Jonathan Richman

TrackAlbum
Since She Started To RideJonathan Goes Country
Everyday ClothesJonathan Richman
Fender StratocasterJonathan Richman
Parties In The USAI, Jonathan
Velvet UndergroundI, Jonathan
Rooming House On Venice BeachI, Jonathan
She Doesn't Laugh At My JokesHaving A Party With ...
When I Say WifeHaving A Party With ...
Vampire GirlYou Must Ask The Heart
Los Vecinos¡Jonathan, Te Vas A Emocionar!

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Contributor: Matt Tomiak

Receiving the baton from Peter Viney and his excellent piece on the early stages of Jonathan Richman’s recording career with The Modern Lovers (see Toppermost #407), this post attempts to provide an overview of Richman’s output released under his own name, a period which stretches back from the late 1980s to the present day: no easy task.

Richman’s idiosyncratic style as a solo performer has been economized since his band’s self-titled, John Cale-produced 1976 debut LP (a collection of demos recorded several years before they were released) provided a brush with the mainstream over four decades ago; a singular, straight-edge rejoinder to a pernicious emerging strand of cold, corporate stadium-rock cynicism.

In the intervening years, the Boston native with the guileless charisma has secured his place in the geek/twee-pop pantheon that runs from his heroes the Velvet Underground via the Buzzcocks, the Raincoats, Beat Happening, Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants, Galaxie 500, Weezer, Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle & Sebastian, Hefner and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, to name but a handful. Gary Valentine, a former member of Blondie and Iggy Pop collaborator, wryly observes in his memoir “New York Rocker: My Life In The Blank Generation”, that Richman’s transition can be summarised as the songwriter “dropping the garage punk sound of the first Modern Lovers album and … getting onto his health food kick.” But what a strange, charming and enduring kick it’s been.

Jonathan Richman has been releasing new music on a regular basis since the late seventies: comprehensive fan site jojochords.com obligingly divides his output into four distinct sections entitled “Punk”, “Ice Cream Man”, “80s/90s” and “Current”, although for the purposes of this solo-only entry we’re focusing on the period from his eponymous 1989 LP onwards.

Richman’s Greek chorus role in the Farrelly brothers’ 1998 gross-out comedy There’s Something About Mary was capitalized upon by Cooking Vinyl, who released I Must Be King: The Best Of Jonathan Richman the same year, providing a sweep of the first half of his post-Modern Lovers career and touches upon most of these bases, but it’s 1992’s I, Jonathan album that represents maybe the finest integrated example of his musical evolution. As a whole, the record comes across like a joyous, whistle-stop tour through US popular music’s storied history.

Based around that familiar riff from Louie Louie, an iconic 1963 hit for The Kingsmen, opener Parties In The USA laments the death of the original wave of rock ‘n’ roll as well as latter-day killjoy authority figures, in amongst some deadpan JR social observation:“… Of course nowadays at parties, you got louder stereo equipment…

Fender Stratocaster from 1989’s Jonathan Richman album rejoices in the legacy of one of rock’s most iconic instruments (“You hear the sound and you get the point!”) and is a close cousin of the self-explanatory Velvet Underground, an exuberant bubblegum-chug celebrating Richman’s favourite band. The work of a bona-fide die-hard, the track pays tribute to the VU’s ground-breaking conception of “rock and roll – but not like the rest.” Richman first heard the Velvets as a teenager, and the experience, in his own words, “changed everything.” Encountering their music inspired him to leave Massachusetts for New York and the thrilling proximity of Lou Reed’s avant-garde NYC gang/attendant Andy Warhol-led pop art scene. “How in the world were they making that sound?” he marvels, wide-eyed with wonder, before launching into a snippet of Sister Ray just to illustrate his point.

Plenty of artists have bemoaned the death of hippie idealism and the destruction of the spirit of the sixties. But Rooming House On Venice Beach, also included on I, Jonathan, does exactly the opposite. All the more intriguing given how tracks like Old World and I’m Straight on The Modern Lovers had rejected a free-love ethos, this is a picaresque salute to Jonathan’s time on the fringes of bohemian west LA and the locals still carrying the countercultural torch. Richman rejoices in a harmonious, if frugal, existence alongside the “followers of Watts and Leary” and – perhaps a far odder sight than it might be today – the “ancient bearded guys doing yoga.”

Other moments meriting a berth on this toppermost include the deliciously peculiar Vampire Girl from 1995’s You Must Ask The Heart, a wistful subversion of country machismo Since She Started To Ride from 1990 LP Jonathan Goes Country (an album which features a genuine laugh-out-loud cover image), anti-anthems Everyday Clothes, She Doesn’t Laugh At My Jokes, When I Say Wife and Los Vecinos, a Spanish-language translation of The Neighbors from leftfield curio, 1994’s ¡Jonathan, Te Vas A Emocionar!.

 

The Jonathan Richman Unofficial Fan Blog

The (Unofficial) Jonathan Richman Chords Site

Jonathan Richman Recordings Database

Jonathan Richman Live List (Bob’s Nerdy Webpage)

“I, Jonathan” (full album on YT)

Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers Toppermost #407

Jonathan Richman biography (iTunes)

Matt Tomiak lives in Bristol and has been writing about music in magazines and online for several years.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Velvet Underground, Buzzcocks, They Might Be Giants, Belle & Sebastian, Blondie, Lou Reed

TopperPost #687

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 1, 2018

    Thanks for this excellent list on a unique artist. Hard to choose only a top ten of course but might have to have ‘That Summer Feeling’ (the 1992 version), ‘Reno’ and his great version of ‘Satisfied Mind’ in my personal one. Hard to think what could be left out from this list, though.

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