The first time that many of us heard Jonathan Richman, back in the day, he was a baby-faced proto-punk. “Roadrunner,” with its lines about driving by the Stop & Shop with the radio on, captured the wild ecstasy of being out in a car with a bunch of teenaged friends in the early 1970s, high on the pure adrenaline of life lived at its fullest – as did everything that Richman’s first group, the Modern Lovers, created in its short, highly influential stint. They mixed bubblegum music and doo-wop with the Velvet Underground back before the Ramones or the Sex Pistols hit, or the Talking Heads hired away the Lovers’ keyboard player, Jerry Harrison.
Richman was more knowing and controlling than his eternally naïve stage persona could ever suggest. He sang great songs about the joys of Government Centers and the pain of unrequited love and girlfriends gone crazy with changing hormones (as well as such classic lines as “Nobody ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole”). He took the Modern Lovers’ name into what seemed like kids’-rock territory, singing about Ice Cream Men and Richman’s semi-classic “I’m a Little Dinosaur,” as well as a major European hit with “Egyptian Reggae,” one of a series of primitive-but-instantly-memorable instrumentals. Then Richman went solo with one of the great underappreciated albums of all time, Back in Your Life, full of deeply personal songs about everything from doo-wop crushes to a man’s need for affection and the wish to right past wrongs with former loves.
Richman has done country albums, several works in Spanish and a hit soundtrack for (and appearance in) the Farrelly Brothers’ movie, There’s Something about Mary. He has toured consistently, more often than not with only his drummer of decades, Tommy Larkins. And he has written and recorded more witty, emotionally rich and singular songs than most hitmakers could ever dream of – albeit just shy of the sort of public success that would enable him to keep a regular recording contract, or anything more than his cult status.
Never heard his “I Will Be King,” “Chewing Gum Wrapper,” “Corner Store” or “Vincent Van Gogh”? Never partied to “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar”? Who cares if some hear only the adenoidal in his voice, and not its keening softness or sometimes-soaring sense of self-growth and discovery?
He’s absolutely great live: mesmerizingly intimate, funny and able to hold any audience in the palm of his hand. Once, in the early 1980s, I saw him play an hour a capella with no backing, before an audience clapping along and dancing, joyful despite their punk trappings. Two decades later, and looking older but still youthful-voiced and attitude-full, he charmed a Woodstock audience of writers and top session musicians with his wordsmanship and simply toned and direct guitar-playing.
“Playing for new people in new places is one of my favorite things,” Richman says of his endless touring (and writing). “Playing shows and making records keep getting easier and more fun. We already play a different style than we played on that live DVD, and the way we played then was totally different from the way we played three years before that. I still feel like we’re just starting out, and I learn new stuff every night.”
Richman comes to Hudson’s Club Helsinki this Saturday night, June 9, at 9 p.m. He then plays the Colony Cafe in Woodstock on Sunday, June 10 at 8 p.m. I’m not going to miss it, even though I’ll be going solo, since my wife groups Richman alongside a host of what she perceives as whiny, martyrlike male singers such as Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and other faves from my single days. But what the heck: Jonathan Richman not only got a lot of us through some difficult years, but he also voiced for us a love of life and its simpler pleasures – from watching Harpo Marx to remembering lazy summer days come winter, or just celebrating New England – that makes all our lives, and rock ‘n’ roll in general, that much richer.
Helsinki Hudson is located at 405 Columbia Street in Hudson, one block north of Warren Street. For further information, call (518) 828-4800 or visit www.helsinkihudson.com. The Colony Cafe is located at 22 Rock City Road in Woodstock. For further information, call (845) 679-8693 or log on to www.colonycafewoodstock.com.