Oh! JoJo. No one with a heart could fail to succumb to the eccentric charms of America’s most sincere songwriter. Probably one of the most notable of the 500 people who heard the Velvet Underground and started a band, Jonathan Richman’s thirty-odd year career has been characterized by unswerving individualism.
Richman played proto-punk drone and strum with his first band, The Modern Lovers, until he famously softened his aesthetic and quit. The conversion was in 1973 when, as Jonathan hilariously narrates on “Monologue About Bermuda” (included here), he realized “how stiff I was” and turned to the simple, almost childlike (if it weren’t so tweaked) style he’s used ever since.
This album collects songs from Richman’s 1987-95 stint with Rounder Records. For that reason, old-timey favorites like “Hey There Little Insect”, “Government Center”, and “Pablo Picasso” are not to be found. It’s no loss as far as I’m concerned: if you’re a fan, you know these songs well and own copies already. If not, it certainly won’t hurt you to get them and in fact you probably should. The correlation between general happiness and JoJo’s music is well known and indisputable.
Action Packed is packed with favorites like the title song plus “Everyday Clothes”, “Fender Stratocaster”, and “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”. All of these highlight Richman’s fondness for rock’s golden years, when the Brill Building cranked out hits with the same wang-dang and doo-wop that Richman exploits with such skill. However, Richman’s lyrics are miles away from the saccharine platitudes of that most buttoned-down of eras: what makes these songs work is Jonathan himself, in all of his earnestness, eccentricity, and a sort of bittersweet nostalgia.
What Jonathan wants is for everybody to have a good time. His radicalism, at least at this stage in the game, is that he refuses to buy into the by-now-traditional association of rock and roll music with teenage angst, drugs, and rage. “Hi everybody I’m from the sixties, the time of Louis Louis” he sings on “Parties in the USA”, “And I know we can’t have those times back / But we can have parties like there were then . . . A cold cold era has begun . . . the USA has changed some way that I can’t name.”
Similarly, on “Action Packed” (which is probably my favorite on the album for Jonathan style enthusiasm and excitement), Jonathan sings that “If the music’s gonna move me / It’s gotta be action packed.” This does not mean, as far as JoJo is concerned, bleeding eardrums and humorless posturing. “If we’re going to a party / I don’t want to sit and talk / Yah if we’re going to a party / Your pal Jonathan wants to rock / Did you hear me? / I WANT TO ROCK!” The fact that these platitudes are delivered to the gentle tones of a single guitar, all soft strum with a solo reminiscent of George Harrison’s on the early Beatles albums, makes the content of that ROCKING seem unironically clean and spirited. If you’ve ever seen Jonathan play live, you know that his body’s as supple as his guitar lines, and that dancing for him is an act of pure joy.
The same childlike enthusiasm colors his romantic relationships. The song “Closer” is probably one of the most touching love songs in an oeuvre full of touching love songs, mostly because it captures the heartbreak and longing of even the happiest relationships. The song is set in the bedroom, where Jonathan’s lying next to his sleeping wife, touching her shoulder, thinking about how to get closer. The feel is doo-wop, with descending bassline and rocking rhythm. “How can I say what I’m trying to say / Longing for somebody who’s an inch away . . .” There’s no self-loathing or confusion about this longing: it’s just part of who he is, who they are: “Hey wait a minute Jonathan,” he says in one of his classic asides, “Don’t get excited!” and he answers “Well I am [strum strum], and I do [strum strum] / And I never hide it!” Thank goodness.
Action Packed also features gems like the surprisingly virtuosic “Since She Started to Ride” from Jonathan Goes Country (complete with every cowboy cliché in the book) and the fabulous “Una Fuerza Alla”, which is a Spanish version of his song “A Higher Power”, recorded for the little known (and seldom purchased) all-Spanish album, Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar!. The title means something like, “Get excited, Jonathan!” and I’m thinking of rushing out to get my hands on it pronto. Those inclined to such extremes should certainly thinking of doing the same with Action Packed.