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Jonathan Richman

+ {The Modern Lovers} + {Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers}

A boy wonder who befriended The VELVET UNDERGROUND while still a teenager, and a songsmith who recorded a proto-punk classic with “The Modern Lovers” (1976), before going his own eccentric way, JONATHAN RICHMAN (born May 16, 1951, Natick in Massachusetts) enjoyed a unique standing in popular music. While his guileless, retro-influenced solo recordings have consistently rejected the jaded musings of the average singer-songwriter and endeared him to a loyal cult following, the man’s maverick inconsistency has steered him well clear of the mainstream. If one song encapsulated his brief time as a nasal new wave popstar, it was the two-chord `Roadrunner’ (a former demo song inspired by VU’s “Sister Ray”), a timeless and catchy single produced by JOHN CALE that made the grade when Britain was under the spell of the punk scene.
After a period in the late 60s working as a contributor for local music papers, Vibrations and Fusion respectively, Jonathan formed his first real band, The MODERN LOVERS, in 1971. With the help of producer KIM FOWLEY, the quartet (Jonathan, plus Jerry Harrison on keyboards, Ernie Brooks on bass and drummer David Robinson) recorded a demo for Warner Brothers in ‘73, although the label subsequently shelved their JOHN CALE-produced debut album and soon dropped the group.
RICHMAN and Co finally split in late ‘74, only to re-form again six months later and record a debut single for United Artists, the aforementioned `Roadrunner’. They then moved to West Coast label, Beserkley, who bought the unreleased Warner Bros tapes and finally packaged the songs as an eponymous album in 1976. Featuring the classic line-up, THE MODERN LOVERS {*8} set, was one of the more genuine efforts to lay claim to the vastly oversubscribed “first punk album” tag. Carrying on where his heroes, The VELVET UNDERGROUND left off, Jonathan fashioned an idiosyncratic update of late 60s garage-rock, his nasal LOU REED-esque vocals carrying epistles of adolescent angst over a simplistic but effective musical backing; raw and wistful examples coming almost transcendently through `Pablo Picasso’, `I’m Straight’, `She Cracked’, `Someone I Care About’, `Astral Plane’, `Modern World’, et al.
Released almost simultaneously, the preceding debut album proper, JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS (1976) {*7} – comprising Robinson, plus newbies Leroy Radcliffe (guitar) and RUBINOOS bassist Greg Keranen – followed JR’s more whimsically eccentric path, cutting retro-pop, acoustic-based tracks about Martians, little insects and erm, the Abominable Snowman, was a different beast altogether; it also boasted readings of CHUCK BERRY’s `Back In The U.S.A.’ and John Newton’s `Amazing Grace’; Harrison and Brooks were now tending greener new wave pastures with ELLIOTT MURPHY; the former soon shot to fame in TALKING HEADS.
While UK Top 20 hit, `Roadrunner’, may have whetted fans appetites for more of the same, a much-anticipated UK Top 50 follow-up album, ROCK’N’ROLL WITH THE MODERN LOVERS (1977) {*6} – The CARS-bound Robinson making way for D. Sharpe – confirmed Jonathan’s new worldly-pop strategy; `South American Folk Song’, `Sweeping Wind (Kwa To Feng)’, `Angels Watching Over Me’ and kiddie tune, `Wheels On The Bus’ were all sourced – reggae star DESMOND DEKKER supplying `Coomyah’. Surprisingly enough, it also spawned a second, re-RICHMAN-arranged Brit hit (Top 5) in the bizarre instrumental, `Egyptian Reggae’. Critics were divided, some hailing the man as a wayward genius, some confounded at what they perceived as a waste of good talent.
Whatever their opinions, the RICHMAN doo wop pop train railed against the new wave tide as The MODERN LOVERS provided the charming but unadulterated LIVE (1978) {*6}. As sweet and endearing as it was to his cult fanclub, its cutesy-pie sunny side up patter (especially on the never-ending `Ice Cream Man’) alienated purist punks who abandoned him after his final UK chart entry, the sing-a-long-a `The Morning Of Our Lives’.
