Jonathan Richman and the eternal “Boston”/”New York” dialectic

We caught Jonathan Richman at the tiny (capacity 100 or so?) Bishop last night.

My first “rock show” ever was Richman at a folk club in Harvard Square (am forgetting the name, long gone… oh, Jonathan Swift’s!) in probably 1983, after he released the great Jonathan Sings! which was in effect his comeback album after disappearing for a while (after the demise of the Modern Lovers) in the late 1970s.  (I learned from Wikipedia that “following the Modern Lovers’ final breakup, Richman went on sabbatical for a few years staying in Appleton, Maine and playing at a local diner in Belfast, Maine, called Barb’s Place.” In those pre-internet days, did people even realize this was happening?)

Funny to look back and realize how little time had passed since the heyday of the Modern Lovers, whose first records were not even released until 1976/7 (although they’d been recorded several years earlier).  Richman was about 32 years old in 1983.  But from my perspective, as a 14 year-old who’d recently immersed myself in the rock and roll canon via Robert Christgau among others, he felt like a legendary elder coming in from the cold.  I went to the show with my father and I think my friend Sam (is that right Sam?).

Richman slowly turned into a new kind of institution in the later 1980s and 1990s, going further and further down his particular rabbit-hole of wide-eyed, child-like, earnest folk music with a slightly delusional/out-of-it edge.  I stopped paying close attention to the recordings long ago, but I was very glad when his role as Greek-chorus troubadour in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary seemed to give him a new level of mainstream visibility (and presumably a good chunk of living money).

So I was surprised that he’d play a tiny place like the Bishop… and not necessarily even sell it out (it wasn’t clear to me if he did).  Someone said he’s played in Bloomington a lot, although if this is true I somehow missed it.

Here’s a video someone made a few days ago in Ithaca.  This, I think a new, unrecorded song, was also a highlight last night.

Bohemia by Jonathan Richman at The Haunt in Ithaca, 10/24/11 from Armin Heurich on Vimeo.

My parents didn’t stand in my way when I was 16 years old… They knew I had to find, they knew I was pining, for the door to the art world… They knew that I had to find the door — to Bohemia.  I had my pretentious artwork, but my parents didn’t laugh too bad… I needed to be reined in once in a while.  But they didn’t have a hateful vibe, they didn’t demean.  In fact, I’m grateful because they didn’t… stand in my way, when I was — standin’ in Harvard Square, pretentious artwork in my hand.  The New York hipsters saw me standin’ there, and they knew this young man was looking for the door…. To Bohemia.  There I was standin’ in the square, pretentious artwork folio, but they knew I had to find the way…. To Bohemia.

I was bratty.  Bratty… but sincere.  Yes, I was bratty… But I had to know, they knew I had to go.  Pretentious Artwork Folio, it showed me the door, to Bohemia.  High school was night.  But they showed me light.  When they helped me find the door to Bohemia.  Desperate, desperate, hook or crook… I searched for Bohemia in the high school dusty art book.  Faintly, faintly, conjured I — I searched for Bohemia in the darkened Boston sky.  And once they saw that I wouldn’t back down, well they showed me the door to Bohemia.

It reprises old themes of Richman’s, going back to the Modern Lovers album.  Boston vs. New York, “Old world” vs. modernity, parents vs. rock and roll, squares vs hipsters, “straight”/”stoned,” finding a life in art and music.  Richman moved to NYC in 1969 as a teenager and slept on the floor of the Velvet Underground’s manager, determined to make it in music; he gave up and came back to old Boston, but a few years later, John Cale produced the Modern Lovers sessions.  Keith Gessen argues in a nice piece of a few years ago that “the power of The Modern Lovers is that it’s simultaneously about leaving and not leaving Boston, or about leaving it and coming back,” with “Boston” representing tradition, family, resistance to the new.

