Having a Party With Jonathan Richman
An expert’s guide to enjoying one of rock’s great enigmas
By Sean L. Maloney
You’d think, by now, that I’d have run out of things to say about proto-punk prophet and great American troubadour Jonathan Richman. But nope. After my contribution of half a dozen articles of varying length and style, as well as a fistful of lectures and Q&As — and an entire book for the 33 1/3 series (I wrote about the demos Richman recorded at age 21 and released as The Modern Lovers’ album The Modern Lovers) — you might assume that I’ve thunk all the thoughts about Richman one could possibly think.
But on the contrary: After a decade of professional dedication, I’m a bigger fan than I’ve ever been, with as much to say as ever. Richman is one of America’s most unique and dynamic songwriters, and each of his 20-odd albums deserves at least a tome of analysis — maybe even two volumes for Jonathan Goes Country. But we don’t have that kind of space, so here’s my compendium of hot tips for maximizing your fun at Thursday’s Jonathan Richman show at The Basement East.
Buy tickets early. Buy tickets often.
This is just good general life advice, but even more so when you’re talking about Jonathan Richman. Don’t get denied at the door, don’t leave things up to chance: You will regret it. You might be thinking, “Eh, he’s kinda obscure, it surely won’t sell out.” You’d likely be wrong. Even though Richman is playing a bigger room on this trip than he has on other occasions — he’s been known to do multi-night stands at a tiny venue — I wouldn’t chance it. Are you waffling because you only know “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso”? Don’t. While those songs are two of the greatest in the rock canon, almost unrivaled in their minimalist perfection, they are indicative of the quality you’ll find in the rest of the man’s catalog, and neither gets close to the joie de vivre that infuses Richman’s later work. Waffling is a bad move. Which brings me to my next point.
Buy the latest album. Listen to it. A lot.
This is also some high-quality life advice, but it’s especially true with Richman’s most recent album, 2016’s Ishkode! Ishkode! He has evolved from an angry young man driving past the Stop & Shop into a sorcerer-poet who understands that the chords to “Louie Louie” are a form of ritual magic. Richman’s teenage explorations of the astral plane, his liminal existence between the old world and the modern world, have evolved his primal garage-rock instincts. Today’s Richman has the benefit of wisdom and awareness, with rich undertones of humility and spirituality, tempered with the humor and wonderment that defined his brief flirtations with the pop world.
The fun thing about Richman fans is that Richman fans do fun things and make cool stuff. My research buddy and fellow Modern Lovers lover Ryan H. Walsh wrote a book about the year Van Morrison spent in Boston preparing what would become his masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Walsh’s secret history is a wild, action-packed tale of gurus and gangsters, acid cults and art-rock weirdos.
Germane to this show and the questions it may spark in the audience, the book has brand-new interviews with the notoriously reticent Richman, who was a teenage witness on the fringe of the whole scene. Walsh uncovers psychedelic experiments in public broadcasting, the birth of freeform FM radio and the cannibalization of an entire music scene. He captures the social and spiritual searches that fueled the conflict in Boston between counterculture factions and those clinging to the old Puritan ethos — and between capital and creativity — before Aerosmith and Eddie Coyle came to town. Astral Weeks is out March 6 from Penguin Press. Buy a copy: We can start a book club.
Let Jonathan cast his spell.
Or to put it more succinctly, leave your phone in the fucking car. You bought tickets early, you memorized all of Ishkode! Ishkode! (even the parts that aren’t in English!), and you’ve brushed up on your alternate histories of rock, so don’t blow it now. Richman doesn’t use a cellphone — like, ever — and doesn’t appreciate when other folks use their phones during his show. Which is totally justified. We could all use less screen time in our lives. It is — cough, cough — a pretty good life lesson.
Richman has spent decades removing — or preventing, honestly — barriers between himself and his audience, cultivating an intimacy that is almost extinct in modern music. More than anything, Richman’s career has been about finding the beauty and the joy in simple moments, from the suburban sprawl of “Roadrunner” to the Parisian sidewalk cafe of “Longtemps” on Ishkode! And for all of the mystical and intellectual dimensions to his work, all the worldliness and otherworldliness his art has acquired over the years, Richman is still making party music for party people.