Graded on a Curve: Jonathan Richman,
I, Jonathan

With 1976’s The Modern Lovers Jonathan Richman bequeathed us one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever. Then he had a change of heart. “I believe that any group that hurts the ears of infants sucks,” he said, giving up VU-school riffs and proto-punk sonic thrust in favor of wide-eyed songs of innocence for kiddies of all ages that couldn’t hurt the ears of crickets, much less babies.

Artists evolve; it’s the nature of art. But does anybody out there find Richman’s aggressive optimism as depressing as I do? And am I the only one who thinks Richman’s affected loony toons for naïfs and bohos make him the Pee Wee Herman of rock?

On The Modern Lovers Richman historically situated himself in the here and now, the here being the Boston suburbs and the now being the dawn of the seventies, a time in which he found himself both in (he was in NYC to catch the Velvet Underground in their glory) and out (drugs? Our boy was the original straightedge kid) of place. On 1992’s I, Jonathan he is in full retreat to the 1960s, both spiritually and sonically, which is to say that it’s not just the song forms on I, Jonathan that have been largely ransacked from rock’s distant musical past.

Richman has always been a romantic, and it’s due to this that even such quintessentially contemporary Modern Lovers cuts as “Roadrunner” carry with them what I can only call a nostalgia for the Now. I, Jonathan is the work of a man ruled by the more conventional form of nostalgia; for the most part he’s looking backwards and romanticizing the past. Ray Davies could pull of this sort of thing because he was anything but a naïf, and always undercut his nostalgia with a knowing wink that told you he fully understood that the past wasn’t as great as everybody makes it out to be. Richman never winks because he’s a true believer, and “knowing” simply isn’t a word in his vocabulary.

“Parties in the U.S.A.” is a case in point. To a copped “Hang on Sloopy” riff (they don’t write them like that anymore!) our Jonathan bemoans the fact that people just don’t know how to throw a party nowadays, and while the song’s okay (you can’t go wrong ripping off “Hang on Sloopy”) he comes off sounding like an old crank looking back all starry-eyed at the Eisenhower years. That said, the nostalgia sounds earned on the funny and decidedly lo-fi “Rooming House on Venice Beach,” a jaunty gaze over the shoulder at his days at Venice Beach that concludes “the ancient world was in my reach from my rooming house on Venice Beach.” What ancient world? The era of hippies and LSD and such. The irony is that for Richman that history isn’t ancient enough; Martha and the Vandellas are more his speed.

Richman’s preference for the innocent sounds of rock’s past renders “Velvet Underground” faintly absurd; setting a paean to a rock band that was in no way indebted to Chuck Berry to a Chuck Berry beat is perverse and Richman must know it. Why would someone write a song about the Velvet Underground that flies in the face of everything the Velvet Underground represented? The young Jonathan Richman was as close to a Velvet Underground protégé as the Velvet Underground ever got. The older Jonathan Richman has willfully forgotten every lesson he ever learned.

“I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” is a novelty song pure and simple and a rhythm guitar shuck—proto-disco complete with lots of ticky-tacky backing vocals; “A Higher Power” is a humble and likeable old-school tribute to the magic of love that concludes there “must be a higher power somewhere.” That said I hate it when a singer shouts, “Go!” and nothing happens. I mean, where’s the magic in that? And somebody should inform our boy that Einstein believed in God.

The LP’s stone winner is “That Summer Feeling,” a wistful, lovely, and (despite what I said earlier) knowing song that looks back not with blinkers on but in anguish. Someday, Jonathan sings, the past is going to creep up on you and cause you pain. On “That Summer Feeling” Richman concedes that nostalgia is a lie; “when even fourth grade starts looking good, which you hated,” he sings, because in his clear-headed moments even he’s capable of grasping the unpleasant truth that the painful vicissitudes of the present have a way of rendering even the most painful moments in your lost past poignant. “That Summer Feeling” is a swoon-worthy pageant of a song and a wonderful addition to the catalogue of Richman’s best tunes, and I, Jonathan is worth owning for it alone.

I’ll never get over Jonathan Richman’s transformation from proto-punker to kiddie-folker and sometimes old-school rock’n’roller; I can’t help but think he snubbed his true muse in favor of some stubbornly perverse aesthetic principle known only to himself. He’s put out plenty of albums over the years and some of them are quite good for what they are but what they are simply doesn’t interest me.

Richman’s wistfulness sounds every bit as affected as his predilection for received song forms, and while some of his songs catch me up—“The Heart of Saturday Night” comes to mind—even the best of them sound borrowed in a way that his borrowed Velvet Underground riffs never did. Fixing your gaze backwards is a good way to walk into a wall, and that’s what Richman reminds me of: a man with a rock’n’roll concussion. Call him wide-eyed and confused.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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