Jonathan Richman - A Reluctant Icon

By Rik Mercaldi

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I remember the first time I heard the opening line from The Modern Lovers song, “I’m Straight”. 

“I called this number three times already today, but I, I got scared, I put it back in place, I put my phone back in place” quickly followed by a very matter-of-factly, “cause here’s your chance to make me feel awkward, and wish that I had never even called up this place”.

The lyrics of most rock songs that I’d heard up until that point usually fell into a few distinct categories: Love songs, or allusions to some kind of romantic or sexual act in the form of braggadocio or yearning, word imagery and cleverly constructed abstract poetry that would send music critics and scholars falling over themselves trying to decipher their meaning (Dylan, Lennon, Bowie), or stories of a topical or historical nature.

The guy singing this particular song was begging to be taken seriously by the object of his affections for not being constantly high on drugs like the apple of her eye, Hippie Johnny. Proudly and defiantly declaring “I’m Straight, and I want to, take his place” was definitely not a cool thing to be saying in the early 1970s. The sensitive singer/songwriter genre was still in its infancy, and the songs were certainly not sung with a frustrated snarl, and a raunchy, garage rock band backing them up. This was not your typical 1970s cock rock, where sexually explicit boasting was the order of the day. This guy was expressing deep insecurities, a lack of self-esteem, and a naive unawareness that the sensitive attributes he possessed would not be looked upon as alluring qualities in his exasperating attempt at courtship. Who was writing songs like this back then? No one that I can think of. To me, this really was, something very new and different.

 Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman

“I’m Straight” was just one of nine refreshingly honest and deeply revealing tracks that made up the simply titled album,The Modern Lovers, and although the album didn’t see an official release until 1976, the writing and recording of these songs all took place before 1973.

Despite a palpable wide-eyed naivety, these songs also displayed both an immediacy and maturity way beyond that of someone who had yet to reach twenty years of age. The creator of these musical vignettes about modern life was a young man from Natick, Massachusetts, just 10 miles from Boston, named Jonathan Richman.

Richman, who was born in 1951, started playing music in his early teens, learning the guitar and writing his own songs soon after. The Velvet Underground, led by songwriter Lou Reed, was an early influence which led to an infatuation so strong that when Richman was eighteen he moved to New York City where the band was based. He somehow ended up staying on the couch of Steve Sesnick who was the band’s manager at the time. 

Unfortunately, this early attempt to break into the music business proved to be unsuccessful, and he returned to Boston, where he put together the band that would become The Modern Lovers. His New York trip proved to be a portent of things to come, however, as the band was able to attract the interest of John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, who produced the first demos of “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso” in 1972. Both songs were on the released version of The Modern Lovers album. Joining Richman on the album were Ernie Brooks on bass, Jerry Harrison on keyboards who later joined the Talking Heads, and David Robinson, who would become the drummer for The Cars.

In 1973 the band accepted a residency gig at the Inverurie Hotel in Bermuda. While there Richman became quite taken with the local, laid-back music he heard there and altered his approach to playing music. This new mellower direction, his reluctance to play their older material, and demands to the band that they play at lower volumes, put him at odds with his fellow band members. All this combined with difficulties in getting their debut album finished, led to the breakup of the original lineup in 1974. 

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The Modern Lovers album was finally released in1976 and was heralded by the Rock press. Though it wasn’t a commercial success, it became very influential to many musicians in the burgeoning punk/new wave movement where the rawness, honesty, and sense of urgency was a refreshing contrast to a music scene that was rapidly becoming bloated and corporate. The enduring legacy of this rather obscure record is that it continues to influence and inspire generations of musicians and songwriters, and remains a favorite among rock critics, coming in at #382 in Rolling Stone magazine’s most recent update of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Cover versions of many of these songs have appeared on records by a diverse range of artists. The Sex Pistols and Joan Jett both covered “Roadrunner”, Echo & The Bunnymen and Siouxsie & The Banshees recorded their own versions of “She Cracked”, and artists ranging from David Bowie to John Cale and Iggy Pop have all covered “Pablo Picasso”.

Not long after the original lineup split up, Richman put together a new band that was dubbed, Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers. His songs became less vitriolic and more whimsical. The once angular intensity gave way to a softer, gentler approach with catchy, almost nursery rhyme-like choruses. He continued touring and releasing albums under that moniker with a constantly changing and rotating cast of musicians until 1988 when he changed his approach, yet again, playing either solo or as a duo with a percussionist, under his own name.

His profile received a bit of a boost after he made several appearances throughout the mid to late 1990s on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and in 1998, along with drummer Tommy Larkin, he was featured in the Farrelly Brothers film “There’s Something About Mary”. The two men appeared throughout the film strategically punctuating selected scenes with a musical commentary that captured the humor and romanticism of the film beautifully. The whimsical charm of their performances resulted in exposure to a whole new audience. 

Richman has maintained a loyal following of admirers. His songs, while constantly changing in timbre and style, have always maintained a minimalist structure with an almost child-like innocence and heartfelt sincerity, laced with a dry witticism and humor that is uniquely his own.

Jonathan Richman and drummer Tommy Larkin will be performing two shows at The Beverly Lounge in Kingston on Sunday, October 14th, an early set at 5:30 and another at 8:30.

I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for songs from the classic Modern Lovers’ album, as he rarely plays them anymore, but you’ll walk out humming songs you’ve never heard before, and a more heartfelt and honest performance would be hard to find.