Concert Review — Jonathan Richman @ Proud Larry’s, 2/28/2015
Jonathan Richman’s original band, The Modern Lovers, released their first and only album under that name in 1976. Shortly thereafter, their overseas contemporaries Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello released their critically acclaimed debuts. It was on the bedrock of these three albums that power pop and new-wave music built their church. While power-pop had been defined as a genre melding traditional pop songwriting, along with the seemingly banal subject matter that came with it, with prominent lead guitars and aggressive melodies as early as the ‘60’s, it would not be until the release of these three albums in the late ‘70’s that the genre would catch on in the popular imagining. Two members of the original Modern Lovers lineup went on to found The Cars and The Talking Heads, two giants of 80’s new wave. Jonathan Richman continued to record into the ‘90’s and ‘00’s. Modern bands like Weezer and The New Pornographers can trace their lineage directly back to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, so it behooves any modern music fan to understand his body of work.
Jonathan graced Oxford last Saturday night at Proud Larry’s on the Square, with his frequent collaborator, the virtuosic drummer Tommy Larkins. Having been nearly raised on Jonathan’s music, and coming to appreciate it as I widened my musical taste, I made a point of attending the show. Truth be told, I hated Jonathan Richman growing up. My father, a perennial fan, would often play his more kid-friendly songs for me in the car. Ever the contrarian, I found his music annoying and confounding. “I’m 12, dammit, and I refuse to listen to this nasally-voiced man sing about ice cream trucks and little airplanes!” Despite my juvenile protestations, Jonathan Richman’s work has always been associated with children. Many may unknowingly have had one of his songs burned into their subconscious, as his ’77 cut “I’m A Little Airplane,” with its unique refrain of “wangity-wang, wangity-wang,” featured on Sesame Street frequently in the ‘90’s, a connection I only made later in life. Perhaps it is for this reason that Jonathan’s music has always been underhandedly praised for its “childlike outlook”. While I understand this descriptor, given his simplistic and unaffected songwriting style, I find it inaccurate. His songs rely on honest observations about life, incorporating timeless themes of beauty and gratitude. Is it truly childlike to recognize the importance of the sun or the beauty of a lover’s voice? I understand the impulse to label his music as such, but to do so is to discredit the innate profundity of life his songs capture.
For this reason, Jonathan Richman can be inaccessible to many like myself. Being as I am voluntarily mired in a culture of post-post-post-irony and restrained by self-awareness, I find myself having to enter a certain headspace to enjoy Jonathan’s music. Setting aside cynicism and politics for a moment to enjoy Jonathan’s lush portraits of beauty and gratitude towards nature was for me a healthy and grounding exercise. This old world of sincerity may be departing, but that’s no reason not to appreciate its benefit, a sentiment Jonathan expressed Saturday night in the song “Old World.” Jonathan Richman, and indeed the power-pop/new wave movement as a whole, served in this way as a necessary counterpart to the punk movement. Strip away the resentment and cynicisms of punk, and you have Jonathan’s songwriting. The movements are not contradictory, but complementary — in fact, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, and the Sex Pistols have all covered Jonathan Richman’s songs. All this is not to say Jonathan is an idealist. Just as he sang an ode to the sun, he sang an ode to all those who prefer to “stub their toes in darkness.” The beauty of the world always has a necessary flipside, and Jonathan acknowledges it. In one of my favorite moments in his Saturday-night set, he sang a song about how his sex drive, when not “chaperoned by the heart,” reminds him of the birth of disharmony in the universe. Hardly the stuff of Sesame Street.
Jonathan’s set did not break much from his established themes. From songs idiosyncratically describing the smell and size of classical paintings, to French ballads synaesthetically assigned the colors “olive et brun” to his lover’s voice, to Italian songs about getting all shook up, most of his set stuck to what he’s been doing best since his debut with the Modern Lovers. He even played his classic bit of pseudo-Middle Eastern surf-pop, Egyptian Reggae. His foreign-language songs were particularly enjoyable, largely due to his interstitial asides paraphrasing the meaning of each line. While his nasally voice may be off-putting to some, it fits perfectly with the unaffected sincerity of his songwriting. And really, if you can stomach Colin Meloy in the Decemberists, Jonathan Richman won’t be a problem. Special note must be made of his drummer, Tommy Larkins, whose custom-built drum set consisting of cymbals, two toms, and two conga drums, lent the evening a beat-poetry feel that complemented the already-quite-poetic songs. Jonathan’s style fit the Proud Larry’s venue well, as, as he remarked in his Boston accent, “I don’t play concerts, I play pahties — that’s why I play at a bahhhh.” His onstage energy infected the largely middle-age crowd, especially his hip-swinging dance break during the song “Dancing at the Lesbian Bar.” He was not above getting down into the crowd with his maracas to dance while Larkins kept the beat. He closed his rather short set with “When We Refuse To Suffer,” a song lamenting the consumerism brought about by the bourgeois lifestyle of post-scarcity capitalism. Don’t be fooled by its apparent politics, however — its paean for appreciation of discomfort has a universally applicable message.
I couldn’t help but think of John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats while leaving Jonathan’s set. Darnielle’s stripped-down singer-songwriter observations about daily life seem deeply indebted to Jonathan Richman. While Jonathan may not have the self-loathing and sardonic nature that draws many like myself to Darnielle, he can certainly match him in wit and in his deep understanding of beauty. I was disappointed to be from what I could tell the youngest person at Larry’s that night. While understandably Jonathan’s eschewing of irony gains him favor from the post-boomer crowd that grew up with his brand of proto-punk, any fan of modern music owes it to themselves to become familiar with Jonathan Richman.