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Jonathan Richman: Dignified and Old

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Less than a year after B.B. King’s opened its doors, a club called Northsix popped up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a signal event in the ascension of the contemporary hipster. Northsix was the first rock outpost in the borough. Basically just a concrete box with a wooden stage that lifted performers barely above eye-level, it ensured that the scruffy, DIY spirit that had been priced out of Manhattan would live on across the river. Its presence had a bracing effect on the city’s music scene. Boozy storytellers the Hold Steady played their first show at Northsix; Elliott Smith made his last New York appearance there.

I first visited the place in 2005 to see Jonathan Richman. Richman is an essential figure in the history of rock‘n’roll and not just because the earliest incarnation of his band the Modern Lovers was a bridge between the decadent experiments of the Velvet Underground and the boisterous primitivism of the Ramones. He is one of rock’s preeminent philosophers, the first artist to explicitly reject Pete Townshend’s generation-defining declaration, “hope I die before I get old,” the first to see growing up and growing old as an experience rock‘n’roll should embrace, an ideal even. (Paul McCartney could lay claim to this distinction, but I’m not buying it, both because there’s something tongue-in-cheek about “When I’m 64” and because it isn’t rock‘n’roll. It’s as if the idea of being 64 years old was so alien to the rock‘n’roll ethos, McCartney could only imagine it in the form of an old-fashioned music hall ditty.)

Richman stakes this ground on his very first album with the characteristically earnest “Dignified and Old”:

Hey, kids
I say someday we’ll be dignified and old
That’s right…
Someday we could be dignified and old together

The album also features “I’m Straight”, a sneering rejection of hedonism, and the epochal “Roadrunner”, which appropriates the riff from the Velvets’ sonic orgy “Sister Ray,” speeds it up, and straps it to a celebration of driving alone at night with the radio on—a kind of chaste rapture. As a straight-laced guy myself—someone who loves rock music but has never been enticed by the accompanying lifestyle—The Modern Lovers had a profound effect on me when I first heard it in college.

Richman has spent the rest of his career figuring out how to age with dignity. Parker’s approach is to crack wise in the face of obsolescence (his peers’ and his own), while keeping faith with the basic elements of rock‘n’roll—electric guitar, bass, drums, maybe some Hammond organ, and a horn section. Richman’s style is altogether different. Satire isn’t in his nature. Instead, he has taken the wide-eyed innocence and sense of wonder in songs like “Dignified and Old” and “Roadrunner” to such an extreme that it would seem like a put-on if his commitment weren’t so total. Song titles like “I’m a Little Dinosaur”, “Ice Cream Man”, and “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns” give a sense of what he was going for in the years following The Modern Lovers. He was determined to move beyond rock’s fixation on adolescent debauchery and rebellion, which had peaked with Alice Cooper’s horror shtick and the Stooges’ feral antics just a few years earlier. But he didn’t want to lose the genre-defining spark of vitality, so rather than aspire to a sober maturity, he retreated into childhood.

This concerted goofiness might have seemed like an arty affectation—think of Talking Heads’ clean-cut image and naïve ad absurdum lyrics—if Richman had retained the raw sound of the original Modern Lovers. Instead, he boiled down his arrangements to the simplest possible combination: his own guitar (acoustic or clean, undistorted electric) and drums. The result is kind of like the strummy, proto-rock called skiffle, kind of like a mariachi version of Raffi. It’s rock without a trace of danger. You’d think this wouldn’t go over well with the Williamsburg hipsters, but you’d be wrong. Unlike Parker, whose diligent songcraft leaves the cool kids cold, Richman has the same snob appeal as an outsider artist like Daniel Johnston; recognizing the charm in the gee-whiz lyrics and the flat, nasal singing is a sign of discernment. (Which is to say I had no trouble getting a girl to come with me to Northsix.)

I’d seen Richman before, opening for Randy Newman in the pouring rain in Central Park, and this show started with the same idiosyncratic mix of themes: songs in Spanish and French, songs about famous painters, songs offering left-field advice (“Let Her Go into the Darkness,” “Give Paris One More Chance”). We cheered for the fan favorite “I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar” and whooped at his dweeb Elvis hip-swiveling routine during the drum solos. Richman had found a true alternative to Townshend’s seductive nihilism and, damn it if it wasn’t a lot of fun.

