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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 marimbas 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.

 

Richman’s career engages with borrowed nostalgia directly enough to nullify the feeling. He played the opening chords of “Old World” and everyone, young and not-so-young, began to flip out. This is the stuff his fans want to hear. Here’s “Old World” as it appeared on the Modern Lovers’ debut:

Well the old world may be dead
Our parents can’t understand
But I still love my parents
And I still love the old world
Oh, I had a New York girlfriend
And she couldn’t understand how I could
Still love my parents and still love the old world

Richman changed the lyrics of the song while on tour in the 21st century, his voice a softened husk of its once sardonic, insistent call-to-arms:

I don’t want to go back to the old world
I don’t want to go back to the arcane
I don’t want to go back to the mysterious, elegant old world
Of camaraderie, and elegance
And love of torture
And love of stuff like thumb screws, and guillotines and stuff[1]

Richman also changes the live arrangements of his songs from their studio versions. Like Dylan, another “classic” rock artist who has reinvented his concert persona over the course of many decades, Richman’s music is highly improvisatory on stage. Wisely, he never attempts to recreate his studio sound. Part of this is necessitated by the fact that he currently tours with only a drummer, while he often records with a much larger band. Larkin’s beats are rudimentary and leave an unusual amount of space for Jonathan to improvise. Meanwhile, the ambition of Jonathan’s guitar work exceeds the dexterity of his fingers. He shifts octaves, pausing while he moves the length of the guitar neck to form his fingers into new chords. He falls out of rhythm while changing strumming patterns. He makes mistakes, puzzling his fans while he labors to match the emotional reality of each moment.

Richman appeared in the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998), was a repeat guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and most recently, translated a book of verse by the Italian poet Alberto Masala. He had early ambitions of being a visual artist, and wrote about art and music for Boston publications as a teenager before he left for New York, apparently at the invitation of Andy Warhol, who wanted Richman to work on his films. Then Drella was shot, in 1968, and by the time an eighteen-year-old Jonathan arrived in Manhattan, he found himself on the fringes of the Factory scene, living on the couch of the Velvet Underground’s manager.

In the months since I saw him play live, Richman’s connections to both comedy and visual art have caused me to ask questions about his intentions as an artist, particularly whether his live set is a piece of comedic performance art. Richman was obsessed with the Velvet Underground when they were the musical accompaniment to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable,[2] and his stage show is full of vaudevillian dances and extended comedic rants. The unpolished and apparently unrehearsed aspects of the music make it seem like simply another aspect of the comedy.

Richman has a penchant for challenging his fans with what appear to be extended practical jokes, yet actually serve as unconventional ways of coaxing deeper emotional responses. Take a recording of “Ice Cream Man,” in which he sings about the ice-cream truck jingle, his repetitive verses reflecting the repetitive tune the ice cream truck plays while making its rounds. The live version extends to eight minutes, Richman and his band repeating the main hook over and over, concluding the song dramatically, and then starting up again. This might sound like torture, but the repetition is hypnotic, the band tight and rehearsed, the four-part harmonies beautiful. At just the point when it seems the audience might boo and walk out, they clap along and cheer.

Then there’s visual art—at the Bell House, his smock-like button-down looked ready to be splattered and stained with paint. Richman plays other shows in a Breton shirt, his strapless guitar free and nimble as a brush. Even the texture of his strumming, which can vary considerably from measure to measure, suggests someone working on a detail of a drawing, shading and erasing until he gets something to look exactly the way he wants it to look. Each time he takes an awkward amount of time to change chords, he seems to be dipping his brush into his palette. At very early shows, when he still made drawings, he used to set his pieces on easels behind him while he played. Back then, Richman sang about wanting to be like Pablo Picasso. “Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes,” goes an iconic Modern Lovers track, “This never happened to Pablo Picasso.”

Richman wrote lyrics like this:

If I were to walk to the Museum of Fine Arts
in Boston
Well, first I’d go to the room where they keep
the Cézanne
But if I had by my side a girlfriend
Then I could look through the paintings
I could look right through them
Because I’d have found something that I
understand
I understand a girlfriend.

Since his first release, Richman only sings about artists who lived before the twentieth century began.[3] Discussing their paintings allows him to inhabit his own naivety of perception, like a teenager walking through a museum for the first time. But rather than singing about his desire to get laid, he now sings about artists’ compositional sense and emotional effects: “Well have you heard about the painter, Vincent van Gogh?” goes one of his best recordings, “Who loved color and who let it show?” Or:

Vermeer was eerie
Vermeer was strange
He had a more modern color range
As if born in another age
Like maybe a hundred or so years ago

His interest is not in technology, in the use of novel materials, which in both visual art and rock ‘n’ roll have defined how twentieth century practitioners set themselves apart from their predecessors. Richman creates a living, breathing musician from the figure of the Spanish guitarist, a subject pre-modern artists often depicted and that Picasso and Georges Braque and Juan Gris all shattered in early Cubist paintings. Richman reverses the gaze painters applied to the Spanish guitarist by singing about  painters and playing guitar in a Spanish-influenced style. He works back from the avant-garde fracturing of the Cubists to a simpler time, when artists were fixated on color and slight shifts in brush stroke. He reconstitutes the self from the shards of the modern world.