I guess one could explain Richman’s career for the last 25-odd years as a full acceptance of “Boston,” in those terms (although what he does now can’t really be explained as simple “tradition”).  He certainly didn’t play a single song from the Modern Lovers or 1970s Richman songbook last night, although presumably at least some of us would have absolutely died for a “She Cracked” or “I’m Straight” or even “Government Center” — let alone “Road Runner.”  Does he ever play that?  How odd to have written one of the THE GREATEST ROCK AND ROLL SONGS EVER, up there with “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” etc. (robbed when Rolling Stone named it the #269th greatest rock song, but hey, that was still a few notches above “Born to Run”), one of the few songs covered by the Sex Pistols, and never to play it, never apparently even to consider the possibility of playing it?

That’s some strange career management.  This aspect of Richman’s career made me think of Alex Chilton.  He knows everyone’s dying for him to play “September Girls” but instead he plays “Volare” — and this is a surprisingly exact parallel, as Jonathan now sings a bunch of songs in Italian for some reason and often seems to be going for some kind of louche Italian lounge/ folksong mode.

Perhaps because last night was a Friday, he sang “I was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar,” an audience favorite, with its catchy refrain, “In the first bar things were just alright/ At this bar things were Friday night,” spun off in numerous variations: “Well at the first bar things were stop and stare/ But in this bar things were laissez faire,” “Well in the first bar, things were okay/ But in this bar things were more my way,” “In the first bar things were so controlled/ In this bar things were way way bold.”  Another version of the Boston/ New York dialectic, I suppose.

He has a somewhat manic gleam in his eyes, and certain songs get pretty close to self-help or therapy-talk.  (He also dances a little like a Hare Krishna.)  I enjoyed “When We Refuse to Suffer” last night, in which Jonathan casts his lot in with suffering, sorrow, and stink against air conditioning, air fresheners, and Prozac.

There was something quite moving about the show.  I hope that Farrelly bros. and “Road Runner” money (there must be some of that, right?  Is it on Guitar Hero or anything like that?) is funding a comfortable late middle age –the guy’s 62!  Could pass for much younger, though.

Pedro Costa at I.U.: “Something happens, sometimes.”

I saw acclaimed Portuguese director Pedro Costa (dubbed “the Samuel Beckett of world cinema by The Guardian) at IU Cinema on Thursday before I actually saw any of his films, which made the experience that much stranger.  It was a little bit like one might imagine seeing a Portuguese Samuel Beckett interviewed on stage.  Long pauses, odd non sequitors, mysterious, brooding tangents landing up in apparently despairing conclusions often difficult to interpret.  But charming all the same.

Here are a few comments & remarks I recall:

  • In response to a question, he discussed his time studying medieval history in school.  “Film may have been invented to represent medieval history,” he proclaimed, somewhat inexplicably (as far as I know, all of his films take place in the present day or late 20th century).
  • “I hate the film world.  I think it should be destroyed.  A film set can be a … terrible thing.”
  • He described the making of his second film, Casa de Lava (1994), at some length.  He apparently intended for this to be a remake of the Jane Eyre Caribbean zombie film I Walked with a Zombie.  “It became a fiasco, a disaster.  It was like a mini-Apocalypse Now.  I wanted to make it a bad experience, and I think… I succeeded.”  (The Guardian writer selects this as Costa’s masterpiece. [no the writer was discussing Ossos (Bones)))
  • This was my favorite single moment, as he discussed his realization that he cannot film nature. “Set up a camera and film… the ocean?  The forest?  No, this is impossible… no… I cannot do this, I prefer interiors…. [discussed his desire to make a film about walls.]  And in fact, the people who do this, who show the ocean?  This is shameful!  I really do think these people should be ashamed of themselves.”  (Exact phrasing is as I recall it, but this was the gist.)

He’s best known for his so-called Fontainhas trilogy (Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) and Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha, 2006)), all set in the (former) Fontainhas slum of Lisbon, a now-destroyed neighborhood that housed Cape Verdean immigrants, drug addicts, and a range of other marginalized Lisbon residents.

