Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jonathan Richman, A Man Among Gods

Jonathan Richman Live at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, May 16, 2010

I've loved Jonathan Richman for years and for various reasons, but I have to admit I never really got him, I don't think, until I finally saw him live.

As a punker, I adored the early Modern Lovers, having found "Government Center" on the Troublemakers weirdo compilation and a much-copied tape of the original Modern Lovers record via another John Cale-loving friend around the same time. Boy, did Jonathan have the cred from all that, the stories of him living on Andy Warhol's couch, Jerry Harrison and whats-his-name from the Cars having been in the Modern Lovers, that rocking good time. And of course my college band did a version of Road Runner -- who didn't?

But there, the earlier version of me succumbed to the then-rap on Jonathan that he had somehow walked away from the hardcore of the alternarock scene, to go off and make silly if pleasant records, in obscurity. I missed a decade of Jonathan for the worst reason in the world, not because he wasn't making good music - he was, it was excellent - but because of some screwed up idea I had about what good music was.

Happily I rediscovered Jonathan in the late 80s when he was on Rounder, which was located right down the street from me (and is/was run by the great Red Sox fan, Bill Nowlin). Since then he's shown up in my ears off and on as his pleasantly diverse career has poked itself up here and there. I laughed so hard at seeing him in Kingpin, basically doing what he was doing then -- playing at small venues and playing his heart at -- I once again got the mistaken idea that he had now become a sort of sly jokester, projecting hipster irony all over his rather sweet and sincere repertoire. His further cinematic appearance, this time to considerable narrative importance in an outright Hollywood hit, There's Something About Mary I'm sure brought him to wider acclaim as he deserved, but for those of us who seeming had been listening to him forever, it was sweet narrative delivery. It seemed like the kind of kidding-on-the-sly message Jonathan's music was made for. Not confessional in the singer-songwriter sense, just out and out honest about the difficulties of sincerely pursuing one's heart in an age of stalkers, slackers, and sly looks. The presentation of his music -- and his on-screen persona as a chorus -- was so tongue and cheek but melodically graceful it felt, well, wonderful Jonathan had arrived, or rather, America had caught up with him.

My latest phase of Jonathan misunderstanding is sort of retro: my son, at the age of six, knows his work via "I'm a Little Airplane" and "Ice Cream Man", the very so unhip songs we lamented back in the decade after the early Modern Lovers that made his alterna-rep. Now really appreciating the way Jonathan channeled the whole experience of childhood - it wasn't nostalgia, it was genuine insight, that drove those songs - I thought, well, he's been singing to different audiences, maybe just tailoring his message all this years. A true entertainer.

When Jonathan got around to his only "hit" song (well, one of two) of the concert he played at the outdoor Henry Miller Library in Big Sur on Sunday (his 59th birthday, incidentally), he did so with a great ad lib mid-song that he was playing at the Henry Miller library, after all -- looking at the many other middle-aged fans such as myself who'd brought their young kids along -- and said, "This ain't Romper Room!" before carefully slurring the last syllable in "Pablo Picasso". "He never got called an ASS-O...NOT LIKE YOU!"

Here's the thing about Jonathan of 2010. He has no Facebook page. There's no official MySpace. No Twitter Feed. He has no web site. There's a stub on the website of his "label", Vapor Records, which carefully points out Jonathan has nothing to do, at all, with the internet. At the concert, there's no swag or souvenirs for sale - no t-shirts, no CDs, nothing to buy. What you get is the experience of Jonathan singing. I feel like such an...Ass-o, Fanboy that I am, when we started talking to him before the show. I asked him if I could take a picture of him with my son -- which he obliged, coming down off the stage -- Jonathan's response was "hey, do whatever you like." I awkwardly told him about my own Massachusetts roots as we both got tea. He said, "I'm from Natick." I paused, dorkily. "Um, I knew that!" Jonathan looked at me and said, "How'd you know that?" Here's where my ugly past as a self-absorbed poseur, a reader of fan magazines and liner notes and self-described encyclopedias of rock and roll, a browser of Wikipedia, was shamefully exposed. The best I could do was to say um a couple of times and respond..."I'm psychic...?"

