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Genuine Artlessness 

NorCal transplant Jonathan Richman finds the words

Wednesday, Dec 4 1996
Rock 'n' roll's eternal adolescent, Jonathan Richman, is just a few birthdays shy of 50. The skinny teen who invented "geek rock" during the height of hippie chic, the excitable man-child who refused to let his youth go to waste in songs like "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm a Little Dinosaur," has been playing cute in public for the better part of four decades now.

Known as "Jojo" or "Jonathan" to cult devotees, this full-grown goober -- a vocal Harpo Marx in a striped T-shirt -- is, on closer inspection, actually quite the sophisticate.

When he isn't writing nonsensical verse ("de de de dum de dum de dum dummy dum day"), he makes trenchant observations about women and children and old folks -- an anomaly in the self-absorbed world of rock music. He's an amateur historian, working into his songs iconic figures like Picasso, Michelangelo, and Cleopatra, and his epigrammatic, hopelessly romantic writing style has roots in such cosmopolitan figures as Charles Aznavour, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Lou Reed. He speaks three foreign languages -- French, Spanish, and Italian.

"I can communicate," Richman says. "I wouldn't call myself fluent, because fluent is when you can find any word you want to say. But I can carry on a conversation."

Speaking in English, though, Richman sounds just as adenoidal, just as petulant and playful, as he always has in song. On the line from a Howard Johnson in Atlanta, where his current touring band is making a two-day stop, he sheds little light on his craft, his role in rock history, or his home life "east of the Sierras." Evasion has always been one of Richman's favorite games. Asked whether he feels his early group the Modern Lovers has received proper credit for its groundbreaking style -- which has inspired successors from the Feelies to Galaxie 500 to the K Records crowd -- Richman responds, "I don't know whether it's for me to agree or disagree. It's not my thing, see? We were just a rock band." He's not as hostile as his modest legend would have it -- he's just reluctant to deflect attention from the shows he'll do tonight, and tomorrow night, and next week.

The instigator behind one of rock's most ballyhooed recording dates, the Modern Lovers' long-buried, self-titled "debut" album, Richman first formed his band in the late 1960s in Natick, Mass., the Boston suburb in which he grew up. With a repetitive, one-chord style adapted from the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers were for a time the most highly prized group working the fertile Boston nightclub scene. But studio sessions produced by John Cale (of the Velvets) and Kim Fowley (later to produce the Runaways) failed to sell the industry on the band's promise.

Through some lean years -- playing street corners, retirement communities, and a curious stint as house band of an island hotel (an event recounted in Richman's "Monologue About Bermuda") -- a number of musicians traipsed through the Modern Lovers' lineup. The definitive roster that recorded the would-be debut with Cale in 1971 was a thing of the past by the time the record was finally released, by Bay Area imprint Beserkley, in 1976.

Meanwhile, Richman moved on to a less ponderous, less amplified sound, one that shone a spotlight on his impish whimsy and dumbfounded the punk audiences who'd learned to revere such "early" Modern Lovers hallmarks as "Roadrunner" (covered by Joan Jett) and "Pablo Picasso" (featured in Repo Man). For the last 20 years -- and through nearly as many releases -- Richman has pretty much continued to recycle a durable, wide-ranging formula that includes deconstructed doo-wop, faux-calypsos and flamencos, spoken-word rambles ("I Eat With Gusto, Damn! You Bet"), and a familiar brand of folk rock too quirky to be considered middle-of-the-road.

After several years with Rounder Records, the roots-rock documentarians based in Cambridge, Mass., Richman recently jumped to Vapor, the boutique label formed jointly by Neil Young and longtime entertainment manager Elliot Roberts. "They called up my friend Andy Paley, who produced the record, maybe a year ago. They said some guy from Vapor Records was interested in signing me, and I said, 'No thanks.' Then, about six months after, I changed my mind. I said to Andy, 'Can you call those guys back?' "

Was Jonathan asked to join the label because Young, a fellow Northern Californian, admires his music? "I never asked," he says, with genuine artlessness. "I really don't know."

Sonically, the new record, Surrender to Jonathan, suggests a bit of progress for the headstrong Richman. Given to spontaneity, many of his earlier recordings have the sound quality of a four-piece band using one microphone, situated in the far corner of the studio -- which may very well have been the case.

Playing as many as 140 dates each year, Richman has been making a living at his trade at least as long as he's lived in California (he moved to Berkeley about 15 years ago), though he says he'd always considered other careers. "I didn't know that this would necessarily pay enough to be one in itself," he says. "I thought I might have to go back to being a messenger or a cab driver at any time."

In recent years, Richman's devoted following has watched him become a frequent visitor on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show. The iconoclastic, somewhat reclusive performer seems an unlikely talk show guest, but Richman says he has grown to appreciate the appearances: "I think a good TV show is more intimate than a bad live show. If you're playing in some bar, and it's an L-shaped, dogleg room, and the sound is all miserable and people can barely see, it's actually more intimate to do something on the old TV."

"Well, the modern world is not so bad," Jonathan sang, a quarter of a century ago. Apparently, he's still OK with it.

About The Author

James Sullivan


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