Jonathan Richman has discussed repeatedly his discomfort with the most important musical innovation of the past century, the recording studio. He had a chance to embrace the studio’s possibilities, to learn from the bleeding edge, when he worked with John Cale in the early Seventies. Yet, for better or for worse, Richman rejected Cale’s plan for him, refusing to accentuate the anger that Cale wanted from his vocal takes. In an interview several years after their sessions together, Cale said of Richman’s songs:

They were not aggressive. They were weak. There was a definitive weakness about the music. This weakness kept on developing and developing until it was still just a weakness.

The singer’s biographer, Tim Mitchell, asserts that Richman lost faith in their sessions because he no longer felt the alienation and loneliness that had sparked his songwriting when he was a teenager. His music had found an audience, and his adolescent belief in being misunderstood was no longer strong. He had met the woman, Gail, to whom he would be attached for the next two decades. Gail was a new muse. Bassist Ernie Brooks told a slightly different story to Vice magazine:

I don’t think it was so much that [Jonathan] was getting tired of the old songs as he was developing this idea that the whole rock-‘n’-roll-star-making machinery was corrupt … the whole system of burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, using a lot of power for amps and sound systems, playing stadiums—you know, feeling that there was something wrong in profiting from all these things—and he started tying it all together in his mind and decided that he didn’t want the Modern Lovers to be a conventional rock ‘n’ roll band.

The several wonderful albums he released in the 21st century, particularly, Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (2002), Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2005), and O Moon, O Queen of Night on Earth (2010), show Richman moving away from the second person that was his bread-and-butter on his early songs, the direct address of the listener which often seemed both involving and sinister. On his recent records, he usually sings from an introspective first-person or a more distant third-person perspective. Even on a song as straightforwardly sexual as “I Was the One She Came for,” he gives the impression of looking back on life from the distant perch of maturity.

Another adolescent hero of Richman’s, Lou Reed, released a record in 1980 called Growing Up in Public. The phrase, as provocative as “borrowed nostalgia,” points to the strange reality of being Reed, or Richman, or a whole era of rock musicians who had the opportunity to broadcast their juvenile sentiments to the public. Mediums at their height of public importance often propel very young people into the spotlight, but Richman’s lengthy and fiercely autonomous career allowed him to look back on his youth with a spotlight that is, thankfully, unsparing. His 2010 song “My Affected Accent” is a pastiche of the early Modern Lovers, the out-of-tune guitar spanning two chords. Richman sings about what a “brat” he once was. He evokes William F. Buckley, and suggests that the conservative thinker influenced his drone. He apologizes, then switches to a different speaker.

“Forty years later he apologizes,” Richman’s voice fades from the recording, “For his affected accent.”

In their early years, Richman’s band had a meeting with Marty Thau, manager of the New York Dolls. Marty declined to work with the Modern Lovers because he “didn’t think [Jonathan] was living in the real world in some respects”:

He had thoughts like: “Well, if we do concerts, we’d like to have the lights on in the theatre,” off-the-wall ideas about how he wanted to reach the people. Maybe there was some merit to some of his ideas, but in a sense it was a waste of time to even be thinking like that.

In 2018, in Brooklyn, Richman kept the lights on in the theater, slightly dimmed. After, we dispersed reluctantly, moseying onto the street. In my days of borrowing nostalgia, I had this experience all of the time, of walking in procession after a concert, ambling slowly with the rest of the crowd. (I don’t go to rock venues as often as I used to, now.) Surrounded by a pack of cigarette smokers on the sidewalk, a young dude, college-aged, held court. “The crowd tonight was pretty stop-and-stare,” he said, quoting a lyric from Richman’s “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar.” Maybe so. Certainly, everyone around the kid laughed in appreciation.

Months pass. I take notes. I think: I feel the best part of Jonathan Richman’s live show is that if we had all walked out of the concert hall in the middle of his set, he would have kept on singing, joking around and dancing with himself.

Image credits: Shawn Robbins,  Masao Nakagami

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. These lyrics are from a 2016 show at the Bell House. At his 2018 show, Richman riffed on the same words and concepts during his performance of “Old World,” seeming to make up new lyrics as he sang: ”Midnight blue velveteen old world / Of camaraderie, and bonhomie and etiquette and elegance / and the thumbs screws and the guillotine/ and love of torture.”
  2. Warhol’s legendary and groundbreaking series of multimedia performances, which included music, film and dance.
  3. The one exception is the phantasmagoric Salvador Dalí. Richman sings about him: “When I was fourteen / Salvador Dalí was there for me.”
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