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- Jonathan Richman »
"Now everybody is contributing. It's good that everyone has something nice to say."
As overzealous fans bellow their requests or try to draw him into conversation or even point out that his flies are undone (they were. And he never noticed), Jonathan Richman, a man who's made a career out of permanent befuddlement, refuses to be phased: Jonathan Richman who presaged punk but eschewed angst for childlike whimsy, who laces that childlike, naive persona with a gruff world weary wisdom, who travelled the world and speaks several languages, but claimed he liked New England best, who espouses the visceral power of rock'n'roll but wouldn't want to hurt a baby's ears, who preached his disdain for narcotics but idolised, and even hung with, The Velvets and The Stooges. Jonathan Richman, Jojo to his fans, the man who made the silly things serious and the serious things seem silly. Too weird for pop, too nice for punk, too smart for rock and too beautiful and beatific to be 'got' by the hurried and inattentive world (he doesn't even have a record deal in the UK). A round, round peg in a square, square world. A perennial outsider despite major label deals and Hollywood film roles. Yet despite dwindling record sales and despite never breaking out of cult status, a winner, not a loser in the struggle for creative and artistic freedom. In short, he is a mass of contradictions. Like all great performers. Like everyone.
Arriving unceremoniously on stage, a red-shirted Richman unpacks his gut-stringed guitar from its case. With his newly sprouted goatee beard, he looks considerably aged and a little Jewish! Opening gently with 'Consider the Lilies', he pauses; his guitar lacking both pickup and strap, he has to hold it up to the mic, picking with his thumb like a schoolboy guitarist, or crook it under his elbow like a wandering minstrel. Or just cast it aside, unleashing a series of bizarre, puppet-like dance moves which have become a staple of his act.
After cursory and scarcely necessary introductions - drummer Tommy Larkins, perched behind a tiny kit on the lip of the stage and looking even sterner and more hirsute than Richman, uncannily like 'Electricity'-era Don Van Vliet, receives almost equal billing - the duo set about 1973's 'Old World'. "I can't get nostalgic for the Old World" sings Jonathan, ironically given the fervour which greets any Modern Lovers material tonight. But it's true though; we may not have moved on, but he has. Tonight, he isn't Jonathan the whining teenager or Jonathan the silly little boy or even Jonathan the grouch who won't address his audience or take requests or play encores. This is Jonathan the man, sharing the wealth of his experience and uniquely optimistic perspective, his once pinched, nasal voice now turned rich and resonant: "Dignified and Old" in the words of his younger self. Nowadays, Jonathan says he doesn't care about dignity, which is probably why he has so much of it. As his one time hero Lou Reed slides into po-faced self-parody, Richman's utter lack of pretension or cynicism have allowed him to effortlessly pull off that rarest of showbiz feats; to grow old gracefully.
Of his younger self, he sings "I needed, not to so much be loved, as to love". There is indeed a warmth and generosity running through Richman's persona. When he sings fluently in Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew or Arabic, there's no feeling of showing off in it, merely of revelling in the lyrical beauty of the language and of reaching out to as many people as he can. Again, in 'Let Her Go Into the Darkness', familiar to millions thanks to There's Something About Mary, he employs his vast lexicon of language to voice estranged couples throughout the world, arguing. The words change, but it’s clear that the same thing is being said, the world over. Beneath the hilarity of Jonathan pushing his deep baritone impossibly high to portray the irate woman, there's Richman's message again, that certain things; music, romance, truth and beauty can transcend the barriers we place between us.
Classics like 'Pablo Picasso', 'Girlfriend' and the top ten hit 'Egyptian Reggae' are stretched almost to breaking point, the lyrics re-arranged or paraphrased, on the verge of lapsing into dadaesque gobbledegook, the guitar riffs, as familiar to this audience as Do Re Mi, lazily falling behind the beat, extra notes somehow shoehorned in, always threatening to fall apart, but, importantly, always just pulled off somehow. Richman plays it straight sometimes too, pulling a painful grimace as he dispatches the Duane Eddy guitar solos. 'Her Mystery Not Of High Heels and Eye Shadow', the title track of his last album, gets a bit of a verbal mangling, but is given the majestic treatment such a noble sentiment deserves.
To call the performance relaxed would be like calling Pavarotti a little on the tubby side. When Richman dances or conversationally introduces another number, or wanders off mic, forcing the audience to drop to a hush or join in to fill the silence, it's like being in his front room. But even his comments to the soundman are greeted with open delight from the audience. It's one more bemusing contradiction inherent in the Richman persona; completely without artifice, he remains the consummate showman. Because tonight is about looseness, but never sloppiness. The apparent crudeness of Richman's technique - barely formed barre-chords, twangy solos, deadpan vocals - belies a virtuosic mastery of subtle dynamics and an unerring melodic genius. And ultimately this is why we're here; all the quirks and the mannerisms would mean nothing if he didn't have the material to back it up. But Jonathan Richman does, he can stir the 800-strong crowd into singing the silly but kinda true 'Vampire Girl' ("Is she in Heaven? Is she in Hell? Is she a sex industry profession-elle?"), then bring them to tears with "Do you know the painter Vincent van Gogh? He loved colours so bad he had to let it show", not just because it's true, but because that's what he's there for, to remind us of the important things that get forgotten from day to day and like Van Gogh’s works, his songs are filled with hundreds of deft, unobtrusive little brushstrokes which make up something quite uniquely remarkable.
A brief a capella encore in Italian and he’s gone. No doubt it will be another year or two before he returns to these shores, but no doubt we will wait and wait patiently, because tonight he’s said more to each and every one of us than a year’s worth of racket and angst and earnestness ever could and because the stuff of which he sings is all around us and all inside us, if only we took the time to know it more often.
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