video set pieces, none of the amenities that might attract the proverbial “Baby Boomers in khakis,” as a recent review of a Bob Dylan album in Pitchfork termed those who attend expensive stadium shows in order to see the acts of their youth play reunion sets.
His music, because of the time in which he made it, risks provoking “borrowed nostalgia” in fans around my age. Borrowed nostalgia is a strange phrase—who are we borrowing from? our parents? their culture?—but its reality makes me feel trepidation about seeing any musician play live who produced their best work in decades past. By nature, borrowed nostalgia can only be felt by people who did not experience the thing they pine for. When I was 20 and 21, seventies New York was a frequent subject of longing, although a knowledge of history—the imminence of the AIDS crisis, for example—eventually dulled the emotional pull of the past.