With Boston Calling coming up this week, it seems like an appropriate time to let you know about Jonathan Richman (it was also his birthday on the 16th). As leader of the Modern Lovers he released the eponymous album synonymous with Massachusetts (try saying that 5 times fast), so much so that there was a bid to make the lead track “Roadrunner” the state rock song. “I’m in love with Massachusetts/And the neon when it’s cold outside/And the highway when it’s late at night/Got the radio on,” he sings.
He began his career on the couch of Velvet Underground’s manager because of his infatuation with the band, leading eventually to that first album being produced by John Cale. Somehow it was never released, and four years would pass before he would release his first album as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, while the original recordings came out the same year. This means that the iconic “Roadrunner” and his other song about New England, “New England” came out in the same year.
Richman continued to record as part of the Modern Lovers for the next ten years or so. The 1983 album Jonathan Sings! is a triumph of rock and roll and an expansion into the less abrasive rock that he would eventually become known for. Rockin’ and Romance contained the song “The Fenway.” I’ll let you guess what that song is about.
By the early 90s, he finally went solo, although that label is purely arbitrary as a lot of his work with the Modern Lovers was just him anyway. In 1992 he released his masterpiece I, Jonathan, the album that you could listen to over and over and over again. It’s one of those albums where you try to list your favorite songs and just end up listing each song. The song “Velvet Underground” was co-written by Lou Reed, and that’s cool enough. It ended with “Twilight in Boston,” and I’ll let you guess what that song is about.
His career after that was more enigmatic. In 1998, Richman recorded and starred in There’s Something About Mary (you know, the one where Ben Stiller catches a ball in his zipper), performing the title track during the opening credits He has recorded multiple albums in Spanish and did an instrumental soundtrack. The songs are more worldly, inspired by French and Spanish pop. The last full-length album he released was 2010s O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth. He still tours regularly, but somehow always seems to be touring the West Coast.
WHO HE INFLUENCED
It’s hard to say with Jonathan Richman who he influenced. It is a name that is not often dropped in conversation, almost like he’s a secret only the initiated get to learn about like one of Scientology’s higher levels. Members of his bands went on to form other bands like the Talking Heads and The Cars. For his early work he was labeled as “proto-punk” along with The Sonics, The Stooges, and The MC5, so it can be argued that his influence was felt there, but at some point it was always just rock and roll.
David Bowie, John Cale, and Iggy Pop all covered his song “Pablo Picasso,” and Frank Black of the Pixies recorded a tribute song. They Might Be Giants have cited him as an influence, and it would be hard to not mention Vampire Weekend whose entire raison d’être seems to be harping Richman’s style either consciously or unconsciously (perhaps inspired by Richman’s “Vampire Girl).
The whole concept of the Boston Calling festival seems to be lifted from his song “Government Center,” which is exactly where the weekend of music takes place. “So we got to rock rock rock non-stop tonight /At the Government Center,” should be the slogan for Boston Calling. Their greatest triumph will be getting Richman to actually do just that. (I’ve been holding out for this for three years now).
WHY YOU SHOULD BE LISTENING TO JONATHAN RICHMAN
It has been said of the Velvet Underground that even though only 30,000 people bought their first record, all of them went out and started bands; Jonathan Richman is one of the best examples of the VU protégé. His sound is something like if Lou Reed was Spanish and perpetually had cottonballs in his nose (his voice is nasally if that wasn’t clear enough, unlike his nose). He was an aficionado of cool, wearing Pablo Picasso’s striped shirts and writing songs about Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer and others.
Perennial favorites like “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” (that They Might Be Giants covered recently) and “That Summer Feeling” are melancholic in a righteous way, reminiscent about the past or just a bar where things were laissez-faire. And he always seems to be writing about Boston or Massachusetts or New England
Whether its just him strumming a classical guitar, or the organ heavy Modern Lovers albums, his Spanish love songs, or the Rock & Roll odes to VU and other early Rockabilly and Doo-Wop inspirations, or the Reggae stylings early in his career there is something for everyone in his expansive discography. He’s probably one of the most underlistened to geniuses of Rock and Roll, not weird enough to be Outsider, not popular enough to sell millions. But, being from New England myself, I might be prejudiced.
5 ESSENTIAL JONATHAN RICHMAN SONGS
That Summer Feeling:
I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar:
Article: Christopher Gilson