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.

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