JONATHAN RICHMAN AND THE MODERN LOVERS – featuring bassist Asa Brebner (among others) – served up their final goofball platter with BACK IN YOUR LIFE (1979) {*6}, a record that might well’ve suited Sesame Street viewers rather than prospective post-punk punters. Listening to squeaky-clean flops `Abdul and Cleopatra’, `Buzz Buzz Buzz’ and `Lydia’, next to the glistening title track, underlined he’d lost it big time.
After a lay-off from the turn of the 80s, RICHMAN continued to plough his singular furrow throughout the following decade with an ever-changing cast of musicians and different labels. Amid the grating childishness, the man was still capable of a wistful charm and the occasional sting of biting poignancy, fans and critics alike generally agreed that JONATHAN SINGS! (1983) {*7} – issued for Sire Records (UK’s Rough Trade a year later) – remains his finest release from this period. Although clocking in at just over the half hour mark, his carefree exuberance and quirky romanticism was in abundance on `That Summer Feeling’, `Give Paris One More Chance’ and `This Kind Of Music’.
Name-checking great artists in song: (`Vincent Van Gogh’), Baseball icon (`Walter Johnson’), a neighborhood district (`The Fenway’), and the odd piece of conspiracy juvenilia (`Down In Bermuda’ and `The U.F.O. Man’), 1985’s ROCKIN’ & ROMANCE {*6} was again down to JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS. Once again augmented by Andy Paley (guitars), Michael Guardabascio (drums/percussion) and Ellie Marshall (vocals), while adding Asa Brebner (guitar) and Ned Claflin (accordion), IT’S TIME FOR… (1986) {*6} was another instalment of good-time, giddy rock.
Towards the end of the decade, JR recruited guitarist Brendan Totten and drummer Johnny Avila for the leaner, doo-wop infused MODERN LOVERS 88 (1988) {*5}, before abandoning the backup altogether and going it alone. His subsequent live eponymous solo effort, JONATHAN RICHMAN (1989) {*5} saw the man in exotica mood, very much in the shoes of BUDDY HOLLY as he attempted songs sung in Spanish or French and covers including `Blue Moon’, `Sleepwalk’, `Action Packed’ and `Que Reste-t-ll De Nos Amours?’.
Featuring re-vamped work-outs and a handful of cowboy songs, RICHMAN duly spun a misguided attempt at C&W: JONATHAN GOES COUNTRY (1990) {*5}. Produced by modern-day Nashville-type roots act, The SKELETONS (aka Lou Whitney and D. Clinton Thompson) and a host of like-minded musos, one can almost find rhyming slang for “True Grit” in his interpretations of MARTY ROBBINS’ `Man Walks Among Us’, Goffin-King’s `I Can’t Stay Mad At You’ and Hayes-Rhodes’ `Satisfied Mind’. HAVING A PARTY WITH JONATHAN RICHMAN (1991) {*5} was its half-live/half-studio rock-a-silly (sic) equivalent, showcasing the poignant `She Doesn’t Laugh At My Jokes’ and `Just For Fun’.
With more than just a foot stuck in the past, more like up to his neck in retro quicksand, I, JONATHAN (1992) {*7} was lyrically astute in his attempts to sing cool lo-fi garage from his basement. A renaissance set recalling halcyon days at college, JR takes one through `Velvet Underground’ (a homage to his idols), `I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar’ (a funky CHIC like paean) and `Rooming House On Venice Beach’.
While a re-worked Spanish-language set, !JONATHAN, TE VAS A EMOCIONAR! (1994) {*4} surely tested the patience of even his most loyal fans, much more promising were subsequent albums, YOU MUST ASK THE HEART (1995) {*6} – covering TOM WAITS’ `The Heart Of Saturday Night’, `SAM COOKE’s `Nothing Can Change This Love’ and the Amanda McBroom show-tune `The Rose’ – and SURRENDER TO JONATHAN! (1996) {*6}; the latter his first for a major label (Warner Brothers’ Vapor imprint) after years in the commercial wilderness.