The author of a liner notes essay in a Criterion Collection re-release of this trilogy explains how Costa stumbled on his quasi-documentary working method:

In 1997, Pedro Costa made Ossos in Fontainhas. This was a traditional production, shot in 35 mm, with tracks, floodlights, and assistants. Costa was a professional, a part of the Portuguese film industry. The shoot proceeded with everyone doing his job, following the routine of European art film. And the uneasiness grew, the feeling that a lie was being told, that an imbalance both moral and totally concrete was taking root on both sides of the camera. Costa later said: “The trucks weren’t getting through—the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.” …So one night, Costa decided to turn off the lights and pack up the extra equipment, in an attempt to diminish the shameful sense of invasion and indecency. His action was doubly groundbreaking because in what he did, Costa found his own light, that quality of darkness and nuance he would constantly hone from that night on, and because he understood that the cinema of tracking shots, assistants, producers, and lights was not his. He didn’t want it. What he wanted was to be alone in this neighborhood with these people he loved. To take his time, to find a rhythm and working method attuned to their space and their existence. To start with a clean slate, from scratch. To reinvent his art. Three years after this leap into the void, In Vanda’s Room became the result of this departure—in Costa’s work but also in the history of the cinema.

So with this film Costa became, in effect, a Dogma-style film director, or his own Portuguese version of such.  At least in the film I ended up seeing the next day, Colossal Youth (Costa said this English-language name was imposed by a producer– is it a conscious reference to the Young Marble Giants album??  Or does that phrase come from elsewhere?  It does not seem to make any particular sense), is indeed, as the Guardian reviewer warned, “uncompromisingly difficult” and even “difficult and punishing;” “the movie itself, with its series of fixed camera positions, is closer in spirit to an exhibition of photography, a succession of cinematic tableaux” (actually he’s talking about In Vanda’s Room here).  The movie made me think at one time or another of simply made ethnographic films (e.g. Nanook of the North?) or documentaries made on the cheap (e.g. Dylan’s concert film Don’t Look Back), Michelangelo Antonioni movies, yes, a Beckett play (excruciatingly slow and drawn-out conversations leading nowhere; not much if any humor, though), and black and white photography of people living in poverty or straitened circumstances.  (I know I came across a comparison somewhere of In Vonda’s Room to Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which I can see, although Colossal Youth does not feature any drug-taking, which apparently constitutes a great deal of that earlier film.)  Also, painting: there’s a memorable scene in Colossal Youth where the camera focuses on a painting in a Lisbon museum by Rubens (?) while Ventura, who works a museum guard, lounges on an antique settee.  Costa momentarily invites a comparison between the painting and his own image, almost as unmoving.

I found Colossal Youth impressive & striking, often very beautiful, but quite tough going, agonizingly slow (2 1/2 hours long).  That Guardian reviewer observes amusingly, “I myself have seen critics and writers at festivals gird their loins reasonably happily for a Béla Tarr [Hungarian auteur] film. But at the words “Pedro Costa”, they flinch. A haunted look comes into their eyes.”  It does feel a bit like Antonioni in a Lisbon slum.

I made a low-quality iPad video of Costa discussing some of his experiences filming in Fontainhas, finding the performers, most of whom seem to play some version of themselves (Vonda was an actual heroin addict he met; the protagonist of Colossal Youth, Ventura, was a man who’d been hanging around the set during the making of In Vonda’s Room).  “I’m saying ‘in Fontainhas,’ but it’s a place that doesn’t exist,… it’s no longer there, like Greece.”  He also mentions, amusingly, the desire of the some of the Fontainhas residents that he direct “an action movie.”  I liked his comment about his method of casting and filming the residents he would meet in the neighborhood..  “One day you remember that guy and you say, “let’s go, let’s do… something.  And… something happens, sometimes.”

When I learned from an interview that Costa was a big fan of the English post-punk art-school band Wire as a student (their most famous album is the superb 1977 classic Pink Flag) it helped make sense of it all, somehow; this is cinema as uncompromising, minimalist, slightly apocalyptic post-punk.

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