Last Halloween, I made a mini-pilgrimage from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin to a small and strange theater. The room hosting the event I was attending was located back through the twisting hallways of what looked like some abandoned antebellum mansion, and when I finally arrived, the auditorium was barely adequate for a suburban junior high school. Yet in its own way, it was a wholly appropriate place to see Jonathan Richman for the first time.
Other than a couple of microphones, the only thing adorning the stage was a bizarre drum kit with a floor tom that doubled as a bass drum when struck from underneath by an inverted pedal. After what seemed like an endless wait, I heard a voice call from the wings, “Alright, you’ve waited long enough,” and out bounded Richman. Segueing messily from one song to the next while his drummer struggled to follow, he played as if no one was watching but danced, gyrated, and strutted like these things were the real purpose of the show. With more spontaneity than the combined total from all the other concerts I’ve ever seen, Richman dazzled me as much as I could’ve possibly hoped for. During our call for an encore that never came, I looked down at my watch to see that he had played for all of 45-minutes. It was perfect.
Not once during that marathon of music did Richman play a song from The Modern Lovers, the nominal subject of this essay and my favorite album, but for once, I wasn’t disappointed. Would I have wet myself with glee to hear the ageless manchild himself shout out “1-2-3-4-5-6” before launching into “Roadrunner”? You bet. Why didn’t it really matter? By way of an answer, I can only offer up my vague disappointment at hearing Bob Dylan sleepwalk through “Blowin’ in the Wind” the night before in a hockey arena, surrounded by the aging faithful who piously chanted along between hits on the predictable hash pipe. Something was very wrong about it all. He played his beloved tunes, but rather than bringing them to life before our very eyes, he slaughtered them by turning fine works of art into lazy, used thrills. How “Desolation Row” was honored by the bland, medium-rock jaunt he took it on that night is beyond me. But Jonathan Richman, being slightly less legendary, can do what he wants and play to whatever fans might be left, risking it all and winning a great deal more than Mr. Zimmerman can these days.
You might be wondering at this point when I’m going to get around to talking about The Modern Lovers, and with good reason. But I have more trouble isolating it for the purposes of dissection than I would’ve thought considering how it was the only album in Richman’s career that sounded remotely like it, and how he made as clean and purposeful a break with his past as you can find in the rock world. Talking about The Modern Lovers cut off from everything else seems as if it would serve only to perpetuate myths about the man and the record that are better off dispelled. Richman is still very much alive and well, still writing songs and staying far from the shores upon which so many of his contemporaries have washed up. His concert was as fiercely alive as anything I’ve seen on a stage, which is exactly what I would’ve wanted from the man who made an album like this, even if it was three decades ago.
What is contained therein and what continues on today is a sense of hard-won gratitude. Despite optimism that often looks like sheer obliviousness, Richman has certainly contemplated the miseries of the world. Listening to “Hospital” or “She Cracked” is easy enough to learn that. But he carries some luminous shard of joy around with him that makes it all seem wondrous to him in the end. “Roadrunner”, that deathless distillation of Richmanism, has a rightful place in the hearts of most who hear it, but “I’m Straight” has always struck me as the Rosetta Stone for this enigmatic figure. Lonely, awkward, and supremely nasal, Richman calls up a girl with a stoner boyfriend and declares his intentions to take Hippie Johnny’s place, not because he’s the better druggie but because he’s straight, proud to scream it when few others would dare admit it. Richman isn’t confident because he’s found a way to mask his geekiness; he’s confident because he knows it makes him no worse than anyone else, and because he knows accepting it gives him a kind of strength that reveals all the compensatory posturing for what it is. Richman is one of the few artists I can think of—one of the few people I can think of—who presents himself without any artifice. He is who is he is, and no outside opinions will change that.
When I stepped outside the now-glowing theater in Madison, a mass Halloween party from the University of Wisconsin was in full swing, and despite how overwhelmingly obnoxious it was, I felt somehow safe and protected walking amongst the teeming throng of rowdy students. I hardly even minded when a diaper-clad co-ed drunkenly and repeatedly bounced his ass off the hood of my car. It was awful, of course, this conformist collegiate pseudo-rebellion, but it wasn’t everything. Right in the middle of this congregation that turned into an honest-to-God riot soon after I left, there was something right and true and joyous. It was nothing more than a 50-year-old man playing sloppy guitar and singing off-key, but it was enough to make the discord of the world look like a part of some weird miracle. In the memory of that event and in the grooves of this record that I’ve barely discussed is the ability to impart that feeling anew. And if that isn’t worth fifteen dollars, nothing is.