Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Jonathan Richman: rebellious straight-man, Warhol fan, insect-lover, roadrunner (but not in jogging shoes)


How to get Jonathan Richman? You might ponder the introduction to his signature tune, Roadrunner, in which the singer starts off by counting to six. Or you could examine the irony of the fact that Richman, a gifted lyricist, has had only one hit record, Egyptian Reggae - an instrumental.
Usually, Richman shies away from offering answers. He is a reluctant interviewee, quite unsuited to self-analysis. And yet, on his DVD, Take Me To The Plaza, he is, if not exactly explaining his art, talking around it. At first, he explains that many of the printed interviews with him have been fictional. Interview magazine in the early 1970s: he never said half that stuff. The Kansas City Pitch: that interview never took place. NME, he says, printed interviews that never happened.
He talks about his records. Two-thirds of them were nothing to do with him. There are ugly covers. "There’s one of me in a tracksuit, running, with some sort of transistor radio or Walkman. I found that especially revolting."
Roadrunner, of course, is nothing to do with jogging. It is a bleak and lonely song about Richman driving around Massachusetts in his father’s station wagon, finding beauty in the mercury vapour labs, and solace in the rock and roll on the radio.
He viewed his first album, The Modern Lovers - a classic - as a collection of demos but, 30 years on, his opinion has softened. He likes the guitar solo on Girlfriend, and Pablo Picasso - who was never called an asshole - because it has John Cale, ex of the Velvet Underground, on piano.
He likes I, Jonathan, dislikes Jonathan Sings, but his favourite is Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow, from 2001. The live album, Live at the Longbranch, released by Ernie Brooks, the Modern Lovers’ bass player, is OK, in that it sounds terrible. "The great stuff is really great and it’s so-oh embarrassing. I blush when I listen to those things. I was such a brat."
Some of his records are, he says, too precious. The children’s songs - perhaps he means Hey There Little Insect, or Abominable Snowman in the Market - were misunderstood. They were meant to move people, not to be cute. "The good thing about my old records is that I was given complete control. The bad thing about my records is that I was given complete control."
He offers fragments of biography. He was heavily influenced by Roy Rogers singing The Happy Hungry Chuck Wagon Song. If you listen to the music from Zorro, you can hear where his guitar got its cartoon colours from. As he grew older he liked Little Richard, Little Eva, Frankie Lymon, the Crystals, the Chiffons, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stooges, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Who. His fondness for the Velvets blossomed when he swapped a Fugs record for one by the VU.
Sweet, soft Jonathan. So private, so eternally mysterious. I arranged to call him and a familiar voice, half-cheerful, half-anxious, boomed from the telephone.
"Hello!?" the voice said. "Just a second! Don’t go away!" After 45 long seconds, Richman returned. "Hi! I’m ready."
We talked awhile. Tiny talk. About his audience, which is aged 20-25, because "they’re the people who go out". His role in the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy, There’s Something About Mary, was "a lot of fun". It also got him recognised "for a few minutes". Every show is different, he said. "It never doesn’t change."
We could have gone on like this forever. Everything was nice. It was like breathing on Andy Warhol’s mirror.
"I started out making drawings and paintings. It was really hearing the rock band the Velvet Underground ... I wanted to try and make an atmosphere like that with musical instruments. I didn’t play anything at the time and some people still say I don’t play anything now, but I just showed up with a guitar and started to make a bunch of noise.
"Painting is good, but you’re in your room painting it, or on the sidewalk, and then you show it to people later. With this thing you make it up right there in front of people."
At 18, Richman moved from Boston to New York, to follow the Velvets. He wanted to explore the scene surrounding Warhol at the Factory.
"It was really starting to break up, so I was on my own. There weren’t so many films anymore. If I’d gotten there three years earlier then I would’ve seen more of the wild stuff."
Warhol, he said, was "very nice. A very honest person, like, uh, I very much liked him."
The public front of Warhol was true?
"I’m not too sure about what the public front is. I was really young and he was just a very nice person to me."
When the Modern Lovers relocated to California, Richman encountered another legendary figure, Gram Parsons. They used to play softball together and there are tales of an inebriated Parsons struggling to complete a round of miniature golf. "Gram played guitar for me sometimes. If he’d lived, he mighta sang on a record or two with me. He offered. I didn’t offer to sing on a record with him because I didn’t want to embarrass him."
Tiny talk exhausted, it seemed safe to ask Richman about his own material. I suggested that critics always claimed his lyrics were naive.
"I don’t know," he said. "What do they mean by that?"
Perhaps, I said, it is because some of his songs have a childlike quality.
"I can’t tell. Some of them were just supposed to be made up for children."
We talked about rock and roll. Richman’s records are pure and direct, but they seem, at first, to lack rebellion.
"I don’t know what you mean," Richman said. "I don’t know one way or the other. I don’t know whether I did or didn’t do that."
To fully understand Richman, you need to go back to the start, to that wild live album. There you can hear that, actually, Richman could hardly have been more rebellious. On the song, I’m Straight, he boasts about the fact that he doesn’t take drugs. He was singing to a hippie audience. "The audience hated it. They were supposed to."
They were supposed to, Richman said, because he was angry. "They weren’t supposed to like it, and they didn’t."
By now, he was trying to get off the phone. We had picked at the enigma long enough. I asked him about his earliest memories. One was hearing opera, Carmen or Aida. He hummed the tune. "Dum dum dum dum, dum-te-tum-te dum."
Was it a happy memory?
"Well," said the author of I’m a Little Dinosaur, Here Come the Martian Martians and I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar, "songs are different. Happy or sad."

Alastair McKay
The Scotsman, 13 February, 2004