Jonathan Richman epitomises the term ‘cult singer’: he doesn’t sell many records but the ones he does are treasured. You don’t hear his name very often but when you do it is spoken with reverence. He has been writing songs and singing them in public for forty years, always on the outskirts of popular consciousness, without drastically changing his style.
In the 1960s Richman hung around Andy Warhol’s crowd in Max’s Kansas City, New York, and befriended The Velvet Underground. He slept on the couch of Danny Fields, manager of The Stooges, supported The Grateful Dead and played crazy golf with Gram Parsons. In the 1970s his band, The Modern Lovers, played on bills with Aerosmith and the New York Dolls and recorded an album’s worth of songs with John Cale. Richman left the band to play acoustic shows for children in hospitals, but would reappear on the scene to play the drums (badly) for Patti Smith. He had a novelty hit in Europe with a minor-key instrumental called ‘Egyptian Reggae’ and suffered a Sex Pistols cover version of his other hit song, ‘Roadrunner’.
In the 1980s Richman toured America by Greyhound bus and is rumoured to have recorded an album with Phil Spector, burning all the tapes after listening to them once. In the 1990s he signed to Neil Young’s record label, Vapor, and sang a handful of songs in the popular Farrelly Brothers comedy films There’s Something about Mary and Kingpin.
These details from his life comprise a pretty impressive rock and roll CV but they seem almost irrelevant to me. Perhaps this is because both his lifelong lack of fame and his singularity of vision prevent me from associating him with any specific time or place. Certainly I feel that his unique talents as an artist have always transcended their musical context.
Throughout those forty years, Richman has stuck by the same few simple ideas. He writes lyrics, each one expressing a single idea very simply, usually without metaphor: ‘She Doesn’t Laugh at My Jokes’ is about a girl who doesn’t laugh at his jokes; ‘I’m Straight’ is about him not taking drugs; ‘Ice Cream Man’ is about an ice-cream man. He is a graduate of the Lou Reed/Bob Dylan school of blunt, nasal singing but he favours the guitar chords and melodies of late 1950s/early 1960s American radio. His tunes remind me of Sam Cooke and of doo-wop 45s. When he plays the electric guitar, the sound is always twangy, scratchy, urgent and clean; the raw sound of a guitar plugged straight into an amp. He plays acoustic guitar too: chunky and warm in the bass notes, with intricate little melodies popping from the high strings, and somewhere in between a rhythm that drives the beat like a snare drum played with brushes.
Richman’s great strength is that he values these ideas more than any of the other things a musician might be expected to prize. I don’t get the impression, for instance, that he is interested in the idea of the album as the ultimate artistic statement. Richman makes his albums quickly, recording live, sometimes with a tambourine or handclaps added afterwards. He seems to record whatever songs he feels like playing at the time. He has recorded some songs several times and others not at all. I once read an interview with him, in which the interviewer wanted to discuss his ‘lost years’, a period in the 1980s when he didn’t have a record company releasing his music. Richman was a bit nonplussed about this line of questioning: he hadn’t minded not having a label and had carried on writing new songs and playing shows. Of course, he must have wanted to put out albums, but my point is that recording and releasing music are not the most important things to him. He is the opposite of a band like Radiohead, for example, who make such a big fuss about their albums but who would struggle to sing you an interesting song with an acoustic guitar.
Richman also doesn’t seem to be concerned with fashion, the meaningless trends of popular taste. As a result, his quiet acoustic albums of the late 1970s have dated better than punk rock, his hastily put together lo-fi recordings of the 1980s have fared better than the heavy-drums-and-keyboards albums of his peers, and his most recent records immediately sound better than today’s heavily compressed, super-multi-tracked rock productions. His music is timeless because he focuses his creativity on guitar playing and singing songs, rather than on things like critical approval, popularity or innovation. Playing the guitar and singing songs is important enough. He doesn’t need to dress up his music; he wants to entertain you.
If you see him live these days he will sing to you in Spanish, French and Italian as well as English, possibly because he wants to communicate to as many people as he can, possibly because he has things he wants to say that can only be said in a specific language. He performs with a fantastically tight rock-and-roll drummer named Tommy Larkins. He doesn’t use a set list, so expect him to pick and choose from his huge repertoire seemingly at random. Don’t expect him to do your favourites: he might, he might not. Prepare yourself for his dancing, which is very, very bad. Its only redeeming feature is that while normally you might prevent yourself from staring and laughing at a terrible dancer out of pity or embarrassment, staring and laughing seem to be exactly what Richman wants.
I’ve seen him live a few times. He’s been disappointing and he’s been wonderful but curiously enough I don’t much mind which I get: Richman is my hero not because he always does what I want him to do, but because he always seems to do what he wants to do. If you want to discover Richman for yourself, I would buy the last thing he released and work backwards. Everything he’s done is equally good if you like it and equally bad if you don’t. Whenever I look at a ‘best of’ compilation I feel that you could replace all the songs with an entirely different selection and it wouldn’t matter much. You’d still get his good tunes, the unique worldview of his straightforward lyrics, his friendly voice and his joyous guitar playing. When you put one of his records on or you see him in concert, it will seem as if he is doing these things for you personally.
I play guitar and sing songs in a band called The Wave Pictures, with my friends Franic Rozycki, on bass guitar, and Jonny Helm, on drums. We spend our time apart from each other thinking about music and our time together talking about it or playing it. We are obsessed, and quite capable of boring our friends on the subject. We’ve learnt from a wide variety of records: everything from Sidney Bechet to AC/ DC. So, Jonathan Richman is by no means a singular influence on us or our music, but you might say that he is our guiding star. His way has become ingrained in our way. We prioritise playing together, singing songs and having fun. We don’t use set lists when we go on stage. We pester soundmen to turn us down, beg them not to mike up the drums. We record quickly, without many overdubs. We play almost exclusively with a 4/4 rock-and-roll beat. We write songs all the time and all of them feature a prominent vocal and variations on the same chord sequence. We can do a show with very little equipment: give us a snare drum and a couple of acoustic guitars and we’ll play in your kitchen, and the show will be as good and as bad as any of our others. We have nothing whatsoever against anybody who wants to do things differently (in fact most of our favourite bands do) but we’re happy enough with our way. And it’s a way that we possibly wouldn’t have discovered were it not for the example of Jonathan Richman.