No man has ever thrust his pelvis in so blissful, so carefree, and so non-threatening a manner as Jonathan Richman does in the midst of his tune “I Was Dancin’ in the Lesbian Bar.”
It is a performance so real and so visceral that one can almost hear the dance music, see the lesbians, and feel the pelvis.
Instead, all you hear is the bare-bones drumming of eternally silent, deadpan drummer Tommy Larkins. All you see is Jonathan as he sets down his acoustic guitar and launches into his hilariously awkward dance routine — flailing his arms, rattling his hips, and dropping shakily to one knee as if Fat Elvis were somehow trapped in the scrawny frame of Skinny Elvis.
All you feel is pure, unadulterated joy.
By now Richman commands his own wing in the Legendary and Legendarily Enigmatic Singer-Songwriter Hall of Fame. His early-’70s stint as erratic frontman for the Modern Lovers has secured his Rock Critic Sacred Cow Status, and his subsequent solo career — loaded with wide-eyed, near-nursery rhyme tunes that result in Jonathan being called “childlike” with the frequency and certainty that folks call Björk “elfin” — guarantees him a cult following from here to eternity.
(And yes, he was also that guy in the tree in There’s Something About Mary.)
Sure, to rock obsessives, Richman matters on paper. But this no longer much matters to him. The famously travel-crazed troubadour — born in Boston, but currently residing in San Francisco — has morphed into a simple singer-songwriter, shuffling onstage with only an old acoustic to protect him and Tommy to accompany him. Jonathan sings plain-spoken, sweet songs about relationships both delightful and doomed, about dancing among lesbians, and about his insatiable thirst and love for life.
When the urge strikes him, he sets down his guitar and dances.
You cannot possibly comprehend how astounding and revolutionary this is.
If you doubt any of this, go home and write a song that expresses happiness and doesn’t make you sound ridiculous.
Oh, sure, if one favors cheesy-ass pop radio hits, a tune like “Walking on Sunshine” will frost your doughnut smoothly and evenly. But an intelligent, literate, thoughtful, heartfelt song proclaiming joy? Folk ballads praising George W. Bush’s foreign policy are far more prevalent. Stagger into any open-mic-night debacle or wade through any pile of hipster-approved singer-songwriter du jour CDs and you’ll discover endless reams of dirges about ex-girlfriends, drug abuse, run-over dogs, and general cosmic ennui.
Depression is cool. It is also shamefully easy.
And that’s what makes Richman so rare and so wonderful. So in demand, too — he’s played out in the Bay Area a great deal recently, primarily as a means of hitching his wagon to Matt Gonzalez’s failed SF mayoral bid. (Gonzo jokingly offered to make Jonathan vice mayor at that big-shot American Music Club/Cake/Richman benefit last month.)
But at a Great American Music Hall gig in early December, Jonathan was gleefully nonpartisan and apolitical (a brief ode to Mumia Abu-Jamal excepted), specializing in beautiful songs about happiness that somehow sounded unbearably sad. He toasted the glory of “Springtime in New York” — “When demolishing an old building brings the smell of 1890 once more to the breeze” — even as an unknown couple met in the park, got into an argument, and broke up before the song was over.
He sang songs in Italian and Spanish, just because they sounded more romantic that way. In a throwback to his Modern Lovers days, he noted the amorous powers of Pablo Picasso, who never got called “asshole.” And he peaked with “I Love the World,” the purest distillation of his odes to joy: “I love the world … it’s so beautiful … I love to live.”
Alright, so “childlike” is a pretty good way to describe this. “Everyone’s ordering root beer,” one bartender shouted to another halfway through the night. “We’re almost out.”
Long-lasting artists like Richman always risk becoming enslaved to Their Historical Significance: Record nerds will prattle on and on about the Velvet-Underground-with-swing style the Modern Lovers brought to the ’70s just before punk broke. But though classic tunes like “Roadrunner” and the gloriously anti-hippie bitchfest “I’m Straight” still shine through, Richman is far more at ease with himself and his audience now.
For definitive proof, kindly obtain Richman’s new DVD, Take Me to the Plaza, which documents a recent live performance from, well, actually, the Great American Music Hall. All the hits — “Lesbian Bar,” the sage “Couples Must Fight,” the surly “You Can’t Talk to the Dude” — get gleeful workouts, and the show is complemented by a couple Richman interview segments.
Famous for either avoiding the press altogether or refusing to discuss his music or his motives when he can’t avoid the press altogether, Richman here gladly reels off his early influences (the Lovin’ Spoonful, Zorro), his thoughts on the media (50 percent of what he’s quoted as saying he never said), and his opinion of his back catalogue (he dislikes a great deal of it, dismissing it as either insufferably bratty or uncomfortably precious and cute). He ultimately describes his old self as “a kid who’s having a bad time, but a lot of it is his own fault.”
The best embodiment of his new self might be Take Me to the Plaza‘s title track. Richman precedes it with a little diatribe on how great it’d be if a train system connected every place in America so we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere and his buddies could pull pranks on him at four in the morning. As for “Plaza” itself, it describes an utopian town square full of ethnic vendors and trash fires and cigarette smokers and coffee drinkers, a sort of People’s Park vibe writ large and idealized.
“It’s people,” Richman speak-sings as the song winds down. “It ain’t perfect. I know it’s not perfect. I need it. I love it. It ain’t perfect. But it’s got something.”We need him as much as he needs us.