It took me a while to notice, though, that the tone had changed. Richman was giving a rambling introduction to “The Night Is Still Young”, his most recent ode to the pleasures of staying up late. He was recounting a night spent in a town square in Spain, how the good times didn’t get going until the regular folks had gone to bed, how these regular folks didn’t know what they were missing. I’m not sure how long he droned on like this with his adenoidal inflection, but it was starting to feel long, more like a harangue than an invitation to party. I realized something as I shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the song to start: I was tired. Like every rock concert in history, this one had started much later than advertised. It was a Friday; I’d worked all day. I was one of the regular folks, the hopeless squares Richman was ridiculing. Sure, the middle of the night is a magical time for a man-child who’s never had a nine-to-five, but us working stiffs would appreciate it if the man-child would just play the damn song already so we can have our bourgeois fun and go to sleep. These are not very rock‘n’roll thoughts, and I was annoyed at Richman for provoking them.

Eventually he did play the damn song, and basking in its wistful sway, all was forgiven. Not for long, though. Richman didn’t just introduce the next number; he stopped the show cold for an interminable lecture (it had to be at least ten minutes) about its subject: the imprisoned radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. “Abu-Jamal” hadn’t been released on record at the time and to say it came as a surprise would be an epic understatement. Jonathan Richman is the last artist anyone would expect to make protest music. Woody Guthrie once mixed political activism and artless good cheer into a single, coherent sensibility, but Richman had never shown any inclination to follow his lead.  And while Guthrie delivered topical spiels and children’s ditties with equal verve, Richman seemed to think “Abu-Jamal” called for a more somber, delicate approach than, say, “Abominable Snowman in the Market”. On the studio version that was subsequently issued, the only accompaniment is an eerie harmonium; at Northsix, he performed it a cappella.

He could have performed it with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for all I cared by that point. Did I mention he stepped off the stage to hand out pamphlets with information about Abu-Jamal’s case? On paper, this may sound like a winning gesture of intimacy. In the moment, it made me want to heckle for the first time in my life. I don’t remember much after that; the show effectively screeched to a halt. Even a rare encore of “Pablo Picasso”, one of the nasty early classics Richman had renounced, couldn’t redeem one of the weirdest nights of my rock‘n’roll life.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Richman was in the midst of a new phase, trying to shed some of the overt silliness he’d come to be known for without losing the hard-earned simplicity of expression. His songwriting had grown more detailed and cerebral throughout the ‘90s, but in the 2000s, he started drawing attention to it with quasi-poetic locutions and the occasional woodwind arrangement, as if he was chafing against the limits of the idiot savant character he’d created. Compare the titles of his ‘90s albums—Having a Party with Jonathan Richman or Surrender to Jonathan—with the ones he put out in the 2000s—Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow, Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love—and you can detect the awkwardness of the shift. Tellingly, his last album of the ‘90s was called I’m So Confused.

Jonanthan Richman - “Here It Is”

There are moments on those more recent releases when the hectoring that ruined the Northsix show creeps into the writing. “When We Refuse to Suffer” chides people who take anti-depressants (and use air conditioning!) for choosing an impoverished experience of life. Oy. There are also moments when Richman gets it exactly right, when he’s as compelling a young old man as he was once an old young man: 2008’s mournful “As My Mother Lay Lying”, in which he follows dignified and old to its inevitable end (“as my mother lie dying I learned some more”); 2011’s self-deprecating “My Affected Accent”, in which he takes his younger self to task for pretensions to adult sophistication (“I droned like William F. Buckley does / I should’ve been bullied more than I was”). There’s even an elegant cover of “Here It Is” by Leonard Cohen, who may have been rock’s first and greatest old young man. (Robert Christgau says of Cohen, “he was always old—older than Elvis and also more sophisticated, the kind of artist you’d look up to at 24 only to find yourself surprisingly, alarmingly entering his age group four decades later.”) Richman has yet to attempt another protest song, except insofar as every song he’s ever written is a protest against cynicism and insincerity.

Northsix was sold in 2007 to a Manhattan-based promotion company, a casualty of rising rents in gentrifying North Brooklyn. I’ve seen Richman in the years since that show and enjoyed myself. No more prickly stage banter, none that I’ve been subjected to, at least. I’ll always remember that night, though, as a meaningful one, a scene in rock‘n’roll’s mid-life crisis. Put away childish things, sure. But what if childish things are, you know, your thing? What do you do then? Jonathan Richman has answered that question the only way an artist can: Learn some more.

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