And it wasn't until the music started that, yes, I think I finally got it. I got Jonathan. It's not just that he's a performer, an artist, a songwriter. He's the original punk rocker. He's completely fucking sincere to himself, and to the audience. He emotes, he makes eye contact, he sings straight to you, and while he's funny, and self-aware, and political, and cultured, and erudite, and yes, entertaining, there's just no artifice about the whole thing. I've been to some amazing, great, rock and roll shows, but even among the most "honest" artists and groups I've walked among, there's always a distance of the rock star, the idol, the very stage itself. Even in the glory days of the hardcore scene, when bands performed on the same level (literally) as the fans and let them take a turn at the microphone, there was the artifice of the faux equality at the heart of the matter. Never, never, before I saw Jonathan play did I ever get such a sense of such utter honesty at a show. Hell, I got the rock star vibe from none other than Pete Seeger when my son and I saw him last fall. He was fabulous, but he was on a pedestal. Not so Jonathan.

And the lo-fi minimalism -- it isn't really lo-fi or all that minimalist. I finally also get the point of bringing the volume of the music down so far that it's still the essential rock and roll of rockabilly days and before. Jonathan stepped out in front of his microphones several times during the show, just singing to the air and playing his half-size Spanish guitar to the air and the redwoods. It might've been a little harder to hear, but not much so, and at those moments the last barrier between artist and audience -- the technology of amplification -- vanished as well. But rock and roll it is. The drumming from Tommy Larkin may not be loud but it has the complexity of syncopation required by each song. The role played by the electric bass is simply played by Jonathan having a strong chord structure that articulates both bass and treble lines. He makes this dinky little acoustic with nylon strings as "loud" and clear a rock guitar as you could imagine. It dawned on me fairly early: Jonathan, at some point during the last 40 years, has become a guitar maven. He has this way of channeling, well, Segovia or somebody, with pseudo-classical licks, but he has this vast vocabulary of quotes in his notes. It's a seamless chord dictionary on one hand, but alternatively it's often just your basic three-chord sequence with little lyrical jaunts up and down.

So Jonathan does two "hits", Pablo Picasso and a ten-minute encore of "Let Her Go", he does "Hurricane" he does a song called "Celestial" (in Spanish)about reading aloud with his wife and the virtues of a good book, he sings in Italian, French, Spanish, English, and Bostonian, he does a Leonard Cohen with such a wicked lick to it it could've been a heavy metal hit, he does "Vermeer" one of the truest songs about a painter I ever heard and "Keith Richards" with the same admiration and a taste of the same slight alienation from the peculiar talent and life of that particular artiste. He started out with an update of "Old World" about how, yeah, he liked parts of the Old World but he doesn't miss torture and sexism and tyranny and so forth.

Jonathan started the show when somebody asked him "When are you going on?" while he talked with a couple of audience members, and decided to go on then; the first thing he did was told everybody to pull the chairs closer, because "we're not afraid of you if you're not afraid of us." (We did pull all the folding chairs closer.) He ended it with a single encore and then went right back to talking with everybody in the audience.

Jonathan is the anti-rock god. He's just a man in a profession that has always been full of the bullshit of the idol, the elevation of the artist over the audience, most especially commercially. All those elements that were used to describe Jonathan as "cult" or "eccentric" suddenly make perfect, wonderful, sense to me. The acoustic-minimal instrumentation, the ever-changing interest in genre, the insistence on simple gigs with so little equipment it could fit on the back of a bicycle (plus a trailer for the drums), the eclectic song subject matter, the rejection of almost all the trappings of the business (from the concert t-shirt to the very idea of self-promotion). It's DIY, for real. No wonder there's a small cadre that follows him like he was the Grateful Dead, sort of, but don't really because they have lives and Jonathan does, too.

The experience is still fresh in my mind, so this may just be the happy mojo and good karma talking, but I have this feeling this may have been the best rock concert I'll ever go to. It cleansed me of much of the crud I feel I've been carrying over the years about experiencing the music. The Gods are dead. Long live humanity.