An unlikely choice of minstrel-boy/narrator in the Farrelly Brothers comedy, There’s Something About Mary (JR also supplied three tracks: the title track, `True Love Is Not Nice’ and the minute-long `Let Her Go Into The Darkness’ on the V/A soundtrack), RICHMAN went on to score cult indie satire, A Sign From God (2000). Meanwhile, Jonathan stuck to his task of coming up with the odd solo album; 1998’s RIC OCASEK-produced I’M SO CONFUSED {*6}, a slight return to the old fun Jonno of yore; check out `Nineteen In Naples’, `The Night Is Still Young’ and the definitive, 3-minute version of `True Love Is Not Nice’.
Hardened fans were also slightly disappointed with RICHMAN’s US-only issued HER MYSTERY NOT OF HIGH HEELS AND EYE SHADOW (2001) {*5}, which showcased two instrumentals and four songs sung in Spanish. However, live, the old Modern Lover still packed a retro punch. He might’ve been less prolific during this period, but he continued to bless the faithful with an album every three or so years.
NOT SO MUCH TO BE LOVED AS TO LOVE (2004) {*6} was met with fears that RICHMAN might finally be sloughing off his whimsy for weightier matters; `Abu Jamal’ was the kind of protest song more likely to have been delivered from the pen of ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION, yet on the likes of `The World Is Showing Its Hand’, he still sounded as enchanted with nature’s detail as he ever did. Singing in no less than three languages (Spanish, French and Italian), he also gave lesser talents a lesson in global pop.
Hot on then heels of a uniquely instrumental soundtrack album, REVOLUTION SUMMER (2007) {*4} – performed with the help of drummer Tommy Larkins, multi-player Ralph Carney and keyboardist Charles Gonzalez – 2008’s emotionally-charged BECAUSE HER BEAUTY IS RAW AND WILD {*7}, was his most intimate and sentimental. Not quite abandoning wry humour (`The Lovers Are Here And They’re Full Of Sweat’, a rare example here), Jonathan gets deep and sad on his mournful paean to his nursing-home-bound mater in `As My Mother Lay Dying’. Balance this with the off-kilter `Our Party Will Be On The Beach Tonight’, the NEIL YOUNG-esque version of `When We Refuse To Suffer’, and a charming cover of LEONARD COHEN’s `Here It Is’, Jonathan has empathy as he approaches old age himself.
Released only on vinyl for his Spanish-only patrons, ?A QUE VENIMOS SINO A CAER? (2009) {*4} updated his world-music aspirations. The more accessible O MOON, QUEEN OF NIGHT ON EARTH (2010) {*7} revealed a man coming to terms his impending 60th birthday, and while his unadulterated inclinations were posted missing, his poetical playfulness and gravitas towards the lyrical element, spoke in droves on `These Bodies That Came To Cavort’, the self-depreciating `My Affected Accent’ and `Winter Afternoon By B.U. In Boston’. Next to his long-time idol, LOU REED, the underrated Jonathan has, hopefully, more quality records in the can.
Translated as “fire!” in the Native American Ojibwe languange, 2016’s ISHKODE! ISHKODE! {*6} was RICHMAN’s answer to his whereabouts. Cleveland’s Blue Arrow Records released the album, a record with the theme of love running constantly through it. Personal and plaintive, the boxes were ticked for rock ’n’ romance street café songs, `Wait! Wait!’, `Outside O’Duffy’s’, `Let Me Do This Right!’, `Longtemps’ (one of a handful of worldly covers) and the title track.
Forever likened to The VELVET UNDERGROUND arriving off a night boat from Cairo (or more accurately, Indian mystic Ramakrishna), the preeminent JONATHAN RICHMAN served up another delicate delight a la SA (2018) {*7} – the first root note of the Indian raga. This saw JR co-produce the record with wife Nicole Montalbano, and equally rekindle a musical relationship with former MODERN LOVERS cohort JERRY HARRISON. It was fair to say that Jonathan had lost touch with conventional indie-pop music, but that minor quibble couldn’t deny the class and creativity of `O Mind! Let Us Go Home!’ (from an unknown poet: think “Sister Ray” in short-form), `My Love She Is From Somewhere Else’, and kindred TALKING HEADS-like `This Lovers’ Lane Is Very Narrow’ (based on a poem by Kabir).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Jun2019

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