INCOMING: Being Jonathan Richman


Artwork by EDGEART

If Jonathan Richman didn’t already exist, we would have never thought to invent him, which is a testament to both his originality and the shortcomings of our collective imagination. For going on a half century, Richman has been a tireless advocate of hopeful romanticism, rugged individualism and unyielding optimism, traveling the world like some post-modern Jimmy Stewart, armed with nothing more than a stripey shirt and a beat up acoustic guitar, telling anyone that would listen that, despite all the hard-bitten cynicism that surrounds him, it’s still a wonderful life. He is, in short, the immaculate heart on the dirty sleeve of rock n’ roll.

Richman’s story begins in late-’60s Boston, where he busked on campus quads and coffeehouses doing his best to look “sad and artistic” so girls would notice him. Upon hearing the Velvet Underground, he moved to New York, where he managed to gain entree to Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, and became something of a Lou Reed disciple. He was 18 years old.

He soon hatched a plan: Return to Boston, form a band and pick up where the Velvets left off. John Felice,TheModernLovers Richman’s next-door neighbor from childhood, joined in on guitar. While hanging up a “Drummer Wanted” sign in a record store, Richman was approached by one David Robinson, who quickly signed on. Two Harvard film school students, Jerry Harrison and Ernie Brooks, attended an early gig with the intention of making a documentary about the band. Instead, they wound up joining as keyboardist and bass player, respectively.

The Modern Lovers’ early sound combined the raucous energy of mid-’60s garage rock with Richman’s Peter Pan naivete and monotone, “anybody got a tissue?” vocal style. Short-haired and drug-free at the height of early-’70s hippiedom, Richman and his songwriting flew in the face of everything that was happening at the time. He liked his parents. He was in love with the idea of being in love. He couldn’t wait to grow old and dignified. He was Jimmy Stewart with an electric guitar, insisting, despite all the hard-bitten cynicism that surrounded him, that it’s still a wonderful life.

The band gigged frequently in New York, word spread quickly and soon David Geffen came calling and signed on as manager, eventually negotiating a record deal with Warner Bros. During a trip to California, Richman was introduced to Gram Parsons. The two hit it off over a game of mini-golf and Richman invited Parsons to contribute to the impending recording of the Modern Lovers’ debut, although it never came to pass. In 1973, Richman and the Modern Lovers recorded an album’s worth of material with VU alum John Cale producing. Richman deemed the results unsatisfactory as dissension within the band grew. Increasingly uninterested in fronting a loud rock band, Richman disbanded the group, explaining to an interviewer that the Modern Lovers “play at a volume level that would hurt a little baby’s ears and any band that would hurt a little baby’s ears sucks!” Felice would go on to form proto-punk Boston legends the Real Kids. Harrison would join the Talking Heads and Robinson would sign on as drummer for the Cars.

In 1975, Richman signed with the independent Beserkley label, which bought the Cale session tapes from Warner Bros. and released it as The Modern Lovers the following year. There are few moments in rock ‘n’ roll as adrenaline-pumping as the count-off that opens “Roadrunner”–“one, two, three, four, five, six!” and we’re off, racing across the Massachusetts Turnpike on a riff borrowed from VU’s “Sister Ray.” At the height of the Sex Pistols’ anarchic reign, when an interviewer asked Johnny Rotten if he thought there was any music heretofore that was not complete and utter shite, Rotten shook his head no and then thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said finally. “‘Roadrunner’ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.”

Richman continued to record and perform backed by reconstituted versions of The Modern Lovers through the late ’80s before going solo and strictly acoustic backed by longtime drummer/percussionist Tommy Larkins. In the ensuing ensuing 30 years he’s released 17 albums of disarmingly off-kilter globalist pop, exploring everything from flamenco to country to Indian ragas (2018’s SA). Years from now — many years, hopefully — when they write his epitaph, it will say something along the lines of: he left the world a slightly kinder, gentler place than he found it. — JONATHAN VALANIA